Technology is billed as a panacea to almost every potential management and programming quagmire. While it lives up to its promise and beyond, computer power is only as good as the people behind it.
The professionals we spoke to from Henderson, Nev., and New Britain, Conn., have embraced technology in a big way, while making sure the organization and the people who take advantage of their programming are in step with the changes it brings.
"Every administrative leader is looking for information, accountability and the reasons why you make the decisions you make," says Bill DeMaio, acting parks and recreation director for New Britain, Conn.
"I've found that the computer can sift through information on a timely basis and be able to spit it out for you, which really justifies the reasons you make management decisions. We have so much more information at our beck and call, whereas years ago you couldn't retrieve that information. You couldn't find the trends and compare them year after year in chart form to be able to make good decisions for the next year and recommend to your mayor and town council the decisions you think are applicable."
New Britain is a city of about 76,000 in the center of Connecticut. The parks and recreation department hosts youth, adult and co-ed leagues, in addition to a full slate of programming that reaches its peak in the summer.
New Britain is also home to a double-A minor league team affiliated with the Minnesota Twins, a pro soccer team (the Connecticut Wolves) and is working on an agreement with the Connecticut Crush, a pro women's football team.
Three stadiums are located in the city's Willowbrook Park, and DeMaio's department handles a football/soccer/track complex as well. All facilities are managed through landlord-tenant relationships, so the parks and recreation department is charged with keeping everything up to snuff for both its professional tenants and New Britain's citizens.
"As you get bigger you have a lot of forks and spoons in the pot. The key is for everyone to have access to information in live time so they can go to their computer screen and see what's going on," says DeMaio.
"So if I'm negotiating a pro soccer match and someone else in the office is negotiating a high-school track meet in June he or she should be able to look on-screen and see where we're at… Is it on a tentative hold? Is the football field available? What is the setup time needed, and what are the notes inside?
"That's a critical aspect of organization. The park people have to be able to see what's going on in that facility so they can make plans to paint it, cut it, line it, irrigate it -- all those things come into play. We're in the entertainment business, so how can we provide the services around the events so that the field still looks beautiful, your locker rooms and bathrooms are clean and concessions are ready?"
All of this is managed through a wide-area network (WAN) and local-area network (LAN) on T1 lines that house the department's management software, RecTrac.
Most locations are networked for that real-time access through the T1 lines. Though the department has its own Web site (members.aol.com/recnpark), it is not using the Internet for either internal or external functions, such as networking or on-line registration. The Web site is merely a clearinghouse for information to the public.
Though real-time access is a reality for New Britain's parks and recreation department, hard copy reports created by the software are circulated to the city's superintendent of parks, three general foremen and five foremen.
"What's nice about the software is that I can print reports for the general foremen by date, so they're driving around and checking by date what's supposed to happen in the city," says DeMaio.
"Foremen located at particular parks get a report just for their facilities at their park. The ability to have different types of reporting makes it easier for the needs of that particular employee."
Bottom line, says DeMaio, is the bottom line. Knowing it is the first step toward effectively managing not only the programming, but the entire system.
You need to be able to track and report incoming versus outgoing expenses (staff, facilities, rentals, and so on) to sustain programming. This, of course, is based on the general philosophy of the department -- which programs need to be profitable, which can be break-even and which will operate at a loss (programs for disadvantaged youth, for instance).
For its big summer registration push, New Britain offers downloadable applications on its Web site that can be filled out and mailed in with a check. Forms are also available through the schools, churches, local stores and other public outlets.
"We have an application form on the Web site that answers the questions the way computer asks us in the office. They download it at their house, fill it in and send in the check. The front office fills in the information step by step -- it's fast because it's all there," says DeMaio.
"We used to have the cattle lines -- it was miserable and uncomfortable. Those days are gone. It's all about being customer friendly."
For the more popular programs, waiting lists are common. DeMaio says this system makes the first-come, first-served scenario better than being first in a long line -- it's based on postmark.
