Measuring and Rewarding Quality Operations by Recreation Businesses Operating on Public Lands and Waters

The American public needs quality outdoor recreation opportunities. Budgetary realities at the federal, state and local levels strongly suggest that partnerships with the private sector will be an increasingly important means for providing these opportunities. In addition to clear definition of the objectives of the partnership at its conception, public/private partnerships need clear mechanisms for assessing the quality of the performance of both partners.

On June 13, 1995, ARC members and guests met to discuss performance measurement topics, mechanisms and responses and to recommend to federal, state and local governments beneficial approaches in this important area. The recommendations follow:

The public, natural resources and both parties connected with a public/private partnership serving the recreation needs of Americans on public lands and waters are all well-served by a well-designed and well-administered performance measurement and evaluation process. The process needs to focus upon objective and measurable facets of the partnership, although subjective considerations can also have a valid role in the process. Four areas require measurement: visitor/customer satisfaction; natural resource protection; financial performance; and compliance with all pertinent laws and regulations, ranging from employment practices to ADA.

Current performance measurement practices are generally inadequate. In most cases, only the private partners are evaluated -- and both public and private partners can and should be. Many assessments focus on large numbers of relatively minor issues with little emphasis on the "big picture," especially the quality of visitor services. Because those performing the assessments rarely have business backgrounds or training, many financial issues are also ignored. The consequence is that most concession and permittee assessments are pro forma, yielding "satisfactory" ratings and narrative that reflects the nature of the relationship between the company and the agency personnel supervising the operations.

Effective performance measurement begins with clarity in goals at the inception of the partnership. It further requires on-going communications. Potential problems should be flagged as early as possible to facilitate corrective actions. Evaluations should be conducted by those with adequate experience and training and without bias or influence arising from day-to-day operational contacts.

Much of the evaluation process can be simplified by adopting self-certification procedures. Agencies and permittees can review a checklist of requirements, including health codes, employment requirements and environmental laws and regs, and certify compliance. Audits of this self-certification can be conducted on a sampled basis and where there is cause for questioning the submission.

In addition, the concessioner/permittee can be expected to show proof of the existence of several processes, including

  1. a system to solicit and respond to customer input on services and facilities,
  2. an employee training program, including orientation of employees to the mission of the agency(ies) involved in the partnership, and
  3. a preventative maintenance program. The performance measurement evaluation should test to see that these processes operate effectively.
In order to increase the quality and objectivity of systems to solicit and respond to customer input, major concessioner and permittee associations, including the National Park Hospitality Association, America Outdoors, National Forest Recreation Association, the National Ski Areas Association and the National Canoe Livery and Outfitters Association, should develop standardized customer survey instruments appropriate for various size and types of businesses, as well as a simple data analysis program which would allow concessioners/permittees to compile and produce reports on customer responses.

In addition, performance measurement processes should document evidence that the concessioner/permittee displayed responsiveness to changes in customer wants, visitation patterns and laws and that the concessioner/permittee provided assistance to agency in meeting its assigned mission.

One significant problem in the past has been the lasting impact of even minor problems. For example, an employee of a river trip operator failed to abide by company and agency procedures, leaving trash at a camping spot. The operator had little recourse since the employee committed this act on his final trip prior to ending his employment. In fact, the operator was never notified of the problem or offered the chance to mitigate the action. Yet the violation became a major consideration at the time the operator’s permit came up for renewal. An otherwise outstanding performance did not erase this problem and resulted in the operator being viewed less favorably than an applicant with no performance record at all.

This same case illustrates the need for an independent appeals process able to review evaluations and resulting decisions, including concession and permit renewals. Current arbitration and agency appeals provisions are not effective or fair.

The performance measurement processes should be a major component of the public/ private partnership. The evaluation should be used to improve services to customers, as a key basis for renewal decisions, for providing the public with information on selecting a recreation service provider, as the catalyst and justification for termination for uncorrected, poor performance and to identify opportunities for new concessioner/ permittee services.

Version 1: June 21, 1995