Why becoming accredited might be easier that you think

Agency accreditation: addressing the misconceptions: why becoming accredited might be easier that you think

Kevin Riley

This is the last in a series of four articles concerning the agency accreditation process for public recreation and park departments in the U.S. This article will address the misconceptions about agency accreditation, what accredited agency directors would have done differently as they went through the process and what creative means were used to finance agency accreditation. For the first three articles in the series, see the August 2002, September 2002 and February 2003 issues of Parks & Recreation.

When we surveyed directors and personnel on NRPA’s listserv, NRPAnet, about constraints facing their department, two re-occurring themes were mentioned: time and money. Some thought that they couldn’t provide any more services or improve professionalism without some relief from these constraints.

Although everyone in the profession realizes an easy fix or formula doesn’t exist to reduce these challenges, some departments have creatively managed their operations so that they can continue to move forward. Is it possible that your operations, systems and policies are outdated and too cumbersome? Is your staff, town council or city manager unwilling to change? Unfortunately, many professionals continue to use the old wagon because they think it isn’t broken. However, the old wagon might be reducing efficiency and gobbling up valuable time and financial resources. Perhaps directors and personnel should consider investing in a new wagon. Agency accreditation, administered by the Commission for Accreditation of Park and Recreation Agencies (CAPRA), can help with this process. It can influence and motivate the naysayers to adopt and financially support departmental improvements.

Since the late 1970s, parks and recreation departments have been forced to do more with less. The demand for staff, resources and facilities continues to grow; most agencies are stretched to the limit. How can agencies possibly think of accepting yet another task as monumental as agency accreditation? The answer: efficiency. By evaluating your department, you might find that your operations, current systems and policies are lacking. The accreditation process can make the department more effective and efficient, thereby allowing more time and money to be devoted to direct services to the public.

Agency evaluation can be conducted by internal or external evaluators. Both methods have strengths and weaknesses. Internal evaluation, using in-house staff, may cost less, but validity can be in question. When using this method, it’s possible that the agency’s internal evaluator could be biased. For example, an evaluator focusing on the strengths of the program could overlook negative circumstances or weak operational practices. After all, it’s difficult to honestly scrutinize how things function when the outcome could affect a co-worker’s program or resources.

On the other hand, the accreditation process provides for trained, objective visitors to measure practices objectively, because they have less pressure to compromise and are trained to compare an agency’s practice and documentation of that practice with professional standards. A CAPRA evaluation costs more than internal evaluation–on average, about $6,800 for a 17-month process. The results, however, could assist in making your operations even more proficient. The benefits of efficiency are many, including better use of financial and personnel resources, better reporting leading to more informed management decisions and, ultimately, providing the services wanted and needed by your public.

Misconceptions About Agency Accreditation

When surveying agencies about misconceptions and concerns regarding agency accreditation, we uncovered many myths about the process. Myths arise for many reasons, from the misunderstanding of the purpose and benefits of the process to miscommunication from uninformed staff. Dispelling these myths enhances the overall understanding of accreditation and removes some of the barriers that prohibit agencies from obtaining accreditation status. The table on the left shows some of these myths, along with their factual counterparts.

Although the agency accreditation process can be challenging, many directors from accredited agencies said they benefited from the process. Some of the benefits mentioned include increased productivity from staff, new staff positions, improved relationship with politicians, increased intrinsic value for the agency, reduced insurance coverage/cost, better organization and better service to the community. Some accredited agencies that had a non-traditional organizational structure, where various programs were in different departments or a special district is involved, found that the process enabled them to improve their relationship with other departments.

What Directors Would Have Done Differently

Many directors of accredited departments have shared comments about the accreditation process and what their agency would have done differently. Their suggestions should make the process a little less stressful for other agencies in the future.

A majority of agencies would have changed how they organized, planned and managed their time. For example, some suggested providing everyone (full-time and part-time staff, governing bodies, advisory boards and other departments) with an outline of the process, what his or her role would be in the process and the expected timeline for completion. This would keep everyone on track, and reduce potential conflicts and confusion. To achieve accreditation status, everyone must understand and commit to the entire process. Comprehension and dedication instill pride and enhance staff motivation;

Directors also stressed the importance of discussing how they organized their files and documented each standard with other accredited agencies. This provides clarification and reduces redundancy. Some suggested starting earlier or extending their timeline, while others suggested reducing the time spent retrieving and compiling documents. In contrast, others thought the process shouldn’t be rushed, and should be approached as a learning exercise. After all, the process is, in part, intended to allow the agency to comprehend what it does, highlight successes and improve services to its citizens.

Finally, it was recognized that, because resources and financial support can change within an organization, it’s important that agencies plan for the process. Timing is of particular concern. An agency needs to decide when to start the actual process. This will dictate when to expect a visit, when to meet with the commission and what financial resources will be needed when to complete the accreditation process. The agency must have a plan that includes a timeline and staff responsibilities. A cost will be incurred, and whatever financial planning needs to be done should be taken into account at the initial stages of the process.

Some who have been through the process suggested that a central automated file should be developed to expedite the modification of documents, policies and procedures. Additionally, it’s helpful to designate a staff member to be the accreditation administrator or coordinator. This person should oversee all process documentation and drive the process through to completion.

