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Needs Assessment Planning: Starting Where You Are

Needs Assessment Planning: Starting Where You Are
David Royse* & Karen Badger
College of Social Work, University of Kentucky, Lexington, Kentucky, USA
Needs assessments are a useful part of the program development cycle. However, while step-by-step
models are available to guide assessments, they may not be detailed enough for the pragmatic questions
that arise. The planning process should be viewed as dynamic and flexible, able to be tailored
to the agency’s specific organisational and environmental characteristics. This paper presents a prac‐
tical discussion for social workers charged with planning and implementing a needs assessment.
Practitioners are empowered to consider several concerns or issues simultaneously, to build upon their
organisational knowledge, and start the process where it intuitively makes sense. Major issues discussed
are: planning the needs assessment, evaluating contextual factors, and design considerations.
Keywords: Needs Assessment; Program Planning; Social Work Needs Assessment
Needs assessments are helpful in identifying gaps and priorities in social services
and guiding agency development and service provision. Although needs assessments
are conducted within many social work settings, they may not take place as often as
they should. Social workers may feel ill-prepared to conduct them and organisational,
client, and environmental characteristics unique to the agency may present challenges to
a planning process. The complexity of the problem being explored can also make planning
a needs assessment challenging. Rittel and Webber (1973) have described societal issues
such as those social workers face each day as “wicked problems” (p. 160)— meaning that
solutions to these types of problems are not easily found and interventions can span
multiple system levels and cross into other problem areas. Wicked problems
are also characterised by the lack of a permanent solution: “Social problems are never
solved. At best they are only resolved over and over again” (Rittel & Webber, 1973, p. 160).
Real-life problems such as homelessness, substance abuse, child abuse, and poverty are not
tidy or easy to remedy, and they do not lend themselves to a laboratory type of needs
assessment where all of the independent variables are methodically controlled. Local
context and characteristics must be considered and no one solution will generalise to all
situations (Blackman et al., 2006).
Implications of the intricacy of the contexts in which needs assessment occurs may not
be readily apparent. Needs assessment is often described in the literature using models
that suggest a sequential, task-specific process (Cekada, 2011; Cook, 1989, Royse, Thyer,
& Padgett, 2010). For example, a needs assessment model presented by Royse, StatonTindall, Badger, and Webster (2009) included these steps: (1) defining the goal or
*Correspondence to: Professor David Royse, College of Social Work, University of Kentucky, 637
Patterson Office Tower, Lexington, KY 40506, USA. Email: [email protected]
Accepted 19 March 2015
Australian Social Work, 2015
Vol. 68, No. 3, 364–374, http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/0312407X.2015.1035661
© 2015 Australian Association of Social Workers
purpose of the assessment and why it is thought to be necessary, (2) convening a planning
committee or group, (3) taking stock of the resources at hand and the time available, (4)
researching the problem to learn what is known about it and what information is available,
(5) designing a method to collect the data, (6) implementing the plan and gathering the
data, (7) analysing the data, and (8) writing the report and sharing the results.
Although such models help clarify needs assessment tasks, presenting a model in this
way may not suggest it is flexible or able to be adjusted. Consequently, one might wonder
if a poor product would result if the planning committee spent half a day on Step 3 before
having a good understanding of Step 1. For pedagogical presentation, complex activities
are broken into discrete steps that may overly simplify the planning process in settings
where social work is practised. Realities such as tight budgets, meagre resources, and
already overloaded staff members who feel stretched when asked to take on additional
responsibilities, all influence the needs assessment process. It is important for practitioners
to realise that rather than following any model lock-step, they usually have the freedom to
adjust it according to the realities and constraints found in their specific setting. Viewing
the planning process as dynamic and flexible can help ensure that the final product is
thoughtful, well-suited to unique considerations, and addresses essential tasks.
The following discussion explores how a social worker might go about conducting a
needs assessment that accounts for setting, agency resources and characteristics, and the
complexity of the problem. The discussion focuses on practical considerations associated
with (1) planning the needs assessment, (2) evaluating context, and (3) designing a needs
assessment helpful to social workers new to the needs assessment process. This paper does
not attempt to develop a theory of human need or propose a new model for investigating
need. Instead, described is an adaptable needs assessment process that accounts for local
and contextual variables and supports a flexible and nimble response to obstacles that may
be encountered.
