In Depth: Prince George’s County Parks Innovation Task Force

Posted on November 14, 2017

“Anytime there is an opportunity to test out new technology and innovate, we want to be first. When we see something novel and valuable for improving the way we operate and provide benefits back to our community, we always start off with what our main goal is for testing it and then work backwards to figure out how to make it happen.” — Roslyn Johnson, Deputy Director, Facility Operations, Prince George’s County Department of Parks and Recreation

How does government innovate? What are some best practices to engage staff to think differently and challenge the status quo in an actionable way?
The Prince George’s County Department of Parks and Recreation, Innovation Taskforce has built and refined a staff-driven formula to bring new ideas to life.
We first met the Innovation Task Force team at the NRPA Innovation Lab in Boston, MA in 2016, which focused on how parks and recreation agencies benefit from using technology and data.
As a six time winner of the National Recreation and Park Association’s (NRPA) national gold medal for excellence in parks and recreation, Prince George’s County always wants to be at the forefront of the parks and recreation industry by testing new technology and executing on big ideas to improve its parks for its community.
We were impressed with this commitment to continuous improvement, both for internal operations and for the park user experience. What’s more, the Innovation Task Force doesn’t just talk about innovation, they organize and align 14 divisions on a routine basis to collaboratively bring projects from ideation through to execution.
As Roslyn Johnson explains, “the Task Force has empowered our staff to think differently about things and also feel confident that they can bring them to the table and make them happen.”

The Prince George’s Innovation Task Force brings new, forward looking projects to life while minimizing the overall risk to the Department of Parks and Recreation and engaging staff of all levels and ages
The Task Force was first designed four years ago as an initiative intended to retain more millennial aged staff. This idea manifested itself into a cross functional group that now seeks input from all generations of park staff, not only millennials, to produce new ideas that are both innovative and sound in terms of their business cases – effectively reducing risk and catalyzing innovation department-wide.
Since its early days, the Task Force has evolved into an engine for driving change and important new projects agency wide. It now has representatives from all fourteen divisions in the department. It is now sourcing contributions from staff who have been with the agency for one to 35 years. Through a collaborative and concentrated effort on making innovation a habit, the task force has figured out how to say yes to growth and learning, creativity and sustainability and organizational progression.

“We know that in order to maintain and surpass our standards and remain relative to the communities we serve, we must be innovative. ”

In addition to deploying Soofa technology across the Prince George’s County park system, the Innovation Task force has designed and executed a number of highly impactful and beneficial programs and projects.
One in particular that was selected and put into action focused on using rain cisterns to cut down on total water use for irrigation and lessen the county expenditure per year to irrigate.
The original video made by the staff team, named “Quick Connect” describes the project vision and actionable goals in detail.

The outcomes from the implementation of the cisterns are noteworthy to say the least. The cisterns are projected to capture 989,027 gallons of rainwater in one year at four different locations, saving the county $123,651 total. In percentage terms, this is a 57% cost savings on the total dollar amount that would have been spent on irrigating the four locations without the cisterns in place.
Staff members are fully supported by the department to take their ideas from concept to reality through mentorship and a collaborative workspace
Here’s an excerpt from a conversation we had with Stewart Seal, a staff member whose idea was selected:

“About three years ago I was walking my dogs in the wood,” says Stewart. “We came upon a large tree that had recently been blown down. The top of the tree had a large branch at an angle that looked like a neck of the Loch Ness Monster. I keep that thought in back of my mind for some time and when the Innovative Project Initiative opened up I decided to submit an idea that would use found material like downed trees and vegetation to create artwork from natural materials found on the trails and in the woods. The program became Art on the Trails: Recycle, Reuse and Decay.”

“I was assigned a mentor Edith Michel. We spent quite a bit of time discussing the project and in particular establishing benchmarks, goals and objectives for the program. Edith was tremendously helpful developing these items. The Task Force was very helpful with marketing, providing funding, networking with other divisions i.e. Maintenance & Development. Area Operations etc. We are about to restart the program with a major carving at Lane Manor Park.”

pgparks-concerts.jpgThe Innovation Task Force partnered with Soofa to gain new insight into park use and provide a much needed 21st century amenity for park users
The team’s interest in a smart parks pilot project with us stemmed from being able to measure pedestrian activity in numerous locations in the county’s park system, ranging from trails and playgrounds to a new museum and a beautiful lakefront location. In addition to Soofa technology solving the problem of not having park use numbers, the Innovation Task Force sought out the opportunity to be an early adopter to co-create a product tailored to meet its specific needs.
We hosted the entire Innovation Task Force at our office for a brainstorming session before bolts were even in the ground in the summer of 2016.
During the working session, we all brainstormed about how our technology can help with things like identifying anomalies in park activity – two potential uses for this was applying anomaly detection to be able to identify pop up events and unprogrammed, community driven happenings in the parks, and for optimizing security and park patrols by knowing if after hours use is happening.
Having the group together and brainstorming brought up an entirely new idea for what was possible.
Setting goals early and refining over time led to the success of the first phase of the smart parks pilot project
The main goals of our work together were set long before the first bolts went into the ground. These included things like knowing park use in near real-time to be able to match maintenance schedules with actual usage rates to optimize the maintenance crews’ time, measuring the success of events and programming by analyzing relative attendance numbers, and evaluating the success of capital improvement projects by seeing how people use the parks before and after construction.
After the Bench and Core Pro units were installed and data on park activity was being gathered, Soofa and the Innovation Task Force began hosting regular focus groups to track the project against its original goals and determine new ones. The process of hosting focus groups was also important to gain the buy in of numerous divisions within the department.
One group in particular, the team responsible for leading sponsorship and advertising, recognized a tremendous opportunity to be able to advance the original goals of the project while minimizing the total capital spending required to do so. After deciding to add a backrest to the Soofa Bench Pro, the sponsorship team is now selling the advertising space to local and regional businesses and organizations, priced according to the popularity of the particular location.
The goal is to use the revenue generated from these sponsorships initially to fund additional benches across the county park system and once the capital spend is recouped, to generate revenue for the department to use to improve its parks and fund new programs and events.
The Innovation Task Force shares its three key pieces of advice for other cities wanting to be innovative and take risks
For government agencies, it can sometimes be challenging to take on something new, especially when that something new is being an early adopter and research and development partner with a startup.
The insight Prince George’s County shared with us echoes much of what we have learned from our other early adopter cities, parks departments, and other public sector partners, and we believe is helpful for all government agencies considering being early adopters of new technology. We have distilled the following three pieces of advice given to other agencies by the Innovation Task Force.

  • Make sure the company you are going to partner with is able to give you a point of contact that you can reach out to anytime when an issue arises or you have a question. Personalization is key, especially when you are taking the risk of being an early adopter.
  • Get to know the leadership of the company, learn what their long term vision is and make sure it aligns with your goals.
  • Be open to sharing best practices with other agencies who are also customers of the company you’re working with.
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