State parks in crisis; bureaucrats can’t make the fixes

09/02/2014 3:29 PM

09/02/2014 3:30 PM

Anyone who has visited our state parks, campgrounds and recreation areas realizes these facilities are badly in need of major reform.

The Parks Forward Commission Draft Recommendations, intended to serve as “a plan to transform State Park management and modernize State Park operations” and ultimately revitalize the California state parks system, are an important – though somewhat disappointing – start toward resolving the critical issues that have plagued the park system for decades. While the report’s recommendations “are not designed to merely tinker around the edges and patch the current system,” they don’t go much beyond a well-polished patch.

Worse, they fail to recognize the core deficiency facing the park system.

Fault does not lie solely in the state’s fiscal difficulties. It is in greater part due to the stale and failed bureaucratic culture of the department, which has made the political interests of public officials, unions and other special interests paramount to those of their customers – those who visit the parks.

If the Commission and parks department truly want a new way forward, they should look closely at some of the successful initiatives implemented by the private sector of the recreation industry, which has both grown and prospered as the public sector has declined. The most critical has been the focus on developing new recreation opportunities and amenities, improved customer service and more customer-friendly policies and practices. The private sector knows that these fundamental principles enhance customer satisfaction, increase visitor days and revenue, and produce fiscal results.

The current culture in the State Parks and Recreation Department lacks even the most basic understanding of hospitality, customer service and enjoyment of recreation. There is a basic belief throughout the leadership – fostered by a deeply entrenched law enforcement culture – that hospitality, customer service, expanded recreation, better amenities and enhanced customer satisfaction are somehow antagonistic to the State Parks System.

Rather than promoting customer-focused service, the Parks culture focuses on policies and practices rooted in the belief that our parks must be protected from users and the impact of public use. Visitors are discouraged from visiting, park facilities are typically decrepit and dirty, and park service nearly nonexistent in the hands of “rangers” who are typically more concerned with enforcing rules than enhancing visitor enjoyment. This old attitude combined with an emphasis on cost and expense-reduction has resulted in the spiral of decline our park system is caught in today. It is a subtle but critical distinction, and unfortunately a distinction the Parks Forward Commission still hasn’t grasped.

Current and recent past leadership has lacked not only the relevant experience needed to accomplish such a transformation – current director Lisa Mangat is a bureaucrat with no parks or recreation management experience; the previous director, Anthony Jackson, was a retired Marine Corps general – but also the willingness to look beyond the needs of political and special interests.

The new park system will need to change its focus from controlling and minimizing costs and discouraging public enjoyment of our parks to a new mission of enhancing user demographics, customer and stakeholder satisfaction and fiscal results. This fundamental shift in operating philosophy and practice will take exceptional transformative leadership, innovation, imagination and a complete understanding of the dynamics of the recreation business, public interests and customer service to effectively implement.

Hopefully, the commission and Gov. Jerry Brown will have the foresight to move forward. It will take more than rhetoric from the bully pulpit to effect the necessary changes in Parks’ philosophy, policies and practices while creating a new parks and recreation environment for the next generations.

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