How parks managers can capitalise on feedback - listen and learn

Taking time to obtain feedback should be a top priority for all parks managers, says Sid Sullivan.

Engaging park users can be a form of word-of-mouth "marketing'" - photo: Warrington Borough Council
Engaging park users can be a form of word-of-mouth "marketing'" - photo: Warrington Borough Council

You may recall that famous slogan from the BT ads: "It's good to talk." Did you know that there are now an estimated three billion mobile-phone users worldwide?

That's a lot of talking but it is not conversation; and it's conversation that I want to discuss. Conversation can be both a competitive advantage and a unique selling point. It is a way of energising your parks and green-space service from the ground up, not another costly exercise in togetherness. In fact, it has no immediate cost other than that you spend some time listening and not talking, then acting on the outcomes.

Conversation and, in particular, listening to what your users want is now recognised as potentially a very powerful way of aligning your service to the wider aspirations of the local community. Stop for a moment and think about the last time you had a conversation with your staff and/or your colleagues. When was it? Probably at the coffee machine or when you met as you came into work or on the way home. Did you talk with one another or have a conversation, listening, responding, following the ebb and flow of the discussion and in the process learning something new or interesting about that person and perhaps about your organisation? How did you feel afterwards? Probably that you had got to know them a little better or were better informed.

Now consider most organisational discussions. Are they not just talking? A sort of irritating "noise" when the organisation's goals and objectives are handed down, but crucially little or no feedback is channelled back up the chain of command? It is this lack of listening that is so self-defeating about many organisations. Organisations claim that they want to consult with you, but in truth they want you just to listen to them.

When you last visited your local park, how did you feel? Did you feel a sense of welcome or just disappointment that you enjoyed your visit but had no one to tell how pleased you were about the park and what it provided for you? Or were the staff in the park too busy to listen? Perhaps you could have emailed your pleasure or displeasure to the local parks manager or visited their website and put your comments on one of their virtual forms. I

n truth, by the time you have logged on, the spontaneity and enthusiasm of the moment has gone. In any case, you really want to tell another human being, not a virtual form. What most users want is to speak with someone immediately, someone who understands the local park and can respond to their personal situation and needs, and the confidence that this person has the ability to pass on their views and change things for the better.

A short conversation with your local horticulturist not only makes you feel engaged with the service, it is also more likely to make them feel a sense of value for the service that they provide. Even a criticism can make for a positive conversation when it is well presented and the member of staff knows that they can use it in their next presentation and briefing session between them and their managers.

If you think about the role of the "parkie" over the years, it is almost certainly about conversations with users, someone there to help them enjoy their public parks. Over time they have become a much-vilified Viz cartoon pastiche. They were people who kept us "off the grass". But in reality they provided a focal point for a generation of users. They also maintained the space that they oversaw, taking a personal pride in its tidiness and accessibility, and responding to the local community's comments.

Crucially, they were the public face of the parks service and they knew what was working and valued by the users and what was not - and this got passed on to their managers. They were the first contact point and it is this contact point that we sorely miss in many of our public parks in the 21st century. It was their local knowledge and presence that was vital to their success and that is so hard to value in a society obsessed with the cost of a service and ignorant about its value. They were parks ambassadors and the local gardener.

Recognising your best asset

The local knowledge that we now crave as we enter a world of public consultation is held, in part, by staff working in local parks and green spaces. So when you next write a contract or a performance-enhancement measure, consider the difference that staff can make to the visitor experience by smiling at them, talking with them and getting them to brief you about their impressions.

In this context, on-site staff really are our best asset - they provide a presence that is reassuring to users. They have an unrivalled opportunity to discover what it is that users like and dislike, and what users want from their parks. It doesn't stop there, either. They can provide an important link between the park user and the implementation of the parks and green-space strategy, explaining how it is working in their local park.

There are other advantages. As they develop a rapport with users, they muster a confidence in the user's perception of a park being a safe and accessible place to visit. The user will then pass on this new-found confidence within their network of friends and acquaintances. This type of word-of-mouth "marketing" cannot be bought and it can increase the use of parks at very little cost. How many of us have taken a friend's recommendation to visit a park and acted on it? I know that I have and I suspect that many others have too.

This approach to engaging with the user can, over time, lead to non-users hearing about their local park and acting on their friend's recommendation. Public satisfaction in parks in part is also increased because of the presence and the reception that staff on site provide to the user. Take advantage of this additional bonus and make sure your staff are visible and kitted out in your agreed livery.

We can go further still. In a recent exercise when working with a parks service that was not succeeding in getting its message across, the initial feeling from park-based staff was one of frustration with managers' inability to understand that they had a bigger role to play than "just to maintain the park". They wanted to get more involved with their users and spend some time passing on their local knowledge to their managers and leaders. Unfortunately, the leaders were in what one member of staff called their "broadcast mode". She went on to say that "they expected you to listen to them, but did not extend the same consideration to you". Over time this had developed, in this member of staff's view, into a habit and when, at last, the service consulted with its staff, managers were surprised when they got little by way of response.

Consultation is not a one-off event. It takes time to build rapport and trust, and to develop a culture that values conversation. So, how can we change such an ingrained habit? There are four things you can do right now to develop a conversation culture within your parks service between staff, users and managers:

- add "consulting with users" to your staff's job description and the contractor's contract specification;

- provide them with training in the art of conversation and the presentation of their findings to managers as a briefing report;

- advertise the parks that have on-site staff, inviting users to visit the park and meet them;

- arrange for your staff to brief you about local trends and users.

This was the solution proposed in the example cited earlier. It was taken a stage further and the service had a team briefing process whereby managers met with staff and passed on information about the service and the council's aims. Regular technical briefing sessions were introduced when the roles were reversed. The staff on site briefed managers about what they had encountered in their local parks, what the users had said to them and their assessment of what was required by way of change. The managers then agreed what action would be taken and their staff were able to report it back directly to their users. They even put up a bulletin board at their parks to share information with the public. The result was a more engaged workforce and staff who had a means to change things that were not working.

The service also engaged staff in the parks' website design and marketing messages, and in solving some of the PR issues that the council was dealing with at some of its parks. As a bonus, when the next satisfaction survey was undertaken the service was complimented on its approachable staff and the public satisfaction rating for the service increased by 10 per cent.

All of us in the sector are looking for ways to increase our revenue budgets, to add value and to show the value of our service, and in this way to develop some form of future-proofing. In the main, we look to business, leadership and management processes to make a difference and often ignore staff and the difference that they can make. A golden rule of management and leadership is that you learn nothing while you are talking. In truth, you can only learn new things when you are listening and in discussion with your staff and the users of your service. Stop talking to your users and your staff, and start a conversation with them. Listen carefully to what they have to say and then act on it.

- Sid Sullivan is a parks consultant.

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