Comparing Business To Government

In the May 2010 issue of PRB, columnist Randy Gaddo questioned whether business should be compared to government.

Park and recreation departments need to adopt some sound business practices.

For decades many “old timers” have heard community members, politicians, and business men and women say, “Government should be run like a business.”

Well, they are right–and wrong.

The word “business” implies an organization that exists solely for the purpose of earning a profit.

So, in this sense, running a government or public service–such as a park and recreation agency–“like a business” is wrong. Governmental agencies should never, ever make a profit.

However, our well-meaning friends are completely correct when the comment is altered to say, “Use more business-like practices.” This is exceptionally true in regard to public parks and recreation.

What makes these agencies different from all other government or public services (save a few) is that the services are the only retail governmental services. Where most people live, there is only one option for water, police protection, roads, fire protection, etc.

But there are countless options for recreation and choices for spending leisure time.

Even areas where some consider the agency to be the “sole source” are not.

Not that long ago, a seminar participant said, “When it comes to swimming, we are the only game in town.”

Maybe, but people don’t have to swim in the town in which they live. For example, within 15 minutes of my house in the Chicago suburbs, there are at least four other public pools, and at least two private pools. Clearly, residents don’t have to swim at the hometown pool!

The same can be said for golf, dance, gymnastics, etc.

Because we want residents to spend their leisure time and money “at home,” public park and recreation folks should employ many business practices.

This is significantly different than “running like a business.”

Hence, the question should be, “What business practices and strategies should we (public parks and recreation) employ? What can we borrow and adapt from business to successfully and satisfactorily meet the leisure needs of residents?”

The May article offers a statement from Kim Uhlik: “Ideally (in the good old days), public recreation was ‘by the people, for the people.’ People paid taxes, so they all could partake in services offered. Because taxes were paid up front, anyone could participate for ‘free.’”

This may have been the case in some places, cities (mostly large), where recreation was seen as part of a collection of welfare-like services. However, because public parks and recreation services are retail in nature, people want to choose their activities, and are willing to pay accordingly.

Yes, people are willing to pay for some of the recreation opportunities and park amenities with their taxes. They do not care to have their taxes create a situation where all recreation is “free.”

There are two reasons for this. First, they think they are paying enough in taxes.

Second, I believe people realize that if recreation services are confined to what can be funded through taxes, we will return to the good old days and realize they were not so good.

In the late 1950s and early 1960s, the free recreation options were limited: summer playground at school sites; Saturday afternoon “recreation” at some schools; a basic public swimming pool; and an ice rink in the winter, when it was cold enough to make ice. That’s about all that local park and recreation agencies could do with taxes.

In 2011, there are few, pure public-service environments where revenue is a secondary consideration.

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