Management Challenges in Park and Recreation Agencies

October 21, 2021, Feature, by Dr. Larry Allen, Dr. Ellen Drogin Rodgers, Dr. Bob Barcelona, Marvin Billups, Bill Clevenger, Dr. Gary Ellis, Sara Hensley, Richard Horton and Dr. Lynn Jamieson

2021 November Feature Management Challenges in Park and Recreation Agencies 410

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Study employs thematic analysis to identify 10 key themes for effective management

Establishing evidence-based management strategies is a primary goal of the profession of park and recreation administration; however, doing so has been a challenge for several decades. Individual agencies and organizations associated with park and recreation management have long discussed (and, at times, implemented at a local level) mechanisms for collectively identifying needs, compiling research-based evidence, and developing management strategies to address specific and trending issues. We all realize the broad need but have not yet found a viable and scalable solution.

One of the issues with identifying effective management strategies has been first to identify the primary challenges facing park and recreation agencies, and second, to identify available or needed research. Certainly, there is a plethora of evaluative work identifying specific needs, but there is a lack of overall assessments of management challenges. Therefore, in 2018, the American Academy of Park and Recreation Administration (AAPRA) charged its Research for the Profession Committee to conduct a survey to identify the primary challenges facing park and recreation managers and the research necessary to inform evidence-based practices among the AAPRA members. The AAPRA was “formed to advance knowledge related to the administration of recreation and parks; encourage scholarly efforts by both practitioners and educators to enhance the practice of park and recreation administration; promote broader public understanding of the importance of parks and recreation to the public good; and conduct research, publish scholarly papers and/or sponsor seminars related to the advancement of park and recreation administration”.

A survey was conducted by the Research for the Profession Committee in conjunction with the 2019 AAPRA Strategic Positioning Survey. There were 59 respondents. Among these respondents were 55 AAPRA Fellows not associated with an academic institution. Since the charge was primarily focused on challenges and research needs as identified by practicing professionals, the responses from the four academic-affiliated Fellows were not included in the final analysis.

Individuals responded to the question: “Consider the array of daily challenges you face in managing and delivering services in your community. You NOW have the money and the resources to tackle them, which one(s) would you invest in solving?” Across the 55 individuals, 139 challenges were identified.

As part of an iterative thematic analysis, one committee member grouped the 139 individual responses into 10 prospective themes. Two additional committee members reviewed and refined the individual responses and thematic categories. The committee reached consensus on themes and composite statements.

With affirmation and clarification of the responses and 10 themes, the committee then created a description for each theme. This description defines the theme and provides thoughts for addressing the challenges either through conducting specific research on the topic or by developing evidence-based management strategies.

The following themes are presented in descending order based upon the number of challenges that were grouped through thematic analysis within each theme.

1. Recruit, Train and Retain Quality Staff (22 Responses)

The emphasis of this theme is obvious and clear. Academy members are very concerned with maintaining and building a strong cadre of professionals and leaders. From a research perspective, practitioners are interested in understanding the motivations of young professionals in order to develop effective recruiting, training and retention strategies that meet the needs of these professionals and the field. Further, this theme included items related to the need for continuous professional development, including the best strategies for building leadership skills and qualities.

2. Enhance Programs and Services That Meet the Unique and Pressing Needs of the Community (21 responses)

Academy members are concerned with how to best balance program preferences identified by the public with staff capabilities and facility capacity; and how to comprehensively identify and inventory programs provided in the community by others. Further, leaders and managers need clarification on how best to determine which programs they should offer versus those that should be offered by other nonprofits or private recreation, sport or fitness providers in the community. Academy members also expressed concerns related to program and service pricing, especially pricing structures that may exclude those who cannot afford to pay.

From a research perspective, these practitioners would benefit from a better strategy for determining program offerings and guidelines for implementing a community recreation program. For example, research investigating pricing models that promote financial sufficiency, but also promote equity across all user groups would be very valuable.

3. Increase Efficacy of Advocacy and Elevate Public Understanding of the Value, Benefits and Importance of Park and Recreation Services (19 responses)

This theme underscores the importance of communicating the value of parks and recreation to governing bodies; public, private and nonprofit agencies and organizations; and our community members. It is essential to emphasize the economic and health benefits of park and recreation programs and services. Specific efforts for addressing this theme include the development of marketing plans, branding efforts, communication strategies using persuasive messaging principles, social media plans and community advocacy groups. Additionally, research is needed affirming the value, benefit and importance of parks and recreation.

