Embracing Data in Operational Decision-Making

July 1, 2016, Department, by Kevin Roth, Ph.D.

Park and recreation agencies are sources of significant opportunity and challenge for their communities. Opportunity in that they provide valuable, high-impact services that improve the lives of the people they serve. Challenge because they frequently operate under tight fiscal constraints that force them to make difficult decisions on how to optimally serve their constituents with finite resources.

Part of the solution is using data as a key element in strategic and day-to-day operational decision-making. A survey presented at the NRPA Innovation Lab in Boston finds nine in 10 park and recreation professionals give either a 4 or 5 on a 5-point scale to the level of importance of data in their agency’s strategic and day-to-day operational decision-making. The embrace of data goes beyond the agency. Mayors, county executives and other jurisdictional leaders also cherish data as a source of valuable insights, a gauge of performance and a mechanism to hold agencies accountable to their constituents. Four out of five park and recreation professionals agree that the leaders of their jurisdiction place a “high” or “very high” value on using data in strategic and day-to-day operational decision-making.

Survey Says…

Some park and recreation agencies are on the leading edge of data analysis while many others are just getting started. To gain a better understanding of how agencies are embracing data and to identify the greatest challenges, the NRPA research team surveyed directors from urban and larger suburban park and recreation agencies in late April and early May. Fifty-eight directors from these agencies participated in the survey, resulting in a 35 percent response rate. 

The survey results show that data support many different functions within a park and recreation agency: master planning (95 percent), capital investment decisions (88 percent) and measuring usage of facilities and participation in programming (88 percent), to name a few. In addition, four in five agencies use data to justify current and/or increased agency funding (82 percent) and to inform programming decisions for facilities (80 percent). Data also helps agencies to better understand their customers and constituents (73 percent), to highlight the positive impact their agency has on the community (71 percent) and to support human resources activities (57 percent). 

Park and recreation agencies draw data from a number of sources to inform critical decision-making. At the top of the list are facility usage and program performance data, critical to 93 percent and 91 percent, respectively, of agencies. Furthermore, organization performance (85 percent) and demographic trends of local residents (83 percent) are either important or very important data to six of seven agencies. In addition, crime and school data are important to 64 percent and 58 percent of agencies, respectively.

Data Collection and Analysis

Data collection can be a significant challenge in terms of time, cost and other resources. Park and recreation agencies collect data about their constituents through a variety of methods. A vast majority conduct surveys of their residents, whether collected in-house or through a third party (89 percent). Agencies also track the number of users of their facilities through manual (57 percent have staff that count users) and automated methods (40 percent). Beyond counting, park and recreation agencies use customer engagement tools that collect insights shared by their customers and tap market research data resources to better understand the demographic trends of their populace.

Park and recreation agencies also rely on data collected by other departments and agencies within their jurisdiction, including public works (91 percent), water utilities (86 percent), police/fire (80 percent) and transportation (80 percent). At the same time, agencies are a valuable resource for data that informs decision-making for their jurisdiction. Virtually all park and recreation agencies (98 percent) share key metrics with their jurisdiction’s administration (e.g., mayor, county executive). The most widely cited consumers of park and recreation agency data are police/fire (91 percent), public works (84 percent), planning (83 percent) and libraries (83 percent). 

NRPA also is a valuable data resource to park and recreation agencies. This includes the 2016 NRPA Field Report (powered by PRORAGIS), the NRPA Facility Market Reports, the Economic Impact of Local Parks report and the Americans’ Broad-Based Support for Local Recreation and Park Services report. Each of these resources provide park and recreation professionals with valuable data that help them do their job more effectively and efficiently and/or help to make the case for greater investment in park and recreation. 


Regardless of the source, most park and recreation agencies are analyzing the data in-house, frequently by agency staff that is closest to the programming being studied. Close to nine out of 10 department/program managers perform analysis on their agency’s data while more than half of respondents indicate having dedicated internal staff perform the analysis. And, the data tool that performs most of the analysis is the one most likely on your computer: Excel or some other spreadsheet, used by 98 percent of park and recreation agencies. 

The benefits of data and data analysis are amplified when you are able to communicate key takeaways and insights in a clear, easy-to-understand manner. A number of park and recreation agencies are accomplishing this task through the use of dashboards, which can provide the viewer with a quick glance of key performance indicators or other closely tracked metrics. Forty percent of agencies currently maintain a dashboard that illustrates and communicates key metrics to agency leadership, employees and stakeholders. Another 19 percent of agencies intend to establish a dashboard within the next 12 months. 

Many major stakeholders have access to these dashboards: internal stakeholders include agency leadership (95 percent), managers (86 percent) and staff (67 percent); external stakeholders include the jurisdictional leadership (52 percent) and the general public (29 percent). Regardless of who has access to them, dashboards provide an opportunity for the agencies to hold themselves accountable to major goals while also celebrating significant successes.

Even with the increased use of data, there are significant hurdles that park and recreation agencies must overcome in order to take greater advantage of data analysis in their decision-making. Half or more of responding park and recreation professionals indicate a lack of time, analytical skill among agency staff and/or resources to access data (e.g., software) as major challenges inhibiting their agencies from taking greater advantage of data analysis. Twenty-seven percent of them find the amount of data available to be daunting and are unsure where to start, while 25 percent say that there is internal resistance to the use of data for decision-making. 

Today, many park and recreation agencies are just scratching the surface on where data can help with critical decision-making. As we look to the future, NRPA will be developing new resources, including conference sessions and webinars, to assist park and recreation professionals in further embracing data. And, the NRPA Research team will conduct additional studies to generate additional data that improves agency performance and helps tell the park and recreation story. 


Kevin Roth, Ph.D.,is NRPA’s Vice President of Research.