Creative Ways to Reduce the Cost of Accreditation

Believe it or not, for some agencies, cost was never a limiting factor. More typically, agencies developed creative solutions for reducing the cost of accreditation. Keep in mind that each agency, depending on population served and size of budget, pays a different fee.

A major cost of accreditation is the CAPRA visitation, and the three major expenses for this component are transportation, lodging and meals for the visitors.

Transportation: Some agencies were able to schedule the CAPRA visit during the weekend and therefore reduce the cost of air travel. CAPRA visitors will work with the agency to use the most cost-effective method of getting to the agency, but be aware that no visitor may come from the same state as the agency being accredited.

Lodging: Some agencies received complimentary lodging assistance from visitor and convention bureaus or from hotel or motels they’ve established relationships with. Some agencies have the visitors stay in the home of staff. It’s not unusual to request that visitors of the same sex share a hotel room to reduce costs.

Meals: To reduce costs, many agencies used local restaurants and highlighted local flavor. Local business can contribute items for gift baskets for the visitation team. Some provided working lunches for CAPRA visitors, with staff members brown bagging it, while others had directors and board members host dinners at their homes.

Other cost-cutting techniques include sharing resources. One department swapped clerical support with another department to assist with word processing and computer applications. One agency cut costs by placing documents online for ease of access and reduced printing. Other cost cutters include gathering evidence throughout the year to eliminate the need for personnel to work overtime, and keeping staff and management informed about the accreditation process on an ongoing basis to eliminate the need to re-educate. Some agencies are now putting their self-assessment and many of their attachments on compact disc to avoid printing and shipping costs.

Agency accreditation is growing–since 1999, the number of agencies has grown from 23 to 37, a 50 percent increase. Although this number is small, the profession of parks and recreation is always changing, and agencies are becoming more accountable for their practices. Accreditation provides valid documentation that your agency is a leader in the field.

Kevin Riley, Ed.D., is an assistant professor in the Department of Health, Leisure and Exercise Science at Appalachian State University, in Boone, N.C. Paul Gaskill, Ed.D., is a professor in the same department. Judy Weiss, CPRP, is parks, recreation and facilities manager for Scottsdale, Ariz. Riley can be reached at rileykw@ appstate.edu.

Myths and Facts about Agency Accreditation

Myths Facts

“We can’t become Although CPRP status is preferred, it isn’t

accredited because required. Accreditation standards require an

our director isn’t agency to have an administrator who’s a

certified.” professional with practical experience in

parks and recreation settings. This standard

also has been used as motivation for the

leader of an agency to set an example and

become certified.

“Most of our staff College education and CPRP status is desired

isn’t certified; along with other certifications. The intent

therefore, I know we of the standards regarding professional

can’t become certification suggests that the parks and

accredited.” recreation staff providing services to the

public should be experienced and

“Doesn’t staff knowledgeable in the field.

education (i.e.,

college graduates)

play a role in a

department becoming


“Many of the Most accredited agencies had to rewrite or

required create new policies and procedures to comply

accreditation with the standards. The result made them more

policies and efficient and accountable to their governing

procedures don’t body and citizenry. This is one of the

exist in our greatest benefits of the accreditation

department.” process.

“Budget requirements The application fee is based on a sliding

block small scale. Additionally, the smaller the agency,

departments from the lesser the number of visitors and the

becoming amount of time spent on the visit, which

accredited.” reduces the overall cost.

“Accreditation is

too cost-prohibitive

for a small


The Menomonie (Wis.) Recreation Department

was accredited in October 2002. They have a

three-person department which serves more

than 14,000 citizens.

“Our parks and Several non-traditional organizations have

recreation been accredited. A team effort is required

departments are whether the department has a traditional or

separate; therefore, non-traditional structure. In the case of a

we can’t become more non-traditional organization, everyday

accredited.” working relationships allow the accreditation

team to come together to accomplish the


“We lack the staff Record keeping doesn’t have to be time

to set up, monitor consuming. The accreditation tips-for-success

and update the article in the February 2003 issue of Parks &

records the Recreation provides information about

accreditation system streamlining and monitoring documentation.


“We’re afraid we may Even if the agency isn’t quite ready, or

not receive lacks governmental support, a self-evaluation

accredited status can help the agency improve its operations,

even after putting thus more efficiently using budgeted dollars.

services and the The accreditation process is geared toward

effort to forth having the agency achieve success. There are

change.” many resources to assist the agency with any

challenges they might encounter.


accreditation can’t

happen because we

lack political


“When you’re Some agencies view the CAPRA visit as an

fighting to keep inexpensive way of receiving a performance-

your department based audit. Compared to professional audits

going, accreditation by private companies that can cost thousands

just doesn’t seem of dollars, a CAPRA evaluation is inexpensive.

important.” There are certainly agencies that, because of

timing, lack of resources, poor leadership

support or other reasons, find that going

through the accreditation process at a

particular time is inappropriate. There are

still ways to use the process as a management

tool to improve operations and work toward

best practices. When the timing is more

advantageous, you’ll be better prepared to

undertake the process.

COPYRIGHT 2003 National Recreation and Park Association

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