Random Further Thoughts

I’m still astounded and gratified by the response to my “Burning Bridges” post on Sunday. (With all the calls and emails I’ve been getting, it seems a lot longer ago that I posted it.) I’d thought there were only a few dozen of us who felt the way I did about USFA’s current situation. I can’t decide, though, whether it’s a good sign or a bad one that there are so many of us. If we are hundreds instead of dozens, you’d think it would be easier to make things better.

A few random thoughts prompted by responses I’ve received to my recent posts:

• When I first got involved with USFA, I didn’t much question the general culture—at least, within the fencing circles (BC, TC, the board) I frequented—of confidentiality and discretion. The longer I’ve been at it, though, the more I’ve come to wonder how much sense it really makes. The USFA is, after all, a tax-exempt nonprofit corporation subject to fairly substantial public disclosure requirements. I’m not sure how much this “discretion” is deliberately cultivated, partly due to fear of people misinterpreting works-in-progress or to discomfort with messy democracy, and how much is due to procrastination or preoccupation leading to late or non-existent announcements of meetings or discussions. This aversion to fully open discussion often leads to members or specific member subgroups feeling blindsided by policies that seem to appear suddenly out of nowhere. We would be better served in the long run by developing more habits of openness.

• If a tune stuck endlessly in your head is an earworm, what is an idea that keeps haunting your brain—a mindworm? That quest for the source of the “premature distribution” of the USOC audit report draft keeps nagging at me. A commenter who works in the Department of Defense says it makes her think of something she learned from working there:

In no case shall information be classified in order to:

  1. conceal violations of law, inefficiency, or administrative error;
  2. prevent embarrassment to a person, organization, or agency;
  3. restrain competition; or
  4. prevent or delay the release of information that does not require protection in the interest of the national security.

I’m pretty sure that our draft audit report has neither competitive nor national security implications, but both #1 and #2 seem potentially relevant. Perhaps I’m just dense, but I haven’t yet managed to think of legitimate reasons for its confidentiality, even in draft form.

• During my brief tenure as chair of what was then the ROC Advisory Group, I decided it would be good to know more about our target market for the ROC tournaments and asked the national office staff how many USFA competitive members had never fenced in a national tournament. That was pre-Railstation, when the database on the old AS/400 was, shall we say, limited. Other than comparing NAC and SN entry lists by hand with the membership list, there was no way to extract those numbers.

Now with Railstation, we’ve got a database we can actually query and use to help determine what we do: How many members fence only locally? Regionally? Nationally? How much crossover do we still have across which weapons? Which age-levels tend to fence up? Up how many levels? We’ve got the ability now to look at our demographics and tailor our competitive offerings to who our fencers are now instead of who they were 15 or more years ago. We could eventually even figure out how to build adapting to our demographics into our structure, how to make it the continuous process it should be.

• Other than this week’s posts and those about Summer Nationals, my most popular blog posts were the “Officials’ Cuisine” series from November 2010, when I posted photos of the lunches provided to tournament officials early in the season during which payment of honoraria, per diems, and out-of-pocket expenses were delayed until the following August. I am not often an angry person, but that weekend I was livid. Here was a group of individuals who, despite knowing that they would not be paid or even have their expenses covered for nearly a full year, still arranged vacation days from their real-world jobs and finagled their finances to carry the expenses they would incur (essentially granting the USFA several dozen small interest-free personal loans) for as much as a year, in order to travel to work long hours on concrete floors being yelled at by fencers and coaches and parents, because they were unwilling to let the fencers down. The lunches provided to officials that weekend spoke not just of a fundamental disrespect, but of an outright contempt for the volunteers who make USFA tournaments happen.

There was a big stink, of course, and eventually a promise of no more than one day of cold lunches during each future NAC. This season has been somewhat better: (Most) officials are paid their honoraria and per diems on the last day of each national tournament, though out-of-pocket expenses such as bag fees and ground transportation are paid later as funds become available. My last expense check, for example, came in late February and covered my out-of-pocket expenses for October through December.