Planning the Needs Assessment
Conceptualising Needs Assessment
There is no single way to plan or conceptualise a needs assessment. Different starting
points, approaches, and foci can each provide useful information for service providers
and concerned stakeholders. A starting place for some discussions involves identifying
or grounding the needs assessment effort in a relevant conceptual model. Conceptual
models can help focus decision-making about tasks such as what questions need to be
asked, who needs to be involved, sampling and methods used, and in understanding
results. Many conceptual models be can found in the literature, along with examples of
how conceptual models have been used in needs assessment design. For instance,
Levesque et al. (2010) in designing a needs assessment of family caregivers with an ageing
relative at home, based their effort on the User Involvement Model— “a user-focused
approach to research developed jointly by practitioners, family caregivers, older people,
and community organisations” (p. 878). Other needs assessment efforts have drawn upon
different conceptual models such as the community readiness model (Parker, Alcaraz, &
Payne, 2011; York, Hahn, Rayens, & Talbert, 2008), the community-based participatory
research and gender analysis framework (Nunez, Robertson-James, Reels, Weingartner,
& Bungy, 2012), an educational and ecological framework (Green & Kreuter, 2005) and
the “precede-proceed” model (Ying et al., 2009).
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However, initial interest in a needs assessment and subsequent planning often
advance without a well-defined model in hand because of a specific charge or question to
a work group (e.g., do our staff need more cultural-diversity training?). Conceptual
models like those used in the examples above may be useful in organising the assessment
effort, but not all planning efforts are guided by one.
Bradshaw (1977) conceptualised four types of need in his typology that many will
find useful. Normative need refers to efforts that use experts and their knowledge of
research to set standards or define levels of need. Expressed need is determined based on
an investigation of clients’ use of or requests for services. Felt need refers to assessment
that asks for clients’ perspectives and gathers data about their perception or beliefs about
what they need. Comparative need refers to efforts that examine characteristics of clients
in a specific group that is receiving services and then using these data to estimate the
extent of need for similar client groups located in other areas. Defining the type of need
that is relevant to one’s effort early-on will help to ground the planning process and keep
decision-making on course. The type of need assessed has implications for what data
should be gathered.
Early Planning Issues
Before beginning to create a data collection plan and further explicate the needs
assessment process, some initial planning at a practical level must take place. Asked to
conduct a needs assessment, several questions may jump to the forefront. It is important to
know: How much time do I have to complete the project? What is my budget? What
agency resources are available to me? Why is the needs assessment needed? How important
is our project? The answers to these questions will have bearing on the scope of the needs
assessment that is undertaken. It is possible that a planning committee following one of the
models mentioned earlier could proceed early and logically to Step 3 (taking stock of the
resources at hand and the time available) but another group following a different model
may not begin discussing those concerns until much later. Because situations and
circumstances will vary tremendously, social workers need to recognise the necessity to
approach planning in a flexible and dynamic manner. There is no predicting which
logistical questions will arise first within the planning team or which will have the greatest
implications for the planning process, but it is important to attend to organisational,
resource, and other contextual factors from the start of the planning process.
A critical first question that could be asked by a committee member at a planning
meeting might be: How much time do we have to complete this assessment? The
deadline set for completion of the needs assessment impacts the feasibility and
comprehensiveness of the effort. If there is only a small amount of time (e.g., 30–60
days) allotted, then the agency cannot expect an extremely rigorous and comprehensive
effort. Indeed, such a close deadline will very likely convince a social worker or planning
committee to use quick and abbreviated techniques (e.g., running one small focus group
or conducting a brief survey with a small number of clients or staff). Adequate time is
required for planning, reviewing literature, weighing various designs, consulting with the
stakeholders, and collecting and analysing the data. Time constraints will definitely affect
the scope of the project and influence the choice of the assessment design. If the
366 D. Royse & K. Badger
timeframe is non-negotiable, perhaps the needs assessment team can suggest a two-step
approach and consider this effort as a pilot study that can be used to meet immediate
goals, provide a beginning understanding of need, but can also later inform a larger, more
comprehensive effort.
