Do you work for a parks department and often wonder how other parks and recreation agencies are operating? I mean, parks and recreation agencies exist for the same reasons, right? We all strive to meet the needs of the community, provide opportunities to build social capital, and enhance public and community health - the list goes on and on. I can guarantee that no two organizations operate in the exact same way. If they did, parks and recreation agencies could follow a blueprint, and there would be (gasp) little need for consultants. Well, luckily for us (at Eppley), there isn't a cookie-cutter method of providing parks and recreation. So how can organizations gain a snapshot of how other agencies are operating?
Benchmarking is one process that allows agencies to see how they "stack up" against comparable organizations. Consultants often employ the benchmarking process during strategic- and master-planning projects. First, we identify several (sometimes up to 12) agencies that are comparable to the partner agency in several areas (e.g., population served, demographics served, general community amenities, size of the organization, etc.). Second, we develop a list of data points, or "benchmarks," that we will ask each selected agency to provide. Benchmarking is a voluntary process, and there are times when agencies decline to participate because of various reasons. For example, if the data is not readily available, they may not have the resources to provide the information in a timely and cost-effective manner. Third, we work with the partner agency to develop a "key indicator" list. That is, what are the data points that matter the most to your organization at this particular time?
Key benchmarks are critical to develop. As Eppley continues to partner with local municipalities, we are reminded of the importance of developing, tracking, and examining key performance indicators (KPIs). KPIs allow organizations to "set the bar" wherever they would like. For example, an organization may deem it important to compare well to benchmark agencies in regard to park acres per 1,000 residents. By establishing a standard to follow (let's say ranking in the top quartile of park acres per 1,000 residents among benchmark communities), an organization has established a goal and can then develop objectives to meet that goal.
KPIs are not solely the product of the benchmarking process; however, benchmarking paints a clearer picture of how comparable agencies are operating and what data points it may be important to monitor moving forward (if the agency is not already tracking them). It must be noted, however, that benchmarking is not a cut-and-dry metric. Believe it or not, a seemingly simple question - like, for instance, "How many recreation centers does your department operate?" - can result in answers that aren't truly comparable. For example, one department may report traditional recreation centers, complete with weightlifting areas, exercise rooms, pools, etc., while other departments may report recreation centers as any building that has a multipurpose room. If two comparable agencies in size and scope report operating, respectively, four and 25 recreation centers, something is most likely amiss. The difference is a result of methodology. If you remember, I said at the beginning of this post that there is not a cookie-cutter approach to offering parks and recreation, and that is true for measuring and reporting as well. This example is precisely the reason why benchmarking is both useful and imperfect at the same time.
Although (due to subjective reporting) it exemplifies an inherent fallacy, benchmarking is nonetheless an incredibly useful component of any strategic- or master-planning process. However subjective benchmarking may seem, a department can objectively evaluate KPIs. I would urge parks and recreation departments to explore the world of benchmarking. As we have found over the years, benchmarking is also a great way to learn about your own reporting methods in addition to those employed by other departments.
For more information about benchmarking or detailed examples of the process, please visit our planning and design portfolio to peruse our past projects that include benchmark analyses.