(For those who are unfamiliar with USFA’s pay scales for officials, everybody gets a $20 per diem for each travel and work day, and an honorarium for each work day. The honoraria vary according to the category of the official: Referee honoraria range from $20 to $100 according to rating, BC staff uniformly get $75, armorers have their own pay scale, and I believe the trainers get an amount in the same general range, though it’s only a fraction of their normal professional compensation for such work. Nobody’s into officiating at national tournaments for the big bucks.)

For years I, along with other BC and FOC folk, have warned that we’re not developing and retaining enough officials to keep up with the growth in our entry numbers. (Even though we develop 4 or 5 new BC trainees each season, that’s only enough to keep up with the normal losses due to family and work obligations.) As soon as we start paying reliably again, we’re told, that problem will disappear, as though the money is the only motivator. Sure, the delayed payments are an issue, as are the often-brutal working conditions, but I’m convinced that morale is a huge factor in our volunteer attrition. There is a limit to the number of times most are willing to search for the cheapest available fare only to see it rise by $100, $200, or more, before it is approved by the national office for booking (I’m told this is also a problem for international referees), or to wonder why national office staff routinely get single rooms while volunteers must share, or to see the expenditures for meetings such as that Tournament Summit completely wasted. Even if the flights and rooms are value-in-kind or comped, those are still resources that could have been used to better effect. Eventually, some officials simply can’t stand to watch the continuing losses attributable to carelessness, inattention, or sloppy controls any longer, while others conclude—however erroneously—that the financial situation must not really be so bad after all.

My favorite stupid expense is a relatively small one from a couple of years ago, when the national office sent a carton of copier paper from Colorado Springs to wherever the tournament was that weekend; as I recall, the shipping charge was something like $246.

That’s demoralizing.

• Finally, I’d like to commend to you for your listening pleasure the monthly conference calls of the USFA board of directors. Those of us on the west coast have a major advantage because for us the calls begin at 6:00 pm and we’ve still got part of our evening left by the time they end, usually somewhere 9:00ish. But if you’ve got the stamina, these calls offer drama rather like that of an old episodic radio soap opera: long stretches of recapitulation of previous episodes leavened occasionally with melodramatic new developments. Consider a portion of last month’s call, when during the financial report, the Mssrs. Clements, Glon, Schiller, and I think Becker inquired into some of the expense line items. Somehow the questions moved into a discussion of the number of national office staff assigned to attend the Olympic Games in London—5, when we’ve rarely if ever sent any office staff at all to the Games—and why so many are to be sent when our financial situation is so dire. (The following is only a paraphrase; I did not record the call nor take stenographic notes.)

Mr. Glon: I would like, please, to know the names of the staff members who will be going to London and what function or job each one will perform.

Mr. Dilworth: Are you trying to micromanage me, Wes?

[Eruption of multiple voices, indecipherable.]

Mr. Dilworth: Hmm. I appear not to have that list on this computer.

[More voices.]

[Eventually] Ms. Weeks: All right, Mr. Dilworth will email a list of the staff members and their functions at the Games to the board by 9:00 am tomorrow morning.

[Discussion moves on.]

Usually sometime during the later stages of such calls, I start fantasizing about the coming attractions for the next month’s call. Imagine the radio announcer, a mellifluous baritone, or maybe William Conrad in his best Rocky and Bullwinkle voice:

“Don’t miss our next exciting episode! Will the inquisitors get the answers to their questions? Will the board receive copies of that mysterious list by 9:oo am? Will there be enough Olympic credentials for everyone who expects one? Who will do the regular jobs of the staff members going to London? Will the hidden boundary between micromanagement and due diligence ever be revealed? Tune in next month to find out!”

(Listening in on board calls can have weird effects.)

But now I’ve got a ton of TC work to catch up on, and SN’s creeping up on us sooner than I’m ready to think.

If you’re an eligible USFA voter, please perform your own due diligence and be sure to vote next week.

See you in Anaheim.

Now That I’ve Got Your Attention…

Apparently I hit a nerve.

When I posted what was essentially a public scream, a last-gasp attempt to focus some attention on a few major continuing problems I felt were not being addressed  within the USFA, I expected it to be read by a few dozen people, perhaps even a few score. I had no great hope of provoking much of anything, but I knew I had to try before I could consider walking away.

