Why are we so bad at getting better?

USA Fencing has made great strides, by surpassing historic milestones, and is becoming well-positioned to make even greater gains. One gain in particular, the expansion of national tournaments, has come at a cost of the overuse and burnout of volunteers. It is the opinion of the Ombudsman that the progress made by USA Fencing has habitually been on the backs of its volunteers.

This post is not simply a response to the long days at the unusually large NAC in Milwaukee, or to the late hours required by many officials at the Detroit NAC caused by a planned 4 p.m. start of events.  Rather it is a response to an ongoing problem. As an organization we are routinely surprised that the tournaments we produce require an inequitable sacrifice from our officials. If these occurrences were related to unique underlying problems our response would be different, but sadly, these situations are more the norm than the exception. We should be getting better at this but we’re not.

As Ombudsmen, our role is to disseminate concerns and also to offer solutions. We appreciate that there are individuals within the organization who are interested in reducing the burdens placed on officials (the recent post from the Referee Commission regarding concern about normalizing unfavorable conditions serves as an example). We must first recognize that our current tournament preparation procedures are inadequate to prevent exactly the type of normalized burden to which the RC was alluding. 

Our conclusion is that current hiring equations need to be adaptively informed by the reality of different tournament demands. Additionally, efficient procedures need to be better documented and shared between the National Office and hiring coordinators. We believe that there are other possible solutions but these might take longer to be realized.

We recommend the following steps that can be acted on to improve our tournament preparation procedures. Some could be implemented immediately; others will require more time.

  1. The current hiring formula, presently a ratio of 1.4 referees per strip, needs to be modified. This formula is untenable because it fails to account for resources that place additional strain on tournaments such as video replay, team events, and double-flighting. This formula is also insensitive to the additional necessity of assignors who play a pivotal role both in terms of organization and mentorship. Moreover, hiring practices have often resulted in an inadequate number of the caliber of refs needed to successfully run a tournament. This has the practical effect of taxing the sparse selection of referees who are capable of working deeper rounds. Failing to adequately consider the actual needs of a tournament can also result in a waste of resources due to over-hiring. The first step in determining a hiring formula that meets the needs of a particular tournament is to systematically incorporate these variables that seem to be routinely overlooked. A better approach would be to gather data over a season to determine the resources required for each event as well as the actual usage of officials.
  2. There needs to be more input and coordination between the National Office, hiring managers, and the broader referee cadre to staff events better. Structurally, this could take the form of including a representative from the Domestic Assignment Committee on the Tournament Committee. More practically, this could entail involving hiring managers and other referee representatives in planned tournament preparation discussions for each event. Utilizing the regional CRIs to also identify developing local talent as a pull during the hiring phase would also facilitate the local support and avoid a last minute push for hiring shortages to tournament registrations. This coordination between hiring referee and CRIs also yields better referee development opportunities.
  3. The hiring decisions need to account for actual expenses instead of operating under the assumption of “slots.” Some referees require less expensive flights which means that in some instances, additional referees can be brought in without adding undue financial burden. This reality is not currently being taken advantage of systematically.
  4. Related to the previous point, the organization should do a better job of systematically reaching out to local staff at each tournament to determine how local resources can reduce the burden of officials. The current hiring structure has produced the result that local “walk-on” referees who can only serve part-time have historically been utilized haphazardly, often late into the hiring process. This has the effect of missing crucial opportunities to involve people who could be a tremendous help at reduced costs. Instead, a routine practice should be to coordinate with CRIs to plan the usage of competent part-time officials who have minimal travel/lodging needs from the outset. In other words, we should not rely on waiting for additional resources to come to us. We should systematically go to them.
  5. Efficient procedures for hiring and utilizing referees once they have been hired need to be more widely disseminated. Last season saw some good initial steps in terms of documenting some of the hiring procedures and assigning responsibilities. These now to be updated to include advice for guaranteeing efficient referee usage (especially for assignors). Moreover, procedures for efficient referee usage need to be shared between the National Office and the Domestic Assignment Committee. Ideally, these procedures will eventually be informed by data analyses to optimize best practices.

Respectfully submitted,

Referee Ombudsman Committee

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