The Problem with Underestimating Fun

My 7-year-old niece recently spent the week us “in the big city” as a mini-vacation and a chance for us all to spend more time together since we’re only able to see her family a few times a year. I asked her what she wanted to do while she was in the Chicago and her answer was “go to a park and ride a train.”  I’m not going to lie – the urban planning geek inside of me was a little proud that the two things that she mentioned were open space and public transportation.  But, in order to fulfill her wishes, I happily promised that we’d make sure that we crossed both of those items off of the list that week.

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Scandinavian Design meets Parks & Recreation

One of the benefits of travel is the opportunity to see things from a new perspective, often reinforcing that for all of our differences, we’re really all the same.  And while most people like to leave work behind when they take a trip, visiting parks and spending time outdoors is something that both my husband and I really enjoy, so luckily traveling to new destinations means that this park nerd gets the chance for both work and play.

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A Lesson in Government Transparency from an Unlikely Source

Working in local government, I can't think of a buzzword that currently holds more weight with the public than "transparency."  And the funny thing is that despite its seemingly semi-recent rise to importance, it's really nothing new.  In 1913, Louis Brandeis, who would later become a Supreme Court Justice, famously said "Sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants..." referring to bankers at the turn of the century when financial reform was demanded after the excesses of the Industrial Revolution. He believed that by educating customers and investors through transparency, the public could best regulate bankers through the open market (i.e. poorly performing or corrupt bankers would no longer have customers and would go out of business on their own) and the government wouldn't need to regulate the types of deals that bankers made, nor the potential size of their profits.

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Defending the Special District

This article was co-published with Emerging Local Government Leaders.

As someone who works in local government, it's safe to say that I'm not always looked upon as a model member of our society (yet....changing the world's perception takes time).  And as a local government worker in Illinois with our rich history of corrupt governors (don't forget that we're also the Land of Lincoln too!), I get even less respect from the public.  But when you add to all of that that I work for a "special district," well, let's just say that I sometimes draw a lot of strange looks from my fellow local government peers, especially when I leave the comfort zone of parks & recreation in Illinois.

Now in everyone's defense, I understand that special districts can seem a little odd.  In case you aren't aware, special districts are government districts that exist independently from general purpose local governments such as county, municipal, or township governments, and as the name implies, usually exist for a special or specific purpose.  Often, they were formed to fund services that general purpose local governments could not (or did not want to) pay for.  Of course, years after they have been formed and the citizens have long forgotten that these special districts were created by the voters themselves, they can take a beating by some politicians, university professors, the public, and other local governments as being fragmented, duplicative, and wasteful.

Illinois special districts are under fire right now as the state and other local governments are trying to find a way to tighten their purse strings. And everyone inside and outside of the state likes to throw around the statistic that Illinois has the highest number of local government districts in the country with a total of 6,963 according the 2012 Census of Governments. But before you grab your pitchfork and jump on the special district doubter bandwagon though, it's important to take a few moments to think about what that number really means.  

More government does not necessarily equal more government.

Illinois may reign in the total number of special districts and overall number of local government districts, but when you exam the number of local government districts per capita, it's dwarfed by many states and is only 14th in the country.  Additionally, if you look at the number of state & local non-educational government employees per capita, Illinois falls even further down the list to #47.  Yes, you read that correctly...#47.  Illinois, the state of "big government" has one of the lowest percentages of government employees in the country.

In the community that I work for, residents pay taxes to several general purpose and school districts, but also to multiple special districts, which on the surface may seem ridiculous in a jurisdiction that is literally less than five square miles. It's important that we're honest where some of this distaste for special districts comes from.  It's rooted in the fact that people see additional local government districts negatively because they see local government in general in a negative light and that's a problem for all governments to deal with, not just special districts.  There are even some of us that work in local government have to admit that we still hold on to a bit of that ourselves.  Don't worry, I forgive you Ron Swanson (apologies for the gratuitous Parks & Recreation tv show reference), but hope you'll keep reading.

