Purpose of this Blog

ARPA is committed to developing an assessment framework and system to help define, monitor and recognize outstanding performance in recreation, parks, arts, culture and community-building organizations and agencies. The development process began in May 2010 and will be complete in November 2011. This blog is intended to keep stakeholders informed and to facilitate their input and advice. If you are visiting the blog for the first time, you might be interested in starting with the initial November 2010 posts:

- Why we need this initiative?
- The Process of Creating a Service Excellence Program
- We've Reviewed Over 200 Related Assessment Tools
- The Modules and Core Organizational Competencies.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Striving for Excellence - Guest Blog

It might not sound like a big deal to some, but I recently did my first interview via Skype. I had to push myself to get comfortable with the technology but in the end it was much less complicated than I thought it would be. What wasn’t quite as simple was the focus of the interview itself. The entire interview was based on one question, “How do you position, or in some cases reposition, an entire field, profession, or industry?”

While my field for the most part has been the community building that falls within the profession of recreation and parks, the interview was targeted to a variety of stakeholders. In addition to parks and recreation, they worked within public works, social services, health, libraries, cemeteries, planning, and even animal control. Many of the hundreds of communities viewing the interview would be based in the United States where a deepening financial crisis has resulted in major budget reductions and staff layoffs. As a result, I was definitely feeling the pressure to provide significant advice.

To be honest, it was a great question that really did force me to stop and think about the last couple of decades. After all, how do you position an entire field, profession, or industry?

Given that I am primarily a right brain thinker who is grounded in the present and future – as opposed to a left brainer who is driven more by the present and the past, it was a challenging exercise for me. Ultimately though, the reflection did make me realize that here in Canada we’ve worked hard on a number of initiatives to strengthen the field of recreation and parks. In essence, I think it amounts to three key strategies that every profession or field within the business, government, or community sectors may want to consider if they are to remain, or become more, strong and valued.

Keeping in mind that this kind of work is often driven by a provincial or national membership-based organization for a profession, field, or industry, these three strategies include (1) a commitment to being a relevant, results-driven, and value-based field, (2) ensuring staff who strive for enhanced professionalism and competency, and (3) being committed to exceptional service delivery.

While theoretically, I’m not sure anyone could argue with these three strategies, it gets a bit tricky when it comes to implementation. Here’s where our Canadian experience proved valuable during the interview.

To implement the first strategy, the field of recreation and parks in Canada became a more results-driven and value-based field as the result of major funding cutbacks that included the loss of lottery funds in the late 80’s and early 90’s. What amounted to a crisis forced us to step back and answer the question, “Why are we important to our communities or what would be lost if we were gone tomorrow?” It is a deceptively simple question that every profession, organization, and business should be asking. In our case, it led to extensive research documenting the outcomes or benefits we delivered, or could potentially deliver (see http://benefitshub.ca/), and a new vision, values, and direction for the field that reflected our ability to enhance individual well-being and community vitality, economic sustainability, and natural resource protection and conservation.

The second strategy required staff and volunteers who had the professionalism and the competency to deliver that vision. As a result, extensive efforts were geared toward defining the vocational competencies – meaning the skills, knowledge, and attitudes required for recreation and parks practitioners. It has also meant developing and placing a priority on more opportunities for learning and professional growth and development rather than it being the first target for budget cuts.

As for the third strategy, it isn’t impossible for a profession, field, or industry to be committed to exceptional service delivery until they know what that entails. Currently our work in recreation and parks is focused on defining “excellence” in the areas of programs, parks, facilities, community building, and management and leadership. When service excellence is better understood, described, and measured, those within a profession, field, or industry are better able to determine their level of delivery and what needs to be improved.

It struck me after the interview that while these three strategies seem relatively straightforward now, they’ve taken a lot of years and a lot of effort from dedicated practitioners to put into place. It was a reminder that excellence is perhaps not a destination but rather a never ending spirit of striving to do ordinary things extraordinarily well.