4. Resolve Problems of Aging Infrastructure, Deferred Maintenance and Infrastructure Maintenance (18 responses)

This theme focuses on the expressed concerns practitioners have for maintaining and replacing aging infrastructure. Certainly, investigations that articulate the pros and cons of innovative funding strategies for addressing maintenance backlogs would be valuable. Also, survey responses suggest practitioners would benefit from evidence-based efforts to effectively quantify infrastructure needs and to frame them in a manner by which they are elevated to a level commensurate with other department or agency needs. This theme also suggests that, over the long term, renewed discussion on building more shared and multiuse facilities across departments and agencies should take place.

5. Acquire Land and Develop Facilities and Services (13 responses)

This theme is a corollary to theme 4. The primary concern expressed was being able to acquire land needed for parks, open space and trails, as well as the development or redevelopment of facilities and services. It is suggested that best-practice strategies be formulated and confirmed related to collaborating on property purchases, co-locating facilities with various entities, working with nonprofits to preserve precious properties, and pursuing joint development of facilities with other public entities and the private sector that will benefit the community as a whole. It is vital that we look beyond our normal operations and ways of doing business to create new means for land acquisitions, facility development and services.

6. Enhance Internal Operations; Engage in Continuous Quality Improvement (13 responses)

Building management efficiency and effectiveness is a continuous activity; one that needs ongoing attention. Many aspects of managing park and recreation agencies have challenged administrators across time and settings. This theme comprises the many challenges for which research is needed to determine best practices. Academy members noted, specifically, the need to build alternative funding sources, keep up with and utilize current technologies, protect yet make available natural and cultural resources, establish metrics for efficient operation, and effectively address the political environment, including working with elected officials and special interest groups.

7. Address Equity, Diversity and Inclusion in All Operations (11 responses)

Issues of equity, diversity and inclusion are priorities of the AAPRA members. They expressed the opinion that all residents, visitors and customers should receive equal quality services, that services should be accessible to all, and that employees and all participants should be treated with respect and fairness. The critical question related to these issues of social justice is how professionals deliver quality services in an effective, efficient and equitable manner. Various strategies to support equality and equity in facilities, services, access to opportunities, and participation in public input need to be investigated in a systematic manner.

8. Increase Capacity for Data-Driven Decision Making (9 responses)

This theme emphasizes the importance of increasing managers’ capacity for data-driven decision making (i.e., evidence-based management). There is a need to identify appropriate monitoring and assessment indicators, as well as to research building effective database systems and their utilization. Impacts of park and recreation systems and community needs, interests, and demand are critical datapoints to inform strategic management actions. Data-driven decision making requires consideration of changes and stability over time. Furthermore, trends must be evaluated in addition to snapshots of the status quo. Management dashboards may be used to monitor key outcomes that are critical to quality.

9. Address Environmental and Physical Resource Issues (8 responses)

Academy members expressed that our parklands and open spaces are subjected to the same environmental issues and problems as are all other physical resources. The impacts of climate change, the preservation and restoration of park areas where there is significant human and wildlife impact, the control of invasive species, the implementation of green infrastructure, and an understanding by the public of the significant environmental issues that are facing the profession (and broader communities) are all concerns worthy of further investigation. The profession needs applied research and evidence-based practices that innovatively and successfully address these pressing concerns.

10. Increase Collaboration Among Community, Governmental and Non-Governmental Partners (5 responses)

This theme focuses on the need for greater collaboration among agencies and understanding how to establish and build effective collaborative efforts. To do so, AAPRA members noted the imperative to:

  • Determine strategic needs and benefits of collaboration.
  • Identify potential organizations as collaborators.
  • Consider practical implementation challenges of collaboration.
  • Conduct due diligence and negotiations.

It is essential that there be continuous reflection on such collaborative efforts (and adjustments made as needed).

Next Steps

The identification of these themes is intended to stimulate further discussion amongst the profession on how to ensure access to existing evidence (i.e., research) and to serve as a source of inspiration for building a research program among interested parties to address these critical issues more thoroughly. The Research for the Profession Committee will communicate these thematic areas to universities with park and recreation degree programs, so they might encourage faculty and graduate students to undertake such applied research.

Further, we know that research relevant to many of these topics is already available in agency reports, and through various forums (e.g., NRPA National Research Symposium), and publications (e.g., Journal of Park and Recreation Administration). What remains of concern is the awareness and accessibility of appropriate research and evaluative efforts. We hope that by communicating these identified challenges and research needs, those in a position to engage in such activities (research, communications, and assistance efforts) will actively do so.

Dr. Larry Allen (Past Chair), Dr. Ellen Drogin Rodgers (Chair), Dr. Bob Barcelona (Vice Chair), Marvin Billups, Bill Clevenger, Dr. Gary Ellis, Sara Hensley, Richard Horton and Dr. Lynn Jamieson serve on the Research for the Profession Committee of the American Academy of Park and Recreation Administration.