What I am laughing at: SNL Peloton Satire
What I am Listening to: Baseball podcasts (it’s spring training!)
What I’m building: Friends Puzzle
What I am Watching: WandaVision
At the beginning of every year, I, like many other local government professionals who work with performance data, enter annual data for the National Recreation and Parks Association (NRPA) benchmarking survey. The International City/County Management Association (ICMA) has a similar program. In the spring, our agency receives a benchmarking report that includes data from all the agencies that shared data. It benchmarks us against them on metrics such as operating budget per capita, residents per acres, etc. However, when we share this data with our Board, we have to place it in context, noting that we are a built out urban community with unique features. While it’s nice to know how we compare to the rest of the country, we don’t want to compare ourselves to everyone, but those most similar to us. Inspired by the work of Brent Stockwell, Assistant City Manager of Scottsdale, AZ and the Valley Benchmarking project, I sought to build a coalition of park and recreation agencies in Illinois to share data and benchmark ourselves against.
Here are the steps we took:
- Identify your Peer Communities: Utilizing the same NRPA data I referenced above, I identified the agencies that were closest to us on a variety of metrics using lower and upper quartiles. This took the list of hundreds of Illinois agencies and gave me under 20. Our current group includes Evanston Parks and Recreation, Normal Parks and Recreation, Oak Lawn Park District, Wheaton Park District, Hoffman Estates Park District, Rolling Meadows Park District, Downers Grove Park District, and my District.
- Kick off Meeting: After reaching out to all the communities, I held a kick off meeting at the Park District of Oak Park in the summer of 2019. First, we talked about why performance data is important and where we each were in our journey. Then, we identified what are the desired outcomes for the group, what data is important, and potential deliverables (composite report, interactive dashboards, presentations, and quarterly dialogue). The metrics we most cared about were related to finance (% of tax bill, earned revenue) and recreation (registration, households, age demographics).
We then used the desired outcomes to build a purpose statement:
The purpose of the IL Park and Recreation Benchmarking initiative is to improve parks and recreation agency performance in Illinois by working collaboratively to: 1) Address regional trends and challenges; 2) Share information and best practices; 3) Identify similarities and differences between agencies to more accurately measure performance; 4) Learn best practices in performance management.
- Define the Metrics: This was by far the hardest part. Identifying a common definition of each metric was vital so we could compare metrics more fairly. Without it, the data would not be useful for comparisons. Since we had both park districts, that have their own taxing power, and parks and recreation departments, which receive much of their funding from a city’s general fund, the financial data proved most difficult to compare. But we got there.
- Building the Dashboards: While the group wanted an annual composite PDF report, it also desired dashboards that would allow us to customize the data within the benchmarking group. We partnered with the non-profit, GovBench, to manage our data and build the dashboards using Microsoft PowerBI. One of the unintentional benefits of gathering the data was teaching and learning from each other about how to access certain data points. The experience improved everyone’s understanding of performance management.
- Planning the Dialogue: We held our first meeting around the data in the fall of 2020. Due to COVID-19, we had to rely on Zoom to facilitate the conversation. Before the meeting, we identified the data trends we saw and then in small groups had each agency share the story behind the data. It allowed us to identify best practices and have those organizations present their lessons learned in the future.
Moving forward, we have a solid foundation in place for future conversations. In the spring, we plan to have two agencies present and discuss the recreation data from 2020. With COVID having such a major impact on registration numbers, learning who is bouncing back the fastest will be valuable. For our agency, I plan to utilize the data to identify future goals that fit in the context of our region. National networks are powerful mechanism for connections and gathering data, but to really take advantage of your data in decision-making, solving problems, learning, etc. you need a peer group that shares commonalities. We have ours.