I’m blown away by the many kind notes and comments and by the sheer number of visitors my broadside attracted to my sleepy little blog. My final hit count for May 13, 2012 ended up at 978, with 577 referrals from Facebook, 55 from fencing.net, 44 from Tim Morehouse’s blog, and the rest apparently from email referrals as readers circulated the link to others. That’s nearly triple my previous single-day high, from one day of the 2010 Summer Nationals.

I’m pretty sure that’s more than the total number of voters in the last USFA election.

No, I’m not going to tell you who to vote for.

I’ve never been a fan of the throw-the-bums-out approach. But neither am I a fan of uncritically voting a party line.

All I ask is that you think about what you want for the USFA and then look carefully and critically at the candidates. Look past the generic make-everything-better statements for the specifics of what they want to achieve: Do they think the USFA is on the right track? Are they asking the right questions? Do they know enough about how the USFA works (or doesn’t) to even know what to ask? If you don’t see the answers in their statements on the USFA candidate page or their linked material, ask them directly. Most of them provide an email address or are on Facebook—ask them for their answers and ideas. Figure out who will take us in the direction you think we need to go, and then VOTE FOR THEM. (Balloting opens May 18 and ends on June 1.)

I’ve spent too many post-tournament dinners with BC staff and referees and coaches, having heated discussions reinventing the USFA, figuring out what we would do if we could run the world. That was fun, once, when we had some small hope that we could make some of it happen. But those conversations have been too much the same for too many years now, too little grounded in the current reality of the USFA, too frustrating to contemplate any longer.

If we could recreate some of that sense of possibility…

I do love running national fencing tournaments. Thanks for the little flicker of hope.

Burning My Bridges

I’ve written several times before about how I got into working bout committee at USA Fencing national tournaments, about how annoying it was for both me and my daughters for me to be right there at the strip watching them compete. For them, I was a distraction; for me, watching them fence was uncomfortably stomach-churning—there was nothing I could do to help them except refill their water bottles and try not to bother them. When someone suggested that I help out with bout committee (BC), I jumped at the opportunity—it gave me something useful to do far enough away from my daughters’ strips to eliminate the stomach-churning, but still gave me access to plenty of information on how they were doing.

This is me having fun.


Next thing I knew, I was working more tournaments than the girls were competing in. Within a couple of years, I wasn’t just helping with data entry—I was running competitions and then entire tournaments, assigning strips and BC staff, and dealing with questions and problems from fencers, coaches, parents, referees, and spectators. I discovered that I love running huge fencing tournaments—the bigger, the better. I love the combination of detailed and big-picture focus required to chair a tournament. I love watching the interpersonal dynamics: fencers & referees, fencers & parents, parents & officials, coaches & officials, officials & officials. I love watching fencers work their way through an elimination tableau, managing their intensity and stamina to keep winning all the way to the gold. I love watching fencers cope with disappointment and frustration to keep coming back and trying again.

my typical concrete playground

I’ve never been one for resort-type vacations, the kind where you sit on the beach and relax in the sun. Masochist I may be, but give me the 15-hour days within concrete walls, listening to the whines of scoring boxes and the screams of Cadet saber girls. Give me the parents who haven’t yet learned that it’s their kids who are fencing and not them. Give me the coaches who believe I’ve deliberately assigned their fencers as far from each other as possible within the venue. Give me the referees who never seem to learn that they should eat lunch when they’re told they should eat or they may never get another chance. Give me the generically awful concession food, the kids who roll their eyes at their overprotective parents, and the cranky and charming veterans. Give me the fencers tickled out of their minds to have won their first DE and those for whom winning gold medals has become almost routine. Give me the ten days of chaos and 6,500 7,000+ entries that is Summer Nationals and let me play.

I love running huge fencing tournaments.

the bigger, the better

So why am I ready to walk away from fencing?

