A Systems Approach to Managing Parks Infrastructure

Nation-wide, as a profession Parks & Recreation officials are challenged each year by insufficient budgets, growing expectations, unfunded mandates and aging infrastructure. We often gather at state and national congress and share disappointments and war stories. Frankly, it’s amazing we haven’t given up; miraculously, we rise above the challenge and adopt a “we’re not giving up, we’re just warming up attitude”.

We put on our best face when we can and encourage our staff to hang in there and “Continuously Improve – Achieve Total Quality Management – Manage in a Minute -Search for Excellence – Be Tolerant, Inclusive, Collaborative – Use Best Practices” and other management flavors of the month because if we do this then we’ll know when we’ve done something because we’ll have Benchmarks and Performance Indicators that will tell us so! Whew, at the end of the day we’re still kind of stuck because our infrastructure is just another day older and another day tired.

A Call to Action!

Ever thought about how things get done in a multi-layered organization, like government? Well, it’s typically something like this – big wheels at the top “the public” initiate their request, because the public is such a huge cog, it really doesn’t move things much, maybe one tooth, it really doesn’t have to, because that one tooth move at the top causes two teeth in the next smaller cog and by the time it hits your staff level, their spinning! Check out the graphic below and see if you can relate; the names might change but I’d bet you agree the model rings pretty true. This model represents a system approach too; but maybe it’s not the system you want to use.

Well, let me try and convince you that it doesn’t have to be this way, truly, it doesn’t. Longmont, Colorado has taken its destiny into our own hands and developed a “Systems Approach” to managing our capital assets. That sounds a little daunting, so what is a “systems approach”?

A system is a collection of interacting, interrelated, and interdependent pieces that together form a whole. In the political environment, systems can become disjointed and distorted by the outside forces that drive key decisions important to the system.

Why is systems thinking valuable? Because it can help us explore well reasoned enduring solutions to both simple and complex problems. In its simplest sense, systems thinking gives you a more accurate picture of reality, so that you can work with a system’s natural forces in order to achieve the results you desire. It also encourages you to think about problems and solutions with a focus on the future. It allows you to think about the consequences of a failure to act and on the unintended consequences of your actions. Finally, systems thinking is grounded in an understanding of basic, universal principles that you will begin to notice in all areas of your functional responsibility. In the end, systems thinking is about a philosophy not a reaction to events that force you to respond.

So what? How does that get my tennis courts rebuilt or my pool shell replaced or my roof repaired? Well, what it means initially is developing a set of sound fiscal policies that guide the way we do business. For instance, in Longmont, among many other things our financial policies that guide our budget practices dictate that monies depending on their source, volatility and predictability all tempered against strict State of Colorado TABOR rules (Taxpayer Bill of Rights which controls government spending) are categorized into two distinct groups. On-going revenues, like property tax, some amount of sales and use tax that can be predicted to be stable and One time revenues that are less predictable, like the outer margins (growth) of our sales and use tax estimates. Further, our financial policy dictates that %’s be assigned separately to operating expenses and capital expenses to ensure that to a degree our capital assets are being depreciated and replaced.

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