Photo by tomorrowstand on Flickr.

Sometimes a public pool or other facility just can’t be open when everyone hopes, but when the DC Department of Parks and Recreation (DPR) isn’t able to keep its website and voicemail up to date, sudden changes leave children crying and parents frustrated.

On Labor Day weekend Saturday, September 8, I told my 3-year-old that we would go swim together at Wilson Pool when he woke up the next day.  My son absolutely loves swimming, and went to sleep focused on my promise to him.  That’s what toddlers do.

The next morning at 8:30 am, I double-checked the Wilson website, and called to listen to their voicemail. Both said that the pool would be open at 9 am.  My son put on his bathing suit and we walked to the bus stop for the 20-minute ride to Tenleytown.

As we walked up to the entrance, I saw a family with 3 children in dry bathing suits walking my way, one of whom was crying.  A paper sign on the door said that the pool would be closed for another week, after 2 weeks of maintenance scheduled to be complete the day before.  “I checked the website,” the father said to his kids.

When I explained to my little guy that the pool was closed, he asked a couple of times, “When will it be open?” and “Why is it closed?” until the reality sank in and he had a crying tantrum on the sidewalk.

I tweeted my frustration that Wilson was closed despite contrary information on both the website and voicemail.

DPR replied to say that they had sent out a press release via email and posted the information on Twitter, but they have a small communications staff, all of which was unavailable for much of the weekend.  The press release said that an “HVAC parts shipment has been delayed”.

DPR Chief of Staff John Stokes says that the communications staff at DPR was 7 people when he arrived 5 years ago, and is now 2 people due to budget cuts.  However, DPR did not request additional communications staff in the most recent budget.

Stokes also said that few DPR staff can update the website, since they first need training on the web platform. They aren’t the only agency where the information on the web often lags other modes of communication; press releases for events from many agencies often go out to press lists but don’t appear on the web until the next day.

DC’s Office of the Chief Technology Officer (OCTO), which runs centralized technology systems like the website, is working to switch to a new system built on the popular Drupal platform. OCTO Spokesperson Ayanna Smith says this will make it easier for more staff to update web pages. OCTO expects to finish this transition in FY 2013, which means by Sept 30, 2013, said Smith.

Because of their limitations placing pool closure information on their website, DPR relies on Twitter and Facebook to communicate closures.  They have done a good job responding to residents via social media.  However, it seems unlikely that pool users would think to check DPR’s Twitter feed to check if a pool is closed.

DPR has engaged a firm to survey DC residents on how to improve their communication.  What would you tell DPR?  How do you think they should inform the public of unscheduled pool closures and other changes?

Ken Archer is CTO of a software firm in Tysons Corner. He commutes to Tysons by bus from his home in Georgetown, where he lives with his wife and son.  Ken completed a Masters degree in Philosophy from The Catholic University of America.