_________________

One of the first—and most important—concepts we teach new BC trainees is “You will make mistakes.” Everyone involved in fencing learns this: fencers choose wrong actions, referees blow calls, BC staff mis-transcribe scores or names. What is crucial is what happens next—do we learn from our mistakes to prevent them from happening again? On the BC stage, that means we figure out how the error happened, and do what it takes to minimize the chances that it will happen again—refocus attention, improve staff training, alter our procedures, and if it comes to that, change personnel. Our mistakes, if they are unavoidable, should be brand new mistakes we’ve never made before.

Some of my tournament peeps
(l. to r., seated: Wayne, Other Rich, Nancy, Carla; standing: Marc, Irena, me, Coffee-Joe, Linda, Rich, Tanya, Brandon)

For several reasons, we are not learning: the United States Fencing Association is making the same mistakes it’s made for the past two Olympic quadrennials. A couple of weeks ago (courtesy of Michael Quinion’s World Wide Words), I came across the perfect word to describe USFA’s current straits: “omnishambles.” Apparently gleefully in vogue to describe British politics, it is a combination of tragedy and farce in politics, encapsulating “serial misjudgments and misadventures.”

Among fencing’s omnishambolic aspects:

• USFA members often receive incorrect information from national office staff who neither know nor consult the appropriate rules and policies before answering questions from members. Avoidable errors in the processing and updating of tournament entries have caused event delays of 10–30 minutes at every national tournament this season. Confusion and misunderstandings about travel and hotel arrangements for officials have also been common. As noted in the draft USOC audit report (and not specifically addressed in the executive director’s April 26 report to the board), 24 individuals have left positions in the national office since 2008; the staff of the international department alone has turned over completely twice in the past two years. Such rapid turnover certainly helps to explain the staff confusion about fencing policies and procedures, but what explains this number of departures from a staff of only 13 or 14 individuals?

• Others can speak more authoritatively about USFA finances, but I cannot help but wonder at the sloppy controls noted in the USOC audit report draft: after the USFA financial debacle of 2008, how is it that our accounting procedures are anything less than squeaky clean?

(And while we’re on the topic, I can imagine an executive director who, on receipt of a USOC audit report draft, might share it with the full board, explaining what it says, where he thinks it’s wrong, and what revisions he’ll recommend to the USOC for the final version. But that’s not the ED we have. And I can imagine a board less concerned with the “premature distribution” of a document marked neither “confidential” nor “not for public distribution,” and more concerned with the substance of its content and the frustration that led to its public release. But that’s not the board we have.)

• The bulk of the work developing USFA policies is done—in theory—by various committees appointed by the board. In practice, the four “standing committees of the board,” six “additional principal committees,” six more “committees of the board,” and four “task forces” comprise an ungainly, labyrinthine governance structure, suffering from murky delineations of responsibility, diffused authority, difficult communications, and a notable lack of direction.

Consider one relatively simple example: determination of the national tournament calendar. Let’s see—that’s to do with domestic national tournaments, so obviously that should be determined by the Tournament Committee (an “additional principal committee”). But wait, there are other interested groups, too: the National Team Oversight Committee is concerned on behalf of the high performance director, the national coaches, and the elite programs; the Athlete Council has an interest, obviously; other groups (the ROC Committee, the Youth Development Committee, the Veterans Committee) have regional calendars dependent on and potentially affected by the national calendar. Now, of course, we have the recently created Tournament Oversight Committee, composed mainly of the chairs of most of these other committees, to help coordinate matters.

So whose job is it to take the lead on creating a future season’s calendar? The TC could start, but would end up needing to get input from the NTOC. How do we do that? We committee chairs don’t get a directory with emails and phone numbers for all these committee chairs, so we’ve got to start with tracking down contact information. If our calls don’t get returned or emails answered, we might decide to talk with the appropriate people at the next NAC (if we happen to see them and if they’re not in the middle of fencing or coaching or refereeing or running an event). Or maybe we have a nice chat, and the chair promises to consult with her committee and get back within the next couple of weeks. Or maybe it’s the TOC’s job to coordinate proposals? Who’s in charge here?

