Thinking Strategically About Your Agency's Recreation Programming

December 6, 2017, Department, by Michael Mulvaney, William Clevenger, Rodney Buhr and Jamie Gower

2017 December Member to Member Thinking Strategically About Your Agency's Rec Programming 410

What do residents think about your recreation programs and services? How does your sports programming compare to your day camps? How do you know if, or when, a program has peaked in popularity, when it needs to be revitalized or when is it time to consider retiring a program? The answers to these questions are important to agencies as they evaluate current practices and provide direction for the future provision of programs and resources to best meet the interests of their constituencies. In response to this need, following are some steps, associated with a comprehensive programming performance evaluation study, conducted for Illinois’s Decatur Park District, to illustrate the strategic role of programming in an agency’s operations.

Thinking Strategically
Despite its importance, the programming arm of a park and recreation agency is often underrepresented within an agency’s strategic plan. The strategic plan commonly has a heavier focus on actionable strategies to install, build, replace, purchase, acquire and develop facilities and/or parks. These capital development projects require careful planning, but what can often be an afterthought in the strategic visioning process is the programming arm as a driver of an agency’s operations. Many agencies tend to focus on the physical spaces rather than the activities that will take place within them.

So, how can agencies ensure their programming operations have a “voice” in strategic planning discussions? In a chapter, titled “Program and Services Management,” authored by Edginton and O’Neill in Management of Park and Recreation Agencies, a recommended approach is the development of a multiyear programming plan. This plan should include objectives and statistics for each program and a framework for determining the most feasible (cost recovery) level and mix of programs that reflect the mission of the agency.

At the core of the programming plan is data. From scheduling and design to marketing budgets and revenue figures, data is needed to determine strengths, weaknesses and possible deficits in an agency’s programming. A common challenge facing agencies is the consistent implementation of programming evaluations, from wide-ranging evaluation criteria and formats to the varied methods and analyses. One promising option for gathering data is using a comprehensive programming performance evaluation. This type of evaluation can assist the agency in the organization of relevant data to ensure the programming is aligned with the community’s needs, while also assessing programmatic effectiveness, impact and/or cost-benefit, and providing consistent programmatic evaluation across departments. It creates a more standardized set of criteria that is consistently used across the agency to measure program performance.

Recognizing it had a finite number of resources, the Decatur Park District decided to undertake a comprehensive programming performance evaluation. Established in 1924 in portions of Macon County, Illinois, the district consists of approximately 2,000 acres, multiple indoor and outdoor sport complexes, three golf courses, a zoo, cultural arts center, high ropes/adventure course, mini-golf complex and a regional airport. It serves a community of approximately 74,000 people, is governed by five publicly elected commissioners and employs approximately 100 full-time and 400 part-time employees. 

Decatur Park District Programming Performance Evaluation
To initiate the study, the Decatur Park District worked to develop a cost-recovery philosophy that could guide current and future programming. It developed a framework to improve efficiency and ascertain whether a program was operating at an intended (cost recovery) level. Through discussions and reviewing Recreation Programming: Designing and Staging Leisure Experiences by J. R. Rossman and B. E. Schlatter, four cost recovery levels were identified to ensure that subsidized and low-cost recovery programs were balanced by programs with high levels of cost recovery.

To identify the desired evaluation criteria, the district’s 11 programming managers/supervisors completed a workshop, which identified the following evaluation criteria: general program overview information, effort data, cost/value data and current program assessment processes. Once the four criteria were established, a list of specific data within each criterion were identified and organized into an agency-wide programming performance evaluation matrix. The intent of the matrix was to create a comprehensive dataset for each of the criteria that provided individual and aggregate-level assessments of its programs.

The matrix was then distributed to the district’s programming staff who populated it with data from the programs that were under their supervision. A combination of phone calls and site visits by the researcher were used to orientate staff on this data collection process. Initially, the plan was to have the district collect the data over a five-year period. However, because of recent personnel changes and updates in the district’s recreation management software, data was only obtained from the three previous fiscal years. That data was collected and analyzed, using Microsoft Excel, for a total of 1,634 programming areas. A variety of descriptive statistics and visuals were created, leading to a comprehensive programming performance evaluation report.

In addition to being integrated into the district’s master plan, the data guided short- and long-term goals of its programming plan. For example, the data provided insight into a few programs that were experiencing significant growth and that would benefit from additional resource support. It also identified programs that were plateauing and in need of revitalization, as well as those that were approaching the retirement phase. Taken collectively, this information assisted the agency in the strategic repurposing of resources, from retiring programs to areas of growth or revitalization.

As an indirect benefit, the data was also used in several promotion and marketing campaigns. For example, the district discovered that it provided an (annual) average of 6,289 hours of recreation programming per year, which equated to approximately 17 hours of programming per day; obtained more than $1.6 million from fees and charges; and had successfully managed its operational budgets, while experiencing a 21 percent decrease in sponsorship/donation revenue over a three-year period.

The comprehensive programming performance evaluation allows agencies to study their programming operations in a standardized manner, assess individual program performance over time and compare programs across the entire agency on similar criteria to promote a more strategic approach to program management. Drawing from this data, agencies can more effectively plan and deliver programs that promote a stronger sense of community identity, improve the quality of life for their residents and create a positive social impact!

References for this article:

Berner, M. & Bronson, M. (2005).  A case study of program evaluation in local government:  Building consensus through collaboration.  Public Performance & Management Review, 28(3), 309-325.

DiGrino, N., Whitmore, S., & Atwell, C. (2010).  Recreation program planning.  In Moiseichik, M. (Ed.), Management of park and recreation agencies (3rd ed.) (127-154). Ashburn, VA:  NRPA.

Edginton, C. R. & O’Neill, J. P. (2016).  Program and services management.  In Moiseichik, M. (Ed.), Management of park and recreation agencies (4th ed.) (125-160). Ashburn, VA:  NRPA.

Morgan, C., Sibthorp, J., & Browne, L. P. (2016).  Moving beyond outcomes:  An applied example of implementation evaluation in a youth recreation program.  Journal of Park and Recreation Administration, 34(4), 66-81.

Rossman, J. R. & Schlatter, B. E. (2015).  Recreation programming:  Designing and staging leisure experiences (7th ed.).  Champaign, IL:  Sagamore Publishing.

Michael Mulvaney is an Associate Professor at Illinois State University.

William Clevenger is the Executive Director of the Decatur Park District.

Rodney Buhr is the Chief Financial Officer of the Decatur Park District.

Jamie Gower is the Director of Recreation and Facilities of the Decatur Park District.