Peeling Back the Layers of Performance Measurement

ARTICLE | Jul 14, 2015

As one of the most densely-populated cities in the country and with just 82.5 acres of park space, the parks and facilities managed by the Park District of Oak Park in Oak Park, Illinois are certainly well-used. Operating with less than 25% of the park space recommended for its 52,000 residents, the agency must do what it can to ensure that every square foot is maximized to its fullest potential. Having data available to make better decisions concerning limited Park District resources isn’t just smart, it’s critical.

To accomplish this goal, Park District leadership asked for a monthly performance tracking program.  Initial thoughts were to manually pull data from the agency’s various reporting sources to display using spreadsheets.  However, after some initial research, Bobbi Nance, Senior Manager of Strategy & Innovation, quickly realized that utilizing technology to track and display the data would free up staff time to focus on analyzing and responding to the data instead. Although many options were available, the Park District selected iDashboards, a data visualization software provider because of its ability to connect directly to all of the agency’s software databases and flexibility to allow for unlimited custom performance indicators. The decision to use dashboards to automatically track and display the Park District’s data was a smart one – the agency is tracking five times as much information as was possible before the dashboards.  In fact, staff estimate that it would take an additional 1-2 full-time positions to manually track the amount of data now managed by the dashboards.

Counting What Counts

Although the dashboard software would allow it, gathering and displaying the massive amount of data available to the Park District would not automatically result in smarter staff decisions. It was important to make sure that the Park District was measuring the right things.  Nance used the Park District’s current strategic plan as a guideline for choosing the indicators and then made sure that they were a measuring a balance of inputs, outputs, outcomes, efficiencies, and effectiveness to make sure that they were getting a better glimpse of the whole picture.  “When you decide to measure something, you are essentially telling staff that this is something really important to you and/or the agency.  And by default, you are also saying that the things that you are not measuring, are not as important,” says Nance. “Careful thought should be made towards selecting a small, but well-rounded list of measures that will produce accurate, timely results based in areas where the agency most wants to see improvement.”

The Personal Side of Performance Tracking

Not surprisingly, the idea that a “performance measurement program” was in the works didn’t have every Park District employee jumping for joy.  A few were excited and some were intrigued by the idea, but there was also some confusion and fear about the additional tracking that would not be taking place. Consequently, the plan for the roll-out of the program needed to be as detailed as the plan for the dashboards themselves.  The program was named “MPOWER” to emphasize that the goal of the performance measurement program was to empower staff to make better decisions and reinforce the “power” of measurements. Management staff were coached on how to use, discuss, and respond to data when working with their staff.  And every effort was made to make the data as fun and approachable as possible to staff at all levels.  For example, in the initial roll-out, snacks were served in the form of a “pie chart” and “bar graphs” in order to show that data is all around us and isn’t always just about numbers.  And Nance has created stickers echoing the famous reminder from G.I. Joe that “Knowing is Half the Battle.”  Nance indicated that “the emphasis of the MPOWER program is always focused on the problems that staff want to solve and the lives of the residents that we want to improve, not about staff accountability or meeting quotas.”

Getting the Data to the Decision-Makers

Most organizations have a goal of being “data-driven” and the Park District of Oak Park is no exception.  In order to do this, it’s critical that current data is in the hands of decision-makers at the time that decisions are being made.  Normally, this means that reports are sent to upper management to be presented to a Board or Council.  However, the leaders at Oak Park realize that employees at all levels of the organization are making decisions every single day that affect the agency’s performance.  Whether working with a customer at a front desk, mowing grass out in a park, or creating a plan in an executive office, each interaction and decision feeds into and impacts the overall performance of the agency.

Nance has used to the dashboards to display similar information in different ways depending on who is looking at it to make it as useful as possible for staff.  For example, the supervisor responsible for teen recreation programs can pull up one dashboard and compare their current program registration to the previous three years, check how many teens have come to weekend events, view feedback from customer experience surveys, and check to see how the programs are performing financially. Because it’s all live data, they have the ability to respond immediately to a downward trends and in cases when performance is better than expected, they can also try to duplicate the successes.   Department-wide and agency-wide views of the same data are also available for teams, departments, and the Executive Director to get a broader view of overall agency performance.  “By displaying the information in this manner, we’re ensuring that the data is usable by anyone looking at it,” says Nance.  “It has also been a huge driver in helping staff at all levels of the organization understand the role that they play in our agency’s strategic plan and making sure that we’re all heading in the same direction.”

“It’s easy to assume that your front-line staff won’t care about agency performance measures.  But when displayed in a way that’s easy to find and understand, it can actually be really fun for them,” Nance said.  “I remember how excited our front desk staff got when we told them that we were only 5 facility passes away from meeting our annual target.  They would call me every time that they sold one to tell me that they were one pass closer to meeting our goal.  And a part-time hockey coordinator came into my office on another occasion to give me a high-five because we met an ambitious goal that we had set the agency concerning the total number of households served.  It’s really exciting for me to see so many people excited about the data.  That never would have happened without our MPOWER program and the dashboards.”

Measuring The Success of A Measurement Program

Surprisingly, measuring the actual performance of a performance measurement program itself can be hard.  “When we see gains in the indicators that we are tracking, there is no way to know with absolute certainty that the dashboards were the sole reason,” Nance said, “but in our first year, 70% of our organizational measures either met or were very close to meeting their targets.  Considering that 2014 was the first year that we had even tracked the majority of the performance indicators at all, let alone on dashboards, we were very happy with the results.”

The Park District created an annual report to further outline the results of each individual performance measure for staff, their Board of Commissioners, and public to view.  And because the data that was used to create the report was live and immediately available, staff was able to create, present, and publish the final 2014 results within a week after the end of the calendar year.  This benefit has also been realized with other agency reports – many of which have been shortened or eliminated because the dashboards have made the information more readily available.

Staff from across the agency have also commented on ease of use and time savings of the dashboards versus using traditional reporting methods. Because many of the dashboards are also available organization-wide, staff from one department are better able to assist other areas of the Park District by looking at data that was not traditionally easily available to them.  For example, customized monthly financial reports have been added to the dashboards, which has eliminated the manual work previously spent creating specialized reports for the staff and the Board of Commissioners.  Also, marketing staff use the recreation program and facility dashboards to better determine which programs, facilities, and services need the most marketing support when posting to social media, submitting press releases, or taking advantage of other media opportunities.

Looking Towards the Future

Based on the initial success of the MPOWER program and the dashboards, the Park District has continued to evaluate the information displayed to staff and add more data points where it would be helpful.  The organizational measures have also been posted on the Park District’s website at http://www.pdop.org/performance so that the public can see many of the live charts and graphs that staff sees, including the status of goals and objectives outlined in the agency’s budget and strategic plans.

One of the Park District’s next initiatives is to improve the display of the public data to make it more user-friendly to the public. “Although putting the information out there for transparency reasons is great, we want to take it to the next level to display what’s most important to the public,” Nance said.  “The dashboards are such a powerful tool to display data, even if it isn’t related to an official performance measure.”

For example, the Park District is working to create dashboards to show the performance of a new gymnastics facility that was recently built, as well as more detailed information on tree diversity and quality within the park system. And just as the dashboards make it easier for staff to view and understand large amounts of data, there is also potential to use the dashboards to make Park District finances and capital improvement plans more easily accessible to the public.

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