The next thing you know, it’s already April and everybody’s in panic mode because there’s no calendar yet for next season, and it needs to be decided right now so it can be posted to the website within the next couple of days, and suddenly there’s a proposal floating around which the committees only just found out existed, and oops, I guess we’ve got to go with this one because we don’t have the time any longer to consider all the ramifications more thoroughly, so whatever the problems with it, this is what we’re stuck with for next year. (But we’ll fix it for the season after next—we’ve got plenty of time to start thinking about it now.)

Apply the same process for qualification paths, classifications, team selection, and other policies as needed. Repeat annually.

Last August, I was cautiously optimistic that we could break this pattern when I was among a group—tournament-related committee chairs, as well as a few board members and national office staff—invited to come to a weekend-long “Tournament Summit” in Colorado Springs to work out a competition plan for the coming Olympic quadrennial. Then I saw the agenda—we were to start by identifying problems; developing solutions was not on the schedule. During a morning break on the first day, one of the board members mentioned that he’d been to a similar meeting four years earlier. “Nothing happened after that one, either,” he said. At the end of our weekend, the executive director gave a nice pep talk about what a good start we’d made and promised that he would send out the notes from our discussions to us within the week. He has yet to do so.

• Finally, there is our board of directors, which utterly baffles me. I’ve worked with most of these individuals at tournaments for years; I consider many of them friends. Individually, they are energetic and accomplished people—coaches, club owners, athletes, successful professionals in non-fencing businesses. As a governing entity, though, the board meanders unpredictably between ridiculously detailed micromanagement (such as 45 minutes in February spent discussing whether the automatic award of classifications to members of national championship teams should be discontinued) and unwillingness to exercise appropriate oversight of USFA operations (as in “we cannot micromanage office personnel”).

Watching board meetings is painful. Some parts are routine: approving the minutes, accepting committee reports, complaining about financial reports getting to the board too late to allow for thorough review before the meeting, hearing the executive director say, “I don’t know; I’ll have to look into that and get back to you,” especially disconcerting in regard to budget line items.

The Strategic Plan is much admired—by the board, at least. But without effective leadership and mechanisms for achieving its goals and objectives, it’s just a wish list, a long, comprehensive, intimidating wish list. Every so often I look at this part, relevant to my work on the TC:

USA FENCING STRATEGIC PLAN

Goal 4: Enhance and grow the sport
• Strategy 2: Review and refine tournament purposes and program structures.

• Objective 1: By April 1, 2012, have an approved plan for tournaments at all levels for the 2012-2016 quad. Proposed schedule to accomplish this objective:

  • September: Create a Tournament Oversight Task Force (TOTF) and sub- task forces for Local, Regional, Sub-National (SYC, ROC), National events and ranking/ratings. Each task force and sub-task force must have deadlines and a specific set of objectives to complete.
  • October: Formulate questions for committee and membership surveys and research.
  • November: Go live with surveys.
  • December: Formulate proposals based on research and survey results.
    Disseminate proposals to committees and general membership.
  • January: TOTF to provide final report for BOD including recommendations.
  • February: Present to BOD.
  • March: Vote on strategic tournament plan for 2012-2016 quad.

Ambitious and worthy objectives. They sound a lot like what the TC was originally meant to do, and quite a bit like what that Tournament Summit last August was intended to work on. I’m even a bit sad that the TOTF isn’t on the current task force list—it would have made a nice addition to the committee alphabet soup, fitting in well with the TC, the NTOC, and the TOC. That strategic tournament plan for the new quad might well have been a good thing to have done, too.

Our whole governance structure seems to be best at creating committees and making lists, but we’re not good at all with the follow-through, with the accountability. What we’re missing is leadership.

And that missing leadership is why I’m going to need a lot of persuasion to vote for any incumbents at all in this year’s USFA board elections. I’ve worked through the established channels. I’ve talked with national office staff and management and with elected board members about the problems that plague us, and I’ve seen no improvement. Going public is the one option I’ve not yet tried.

I wish I could say that I am alone in my frustration, but I am not. It is not my place, however, to speak for the other volunteers who’ve reached the same point I have, where we’re ready to walk away from the tournaments and the sport we love. They must speak for themselves.

Elvis has left the building.