NA TIG Week: Combining Needs Assessment and Asset Mapping in Complex Evaluations by Madhawa “Mads” Palihapitiya

Hi! I’m Madhawa “Mads” Palihapitiya, Associate Director of the Massachusetts Office of Public Collaboration at UMass Boston. In 2016, my agency completed the Massachusetts municipal conflict resolution needs assessment study which was commissioned by the Massachusetts State Legislature in 2014. The study features how destructive public conflicts, within and between municipalities, and their constituencies were addressed in Massachusetts.  It also looks at what municipalities think should be addressed in the future for appropriate solution development to meet gaps/needs and strengthen existing assets. This created an opportunity for us to test the utility and strengths of a hybrid process of needs assessment and asset/capacity building.  Our asset map here was developed by the team’s Joy Winkler.

Hot Tip: Needs assessment starts with a negative perspective (something’s missing) while asset mapping begins with the positive (strengths). Due to philosophical and methodological differences, the two methods are seldom practiced together. Some attempts have been made to bridge the divide, both theoretically and practically, resulting in the creation of a hybrid framework.

We were assessing needs in an increasingly complex political landscape where our agency could also be a solutions provider. Powerful stakeholders have significant political capital, resources and influence in the area where we were assessing the needs, and potentially delivering solutions. The hybrid model enabled us to manage that critical interdependence with key stakeholders and solutions providers by acknowledging and validating the contributions of many individuals, organizations and groups already working to address the gaps in results at the state, regional and local levels. The asset/capacity building also had the effect of validating and increasing the credibility of our own process. By identifying these stakeholders as assets, and by recognizing their functions, roles and contributions, we managed to avoid marginalizing them, which could have potentially undermined our process.

We discovered that the deficit-focused inquiry in needs assessment was sometimes inadequate in acknowledging “who or what’s already there.” Appreciative inquiry, a hallmark of asset/capacity building, complemented the deficit-oriented inquiry of needs assessment by helping to elicit information about effective resources; including organizations, people, processes, knowledge and practices already in place.

Hot Tip: Asset/capacity building increases the self-esteem of individuals and communities and their coping abilities, which in turn leads to less dependency on external services. The deficiency model in needs assessment can affect the self-determination of communities and reinforce the power gap between service recipients and service providers.

By building an asset inventory into needs assessment, we expanded the boundary of who should be involved in defining the needs and solutions, and to identify who should be involved in delivering those solutions. This is particularly important when conducting assessments involving complex problems demanding complex solutions where no single entity has neither the jurisdiction nor the capacity to do everything, and multiple stakeholder groups have to collaborate to deliver solutions.

Hot Tip: Evaluators using the hybrid process in complex situations must strive for inclusivity and diversity of stakeholders engaged. “Engagement” in this sense is broader than consultation or keeping people informed.

Asset Map developed by Joy Winkler for the Massachusetts Municipal Conflict Resolution Needs Assessment
Asset Map developed by Joy Winkler for the Massachusetts Municipal Conflict Resolution Needs Assessment

The American Evaluation Association is celebrating Needs Assessment (NA) TIG Week with our colleagues in the Needs Assessment Topical Interest Group. The contributions all this week to aea365 come from our NA TIG members. Do you have questions, concerns, kudos, or content to extend this aea365 contribution? Please add them in the comments section for this post on the aea365 webpage so that we may enrich our community of practice. Would you like to submit an aea365 Tip? Please send a note of interest to aea365 is sponsored by the American Evaluation Association and provides a Tip-a-Day by and for evaluators.

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