Project deadlines are a major concern in the needs assessment process, but the
amount of time the team leader and other staff involved have to dedicate each day to
the needs assessment is also crucial. Temporary reassignment of some duties or overtime
for the responsible staff in order to complete the project may be required. If this is not
possible and staff members are already overburdened, this may result in their collecting
quickly obtained information that is not useful.
The budget available for the needs assessment influences the final product, especially in
situations where time is limited. In situations in which it is determined that staff
availability and the allotted timeframe are not adequate, a sufficient budget could support
alternative options such as hiring assistance from outside the agency. However, with
enough time, limited budgets don’t pose a terrible constraint to producing a strong
product. Committees can be formed to assist with the project workload and volunteers
can be solicited. When budgets or time create obstacles, thinking “outside the box” can
be beneficial. For example, a number of years ago Stefl (1984) reported receiving help
with a needs assessment from a probation officer who, following established protocol,
was able to offer community service to a select group of offenders as an alternative to
incarceration. These individuals were screened, trained as interviewers, and completed
over 800 telephone interviews in less than a month. This partnership benefited the needs
assessment project and provided a reciprocal benefit to the offenders who participated.
There may also be organisations or other social service agencies with similar missions,
concerns, or populations with which one could partner in most communities to extend
personnel and budget and potentially enrich the project.
Another creative alternative would be to partner with a university and work with
faculty and students if the project is relevant to their course of study or the work of faculty.
A number of articles have been written over the years suggesting what a wonderful idea it
is to teach students about needs assessment by engaging them in a “hands-on” learning
experience (Anderson, 2002; Hash, Chase, & Rishel, 2012; Jacquez & Ghantous, 2013;
Norris & Schwartz, 2009; Timm, Birkenmaier, & Tebb, 2011). Consider those faculty and
student resources available at local universities—especially those already involved with
engaged research or community service—and ask for assistance. In our experience, faculty
have been glad to provide guidance to students involved in such activities, and students
have appreciated the opportunity to participate in projects that have real meaning.
Whether the needs assessment is one conducted by internal or external personnel, one
resource that should always be sought would be a key staff person who knows the
personnel, the informal leaders and their idiosyncrasies, the agency’s policies, and the
best way to communicate with staff and receive their feedback. The availability of this
knowledge and awareness will assist an agency-based team in its planning efforts while
keeping the greater context in mind. Anyone going into a new or unfamiliar agency is
likely to make assumptions and, possibly, mistakes. The assistance of a key staff contact
Australian Social Work 367
would be of great value in learning about its inner workings and culture to help create a
relevant assessment plan. This key contact would also be a valuable resource when
vetting issues of time and budget. His or her availability may also need to be negotiated
in the interest of moving the project forward as expected.
Initial planning related to resources should also involve thinking about the support
resources needed to carry out all phases of the project. For instance, will the data
collection design require administrative support for mailings or other such tasks or
additional space to conduct focus groups or meet with stakeholders? If data will be
collected using technology, will there be a need for technological support? Will current
staff or practitioner support be necessary for records reviews or other data collection
efforts? Anticipating assistance that might be required and thinking ahead of the step
you think you are on can also be valuable in the logistical planning process, particularly
when discussing the budget and needed support. This may help to avoid problems down
the road and unexpected obstacles as the assessment moves forward.
Importance of the Effort
While one hopes that all needs assessments will be useful and highly valued, the
importance placed on these efforts may vary. When considering the investment of time,
money, and resources, it is also a good idea to ascertain the significance the assessment
and its findings will have for the agency. Sometimes needs assessments are implemented
in response to mandates that are put in place by funding sources or governmental units
as part of an effort to encourage agencies to engage in a systematic planning process.
Although desirable, if the funding organisation does not have standards or guidelines
about what constitutes a “good” needs assessment, the efforts may result in products that
fulfil the mandate but lack usefulness.
