The city of Arlington, Texas, is a leader in how it maximizes the use of funds and workforce for its parks and recreation programs. Its success is built on five key strategies that leverage data.
The city of Arlington Parks and Recreation Department hosts more than 3,000 fee-based programs per year, manages 99 parks and maintains an extensive special events calendar, all while being about as decorated of a department as they come. The department has won the National Recreation and Park Association’s 2018 Gold Medal Award in the Class II category and has been a three-time gold medal finalist. The department has also won Cartegraph’s Flag Forward Award — the list of accolades goes on and on.
So, one might be surprised to learn that the department operates with one of the leanest parks staffing models in the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex. With only 4.6 full-time employees per 10,000 citizens (according to NRPA the national average in 2018 was 8.3 full-time employees per 10,000 citizens), it’s imperative that the department consistently seek process efficiencies, strengthen partnership and sponsorship programs, and wisely spend marketing dollars to maximize reach. By doing so, it is able to maintain one of the highest cost recovery percentages in the industry (81 percent cost recovery in Parks Performance fund, about three times the national average), while increasing social equity.
To accomplish these impressive feats, the department relies heavily on technology such as cloud-based event registration software and robust data reporting tools. Here are five tips on leveraging technology to scale cost recovery and social equity in Parks and Recreation:
1. Utilize a Core Services and Resource Allocation Strategy
Arlington's Parks and Recreation Department uses a Core Services and Resource Allocation pyramid to sort their programming. The bottom, or largest piece of the pyramid, is Community Benefit, which includes programs that have no cost recovery and are fully subsidized, such as parks and playgrounds and open space.
The next three levels range from Community/Individual Benefit to mostly Individual Benefit. These tiers are a blend of paid programs that are subsidized at various degrees from social services and beginning instructional programs, which are typically more highly subsidized, to drop-in child care and advanced group instruction, which recover a much higher percentage of costs. At the top of the pyramid is the Highly Individual tier, which is designed to be the enterprise profit center and includes activities such as private lessons, food and beverage and merchandise for resale.
By using this model, the department is able to develop programs and facilities based on community interests and needs. Once the logistical needs and financial requirements are determined, the pyramid helps the department to deliver a financial forecast and fee structure to be approved by the parks director, parks board and/or city council. Through pre-planning such as this, other parks departments can ensure they maintain a keen focus on cost recovery.
2. Visualize Needs Assessments Through Sophisticated Dashboards
By utilizing technology such as community analyst platforms and analyzing reports on which demographics are participating in which programs, parks departments are better able to see what is needed to serve the entire community. This extends to social equity, which the Parks and Recreation Department defines as all Arlington residents having both the knowledge of and access to its parks and recreation facilities.
The department conducted a comprehensive public input process that focused on underserved communities after passing $105 million in park bonds. Over 77 percent of the bond is directed to underserved communities, including an innovative rec center/library co-op that is currently being built. It also has provided $216,000 in scholarships to over 4,500 children to ensure they have access to leagues and programs.
Other departments can use similar dashboard reporting to identify underserved areas of their respective community, and work on developing programs that address the problem.
3. Measure Digital Marketing and Advertising to Support Spend
In this day and age, digital marketing and advertising is a necessity for parks and recreation departments, but the big issue many departments face is tracking the campaigns and ensuring return on investment. For Arlington, this isn’t an issue because they use a cloud-based software-as-a-service (SaaS) platform that allows them to actively track AdWords and Facebook campaigns through the sales transactions. This means they get a clear picture of the ROI on their digital marketing spend.
By analyzing the data on ROI across their digital campaigns, the department is able to leverage it to drive decisions on future campaigns and not just blindly throw darts at the wall. Through robust reporting, parks departments can get a comprehensive view of which campaigns are working, which are not and why, then pivot in the future to ensure maximum ROI.
4. Regularly Review and Evaluate Data
The best results come after frequent analysis of data, both short term and long term. After plugging nearly two years of data into the department’s reporting software, the team was able to identify inefficiencies, and potential cost savings and waste reduction.
After discovering the inefficiencies, the department saw a labor savings of 18 percent, or 3,358 hours. It also was able to save $53,000 in irrigation yearly by using data to analyze water usage patterns. Taking a note out of Arlington’s playbook and consistently analyzing data can lead to substantial cost recovery for many parks departments.
5. Utilize Technology and Strong Partnerships for Sustainable, Innovative and Collaborative Efforts
Arlington's Parks and Recreation partnerships with technology providers are key to its success. By getting away from antiquated spreadsheets and instead relying on sophisticated software to manage assets, they have been able to save time, generate unprecedented cost recovery numbers and reach more underserved people within the community than ever before.
This all plays into the department being ranked 25 percent above the national average in overall satisfaction with parks and recreation in 2016, along with their multitude of awards. By utilizing technology in similar ways, other parks departments across the world could see similar success to that of Arlington.