...people see additional local government districts negatively because they see local government in general in a negative light and that a problem for all governments to deal with, not just special districts.

However, in our community with all of our special districts (and a municipal, township, and county government), we also have some of the best partnerships and sharing that takes place within our boundaries - much more than I often witness between many general purpose governments - not because we're any better, but just out of necessity. Without the mission or ability to be "everything to everyone," special districts often are forced to do what they do well and then work with others to make sure the rest of citizen needs are carried out by those that do them best.  

One could also argue that special districts like our park district, give citizens the ability to control the amount of spending dedicated towards its parks and recreation services without as much worry that politics or inter-department budget battles will close their swimming pool or cancel their child's dance class.  Additionally, by operating as a smaller, more focused organization, I would also argue that it often allows our park district to be more nimble and responsive to our residents' needs or big challenges like the recent recession.  

And it seems that the data would actually agree with me.  In a study by the University of Illinois:

  • 88% of Illinois residents indicated that they were satisfied with their Park Districts;
  • When asked to consider the issue of consolidated government, 90% of those surveyed felt that park and recreation services are best provided by a Park District;
  • Nearly 75% felt that Park Districts allow the greatest opportunity for community input compared to services provided by a city or village government;
  • When asked specifically about consolidation, a majority of respondents believed that park and recreation services would suffer if consolidated with city, village or county government; and
  • Only 10% of residents felt that park and recreation services would improve with a consolidated government.
There is strong support for the park district, as compared to city/village government, as the unit of government that would provide greater opportunity for citizen input... A majority of household respondents felt that park and recreation programs and services would suffer if consolidated with city/village or county government... Furthermore, nearly eight out of every ten respondent households indicated that the park district would be the best local governmental unit to provide park and recreation programs, facilities, and park areas.
— Illinois Park Districts: Citizen Perspectives

Now I'm not trying to say that the goal should necessarily be to create more special districts, nor am I campaigning for a "Hug Your Local Special District Employee Day" (although that would be nice).  And of course, there are exceptions of dysfunctional special districts still operating in silos and I know some amazing park & recreation departments that operate within municipalities.  However, the next decade should definitely be an interesting one for local government as citizens and politicians outweigh a distaste for what they believe is "more government" versus some of the funding opportunities that can go along with the creation of special districts.

Instead, I encourage you to not let the naysayers on either side win.  No matter what type of government your work for or have in your community, this should never be an "us vs them" situation because ultimately we are all trying to make our communities better places.

Work for a general purpose government?  Reach out to your counterparts at a local special district to introduce yourself and see if there are any commonsense ways that you can partner or share resources. Their areas of specialization might help propel your agency forward in ways that you couldn't do on your own.

Work for a special district?  Why not invite someone from your local municipality for coffee and show them what you do?  It's amazing how many conversations that I have had with colleagues at municipalities started with a misconception about the bureaucracy of special districts that have ended with a twinge of jealousy about what a special district can accomplish when all staff are heading in the same direction.  

Are you a resident?  I know sometimes our websites aren't the most customer-friendly, but keep trying to get involved - we need you too.

Maybe someday together we can even turn that statistic of 6,963 units of local government in Illinois from a point of embarrassment for some into an actual point of pride.  Hey, a girl can dream, right?

This One's for the "People Persons"

Over the past two weeks, I've had the opportunity to present a session entitled "Counting What Counts: Using Data to Drive Real Change" at two park & recreation conferences.  I was thrilled with the participation at both, but noticed that after each session, I had several people make a comment to me along the lines of:

"I'm more of a people person, and I actually really enjoyed your session."