On the other hand, if the local board of directors has high expectations for the needs
assessment because they will be reallocating funds from one program to another, then the
project may be viewed much differently. Most likely there will be interest in developing
a needs assessment process that is viewed as thoughtful and fair—one that instils
confidence in the results. Although separate, the issues of time, budget, resources, and
importance of the effort are intricately connected and necessary to address at the front
end of a project. They also must be discussed concurrently with design considerations.
Evaluating the Context
Starting with a Specific Concern
Placido and Cecil (2014) posited that needs assessment efforts need to be “anchored first
in the organization’s identity [which] includes their mission and vision” (p. 81). To begin
to accomplish this, an effort must be made to understand these contextual components
of the organisation in relation to the needs assessment. The call for a needs assessment
can arise from shifts in the agency’s organisational mission, funding, culture, or policy
changes, from organisational downsizing and restructuring, and from response to
community trends and priorities (Royse et al., 2009). Such events may require managers
and boards of directors to make decisions about the allocation of staff and adjustments
to the agency budget to address emerging or changing needs.
The suggestion that a program or agency would benefit from conducting a current
needs assessment can originate from different stakeholders. For instance, concerns about
368 D. Royse & K. Badger
waiting lists or gaps in services can serve as a starting point from which the focus of the
needs assessment can be easily identified. Leaders in a community might be concerned
about recent events reported in the news (e.g., increased heroin overdoses or low rates of
service provided to at-risk youth). Other concerns might include a desire for a larger
facility or a location that would improve clients’ access to services.
Questions can also arise about the accessibility of the agency—do the clients believe
that the agency’s programs can be easily reached? Similarly, it may be important to know
if the clients experience their services as available to them. Can they afford services? Are
they able to get appointments when needed? A director or manager might want to know
to what extent the residents in the area know about the range of services provided and
how aware they are of what the agency offers. Those responsible for program oversight
might want to know if residents consider the agency’s services of acceptable quality.
Needs assessments can also be initiated to identify staff training needs in an agency—
especially when there is a plan to provide services to a new client population. Concerns
voiced about programing or services provide a good starting place and establish a
structural focus.
Once a commitment has been made to conduct a specific type of assessment, other
issues may be added by those outside the planning committee. However, too many foci,
too many “important” questions to be answered, can confuse the direction of the needs
assessment and create a cumbersome process. Should this begin to occur, revisiting its
original brief may help the committee get back on track.
Unmasking Values and Hidden Agendas
Almost all agencies articulate a set of agency-wide values and expect their staff to espouse
these professional values as well. Core values, along with an agency’s mission and goals,
greatly influence its decisions and policies. If these values are transparent, agreed upon,
and lived day-to-day, they will help to shape a cohesive organisation. However,
practically any decision that a board of directors, advisory body, or manager makes has
the potential for creating conflict within the organisation, and a needs assessment is no
exception. In deliberating about a proposed data collection design, it is possible that
previously unstated values become apparent, if not influential, in charting the course of a
pending assessment. Policy-makers, administrators, and board members make decisions
through the lens of their knowledge and life experiences. For example, those who
strongly value a grassroots approach involving opinions of community members or
current clients are not likely to support a top-down planning model with no community
Decision-makers may also simplify a “wicked problem” and concentrate only on one
of its facets, possibly as a result of life experiences or interests. For example, one of the
authors once observed a judge serving as a mental health system board member strongly
advocate for increased service to the alcohol-abusing population in the community. His
strong and spirited declarations about what he thought the community needed greatly
lengthened the board’s deliberations as they sought diplomatic ways to hear his concerns
without committing all of their resources to a single problem in the community.
Board members and other decision-makers might require an orientation as to their
roles in a needs assessment planning discussion and again after the findings are presented
to them.
