Make It Real

At some point, every agency has to make a case for something it wants to do, or keep doing. Managers are well-acquainted with the traditional cost-benefit analysis, which is more easily calculated when the costs and benefits already exist as fixed amounts. But how does one measure the seemingly priceless value of a child’s smile? Should it be measured?

One of the major strategic trends of the past decade has been the parks and recreation benefits movement. A key marketing phrase was, “The benefits are endless,” followed by a list of all the good results purportedly gained from participation in recreation and leisure. This approach was meant not only as a method of raising awareness but also an increase in expectations that managers would provide proof of the benefits’ positive effects. Indeed, this goal became a principal component of the Benefits-Based Programming model (Edginton, et al.).

But what to measure and report: children’s intangible smiles? Using “benefits” to justify proposals to agency stakeholders can be weakened by relying on less-than-relevant criteria. Sometimes stakeholders are not immediately interested in children’s smiles.

A New Approach

Keith Wishart, government strategist for the ESRI geographic information systems corporation, recently proposed a prism model (See Figure), listing eight categories into which benefits fall, organizing them into a structure that allows managers to focus their data-gathering and presentation efforts to highlight the relevant benefits provided to the people they serve.

The prism model first is divided into quarters based on orientation toward customers or participants, agency processes, outputs or outcomes and business operations or finances. Then, a distinction is made between tangible and intangible aspects. The first component is comprised of satisfaction (which is intangibly expressed, such as a smile), and perception of quality. Although the two components may be related--increasing quality (a tangible action) also may increase satisfaction--they are not necessarily so. Improving a pool’s already-acceptable water clarity may or may not be noticed by swimmers; raising its temperature is more likely to be detected and commented on.

Perception Equals Satisfaction

At first glance, increasing efficiency and decreasing risk, being process-oriented, seem more tangibly measured. The number of people served per hour at a concession stand is simply counted, but the customers’ perception of their wait time is intangible. Consider how many amusement parks transform the corralling of impatiently waiting ride patrons from a tedious roasting in the hot sun into a slow-motion party, complete with sunshades, water misters and fans, music DJs and beverage stations.

Like efficiency and risk, capacity and productivity outputs have both tangible and intangible aspects. Using the ride-pens example mentioned above, the delight of patrons entering the waiting area is notable when they see that shortcuts through the pens have been created by unchaining some of the barricades as staff adjusts the pens’ capacity to accommodate the number of patrons. Riders’ enjoyment--and how quickly they are loaded onto the rides (productivity)--is further increased when the staff clearly demonstrates their enthusiasm and teamwork by focusing the oncoming riders’ attention to directions and instructions.

Finally, the bottom-line components, costs and revenues, have intangible aspects, such as when creating a “leave-no-trace” ethic among park users results in lower trash pick-up expenses, and the DJs’ music inspires amusement riders to purchase an extra beverage.

What Makes The Most Sense

In practice, the prism model first is used to categorize the benefits accruing to patrons participating in agency programs, and then to identify which of the eight components is (or are) most appropriate to a proposal’s justification before supporting data are collected. In this way, only the necessary information is sought, which reduces staff time and resource investment. Further, agency staff is reminded to design methods that examine and measure both the tangible and intangible aspects of those components, and to focus its report on those components rather than to oversell or confuse stakeholders by providing too much information.

Successfully “selling” programs to potential supporters and funders requires not only good data obtained by appropriately measuring both tangible and intangible aspects, but also presenting benefits previewed through a prism that accents the components of most interest to decision-makers.

Works cited:

Edginton, C.R., et al. Leisure programming: A service-centered and benefits approach. 4th ed. Boston: McGraw-Hill, 2004.

Wishart, Keith. “Speak the same language: Making a compelling case for GIS to business executives.” ArcUser: The Magazine for ESRI Software Users (Spring, 2009): 32-34.

Kim S. Uhlik is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Hospitality, Recreation and Tourism Management at San Jose State University. He can be reached via e-mail at