While I'm excited that A) people enjoyed the sessions, and B) people who wouldn't typically gravitate towards numbers and data decided to spend over an hour learning about it with me, I think that it shows that there's still a real misconception that data is only for "numbers people."  Now I know that I'm (proudly) a little geekier than the average population when it comes to this stuff, but I promise that data doesn't have to be intimidating or boring.  And when presented thoughtfully, data doesn't even have to include numbers.

Have I completely confused you?  Stay with me while I prove it with the following equation.  

So people result in some sort of interaction, which results in data.  Easy, right?  And I didn't even need to use numbers!

Well, if the above equation is true, Algebra 101 tells us that the following equation is also true (and you thought you'd never use algebra again...).

What's this mean?  Well, if we want to, we can use data to affect interactions, which will in turn affect people.  Sound too simple?  Well....math, data, and all that stuff that sometimes seems confusing really doesn't have to be hard.  But if you need some proof, here's a recent real-life example.

One of the performance indicators that we track at my agency is the percent of households in our community that complete a transaction with us each year.  This includes any household that registers for a program, buys a pass, rents a facility, donates to our scholarship fund, etc.  We had no idea what to expect from this metric, so in 2013, we let our customers take the lead.  In this case, people interacted with our park district, which resulted in data that told us that 26% of households in our community completed a transaction with us in 2013.

Or in other words, PEOPLE = INTERACTIONS = DATA.

Since we really haven't found any other park & recreation agencies tracking these same metrics, we really had no idea whether or not this was a typical result.  But regardless, we decided to work on improving this number in 2014.  Using our newfound data, we focused the entire year on our interactions with our customers, which went something like this:

As an agency, we worked together to attract new customers to our park district.  These efforts led to the highest number of program registrations since we started tracking this number in 2007 and also the highest number of pass sales in recent years.  We had set the lofty goal to increase that household participation though and so when mid-December came around and we still hadn't reached it, we came up with an plan.

We reviewed all of our customers that had participated with us in 2013, but hadn't returned in 2014 for some reason.  We learned that this amounted to 1,400 households, which seemed like a large amount, but dug a little deeper and found out that this meant that our household retention rate was 75%, which didn't seem so bad afterall. (Side note, this is why it's so important to dig deeper when you have questions about your data, instead of just going back to making assumptions about the initial results.)  We then contacted those 1,400 households to let them know that we missed them and offered them a coupon to come back by the end of the year.  We should have given ourselves more time to get this effort out to make it more convenient for customers to take advantage of it, but it was a our first time and we decided that trying something is better than nothing.

The result of that coupon? Ten households took advantage of the offer. Sounds like a terrible response, doesn't it?  Well, even though we would have loved to see a higher number, because of other available data, we know that our average customers spend $630/year with us.  This means that for a $250 goodwill investment ($25 coupon X 10), we were able to serve 10 more households.  And if they enjoy their program/pass and continue as a customer in 2015 with us, we could earn an estimated $6,300 return, which in turn allows us to provide even more services to our community.  One of those 10 people even wrote a letter to our Board president expressing that she was excited about our park district's new fitness options and that she appreciated our offer and was going to sign up for an on-going membership with the park district.  Suddenly not so shabby of a result, huh?

So how did it all end?  Well, with less than 48 hours left in the year, we met our target and increased our overall household participation to 30% or 816 additional households.

Or in other words, DATA = INTERACTIONS = PEOPLE.  See how that works?

That means that because of our focus on data, we were able to positively affect people in the following ways:

  • our staff rallied around a common goal,
  • we learned new data about our agency that will help us better understand how well we are serving our community,
  • our staff initiated a new marketing effort that they want to repeat and improve upon for next year, and
  • we increased the number of people served and were able to offer more recreation opportunities to our community than even before.

The simple fact is that when you really think about it, those "numbers" are people, so when you care about the right numbers, you're really caring about people.  And this means that anything you do to positively affect those numbers is also positively affecting the community that you serve.  

In fact, the more I think about it, maybe when it comes down to it, those "people persons" might have the potential to be the biggest "numbers persons" of us all?