Australian Social Work 369
Practitioners might also be surprised by other organisational dynamics that can affect
the needs assessment process. The decisions of boards and administrative teams are not
always unanimous or well-considered. Indeed, it is good to keep in mind that service
organisations are formed of many components—each organisation has its own culture,
cohesiveness, and intellectual capital (Jaskyte, 2012). As Jaskyte (2012) noted, boards of
directors differ in their size, diversity, and in the relationships between the executive
director and the board and between the board chair and the executive director. These
considerations have the ability to affect the trajectory of the needs assessments. Within
the decision-making group, there may be a cultural value of encouraging constructive
deliberation and respectful disagreement or both of these may be missing. To complicate
things further, any perceived leader on the board of directors or in other administrative
structures, will have friends within the group and in the community. Political relationships will exist. Some board members or administrative leaders may support even an
unpopular issue in exchange for support on another issue.
Anyone planning a needs assessment and presenting the plan to a decision-making
group for approval needs to be aware of the potential for the planning process to become
debated by those outside the planning group. Should this occur, it might be difficult to
resolve the problem of one faction arguing for a particular approach or methodology
and another group harshly critical of that approach and insisting upon a different way
or emphasis. Working with the executive director and other key leadership positions
ahead of major decisions may help the needs assessment to continue to move forward.
Similarly, before going too far, staff planning the assessment effort may need to discuss
with the director or other appropriate staff the requirements and process for obtaining
ethics approval associated with plans to collect data from clients.
Designing the Needs Assessment
The idealistic person charged with planning an agency’s needs assessment might start
from a perspective of “What would be the best needs assessment for this program/
agency/community?” However, as initial planning begins, it is not uncommon for the
planning committee to ask: “What can actually be done in this agency/community given
the constraints that we’ll be under?”
Whenever the planning committee has a reasonable understanding of the four key
factors discussed earlier (time, budget, resources, and importance), and the questions or
purpose identified, it must then confront the sticky problem of design. Just as there may
have been early clues as to who should be included in the sample, ideas about the most
appropriate design may also have occurred in discussions at some earlier point. It is
possible that a procedure (e.g., personal interviews) could be selected before it is decided
whether the target population would be former or current clients.
Quantitatively-oriented committees may prefer large samples and view them as
producing greater confidence in the assessment results, but a small budget can negatively
affect sample size. Qualitatively-oriented committees may prefer personal interviews and
be quite comfortable with small samples. At any rate, design details must be worked out
regarding the recruitment and sampling of participants, the questions or instruments to
be used, and the actual data collection procedures. Because planning a needs assessment
is a complex task, those involved may wish to employ a technique such as storyboarding
(Hetherington, 1999) to visually portray the various tasks along the way and the key
decisions to be made at each of these points.
370 D. Royse & K. Badger
The prime issue to consider in sampling is who should be interviewed or surveyed, and
considered a valid respondent. If you have identified the type of need to be explored, that
information will help to inform how you think about tasks related to sampling. Such
elements as the availability of potential respondents, their relevance to the project,
and the size of the potential respondent pool will also help guide these decisions. One
could sample only active clients to obtain current knowledge and perceptions of the
agency and its services. On the other hand, the decision might be made to contact former
clients (although their contact information may not be as available or accurate). A
realistic appraisal about accessibility of potential respondents is necessary in order to
gather enough data for meaningful results within the time and budget allotted.
Simultaneously, the needs assessment task group must wrestle with the decision of
how to contact the clients or potential respondents. Most often, convenience samples are
used in needs assessments and the sample sizes found in published needs assessments
have an extremely wide range. Smith, McCaslin, Chang, Martinez, and McGrew
(2010) reported on the needs of older LGBT adults with a sample of 38. West, Williams,
Suzukovich, Strangeman, and Novins (2012) conducted 16 focus groups (n=107
participants) to assess the health needs of urban Native American youth and their
families. On the other hand, de Anda, Franke, and Becerra (2009) constructed a sample
of 1784 Latino respondents consisting of 892 parent/adolescent dyads. The ease in
locating the target population, their cooperation, the focus of the needs assessment,
whether it is quantitative or qualitative in nature, its purpose, and the budget and
resources available will all influence the ultimate size of the sample.