"For the most part, we'll take their check, put it on a waiting list, and pump out a receipt that says you're on a waiting list, and will be called as space becomes available. It has a dotted, perforated line -- we fold it in half, stick it in a window envelope and it's on its way. We'll have 20 work stations going manned by high-school and college kids just registering people for summer programs."
New Britain gets the word out through the Web site, school flyers (sending out about 15,000 brochures through that outlet alone), newspapers, radio, access TV and any other information provider it can find.
DeMaio says the Web site features periodic contests to keep people coming back and informed about upcoming registration opportunities, special events and programming.
For example, the question of the day might be, "Which park has the Israel Putnam stone?" Correct entries receive some kind of prize, like a Benefits are Endless (the department's tagline) coffee mug or t-shirt.
"With the economy the way it is, people don't have the resources to go out traveling, so we're finding that they're using our programs and park system much more than they ever have. Because tax dollars are shrinking we're trying to make programs self-sustaining through fees and charges, and people seem to be okay with that," says DeMaio.
"There are obviously low-income and disadvantaged children as well, so we try very hard to have a pot of scholarship money from civic groups and corporations that like to donate. We use that money to help them pay their expenses."
In Henderson, Nev., the parks and recreation department is in the process of retooling its registration and on-line access. This requires meticulous coordination between the technology department and parks and recreation.
Henderson has set up an excellent working model that ensures relatively smooth transitions. It's a management philosophy that can be replicated for almost any situation.
"The Technical Services Group of the Department of Parks and Recreation is a centralized group that has a big picture of all the activities and the whole process. Any changes in the process tend to get driven from this group, which is very effective in communicating changes to the process because they have to keep those processes going," says Jennifer Rosenbusch, IT senior systems support analyst for Henderson.
"Kristen Grega (a city recreation leader) works in this group. They have hands-on ability to show me what their processes are and the problems they're having. It makes it a great structure, because they have the business knowledge and some of the technical knowledge and are good interpreters between themselves and IT. That's a very critical part of the process."
Communication between IT and parks and recreation is facilitated through a committee composed of a couple of recreation center coordinators, representatives from the technical area within parks and recreation (like Grega) and Rosenbusch.
Step at a Time
Currently, all programming is viewable on-line. Some of the programming will be available for registration on-line. The key qualifier is some.
"Our first step was to get the technology in place. However, technology isn't the answer for everything. We went through a business process re-engineering phase where we looked at our current registration process, and asked, 'Where are our customers going to fail in this process?' One of the things we found out, for example, was that we were not decentralizing our registration," explains Rosenbusch.
"People had to go the to specific rec center where the class or program was held. That was an obvious one, so we've set it up where our customers can register at any rec center, even if the program is at another one."
Once that was set up, the next step was to look closely at on-line registration and the best way to proceed. The answer would lie in the department's underlying philosophy, which is to make things convenient for the customer.
Tackling the entire city's recreational programming would not make things convenient for the customer. It would be a small miracle to crank it all up at once and garner the customer satisfaction level the department is after. So, it was decided to place one rec center's registration on-line.
"We're offering on-line viewing of programming, and moving toward on-line registration, starting with the first rec center. It took us awhile to get comfortable with our process and communication to allow on-line registration," says Rosenbusch.
"One of the things we have going for us is repeat customers who are in routine with our registration process. When we changed it recently we were surprised at how quickly they adapted. Now moving more on-line, we see great promise in that we can make small changes and people will pick it up."
A large part of that success is the ongoing communication the city and its parks and recreation department have with its constituents.
Parks and recreation director Rich Robles says the city sends out a quarterly 66-page catalog/magazine that's mailed to every resident and business in the city called Henderson Happenings. It has a listing of all facilities and parks, programs, commissions and boards, and includes spotlights on different aspects of the parks and recreation system, and articles from the director and associate director.
"One of the highest responses we had in a recent customer satisfaction survey was the quarterly catalog," says Robles. "It's the most-received periodical they have mentioned as a resource for recreation outlets and opportunities."
Long-range plans do not currently include doing on-line registration for adult leagues. Adult leagues are not out of the question, but it's simpler for those responsible for each league to handle registration individually.