Data Collection Methods
Options for structuring the data collection method include qualitative, quantitative, or
a combination of the two approaches. The choice of method will be influenced by the
factors previously discussed such as sample size and the type of need being explored. For
example, it may be that a number of questions about met and unmet needs—or expressed
need (Bradshaw, 1977)—can be answered retrospectively through a method that involves
examining agency records of clients who have used services to determine and categorise
their characteristics. On the other hand, assessment of felt need may be best assessed by
designing a method that involves going directly to the clients or community members
Identifying the questions that must be answered and the type of data desired will
assist in deciding upon the final data collection strategy. Quantitative approaches and
surveys are frequently the method of choice for large scale needs assessments. However,
qualitative data collection methods, such as individual semistructured interviews (Wong,
Mendelsohn, Nyhof-Young, & Bernstein, 2011) or focus groups (Levesque et al., 2010),
can be useful in gathering a more detailed and in-depth understanding of participants’
perspectives and experiences.
In addition to the issues already discussed, cultural considerations can influence the
decision about methodology. Knowledge of the client population and their preferred
means of communication and self-expression are important. Use of email or internet
surveys may not be a good option for some client populations but could work well for
others. The postal service may not be a good option if it is known that the client group
Australian Social Work 371
does not return surveys and responses to mailed surveys are expected to be low. If there
is enough staff, volunteers, or paid assistants, and time, then the planning group might
consider gathering data via methods such as phone calling or designing a qualitative
data collection method involving personal interviews or focus groups. If funds are more
limited and the sample very accessible (such as the case with current clients), a good
option might be to have an agency staff member hand clients questionnaires to fill out
as they enter the agency and wait for their appointments. Multiple methods can be
used and data can be collected from various stakeholder groups in order to build a
comprehensive picture.
Data Collection Measures and Tools
If it is necessary to construct a needs assessment questionnaire, the creation of the items
needs careful attention. Questionnaire items are not always be understood by the clients
or target group in the same way as intended, and one should plan, at a minimum, for the
items to be tested for clarity with a small pilot study or reviewed by several colleagues.
Keep in mind that clients may not fully understand clinical jargon and terminology,
so this should be avoided. Care should be taken to avoid leading questions, doublebarrelled items, and using insensitive or inflammatory words or items that are too vague
such as, “When was the last time you saw a social worker?” A useful web-based resource
for question developers is Innovation Network (n.d.). It is advised that questionnaire
items be appropriate for the reading level of the expected recipients. Microsoft Word is
able to provide readability statistics, for which Dubay (2004) provided instructions.
The selection of appropriate questions is also important for focus groups and
qualitative designs. Turner (2010) provided an excellent tutorial to help individuals become
acquainted with personal interviews as a qualitative data collection method. Reviewed are
options for structuring interviews, constructing questions, and preparing for and carrying
out interviews, among other topics. For some populations and purposes, focus groups
may be a better choice for the gathering of qualitative data and open exploration of key
issues. Buttram (1990) provided a detailed description of the focus group process and its
application to needs.
Planning for the Presentation of Results
When designing the assessment and dissemination of its findings, planners must
understand the audience who will be receiving the results, and the importance the
audience will ascribe to it. Presenting results can be challenging as stakeholders can
include funders, politicians, administrators, community residents, service providers,
or staff, as well as representatives of other programs and organisations in the community
who make or receive referrals, businesses, and current, past, and potential clients. As Mika
(1996) noted, each group of stakeholders can have a different perspective on the program
and are likely to interpret results from their own reference point. As the committee plans
the methodology, it might want to consider the reception that the assessment could
receive from the groups most invested in the results, with specific consideration of those
who are perceived to be most influential and most directly impacted by its results.
372 D. Royse & K. Badger
A number of considerations with bearing on the planning and reporting of a needs
assessment have been identified. The main intent of this discussion has been to empower
social workers to utilise knowledge regarding the program, agency, or clientele, and start
at the point most fitting given the context. This is akin to the well-known maxim in
social work of “starting where the client is”. That is, starting with the resources and
problems that the client or organisation presents. Approaching a needs assessment as a
dynamic and flexible process that can be adjusted and modified as planning committee
members, agency staff, and other stakeholders provide input can yield meaningful results
to guide service development and social work practice.
Disclosure Statement
No potential conflict of interest was reported by the authors.
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