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NA TIG Week: Community Based Participatory… Needs Assessment: Are you trying to tell me what I need??? by Lisle Hites

Lisle Hites
Lisle Hites

Welcome to the Needs Assessment TIG’s week on AEA365! I’m Lisle Hites, Chair of the Needs Assessment TIG, Associate Professor in Health Care Organization and Policy and the University of Alabama at Birmingham. On behalf of all of us here at the Needs Assessment TIG, I hope you enjoy this week’s blog entries and look forward to seeing you at some of our sessions at Evaluation 2019. Today’s post is about the complexity of assessing needs in communities and offers a couple of lessons learned that might be of use.

Last year on AEA365 I talked about the complexity of assessing needs in communities, especially in communities that are disadvantaged in terms of health, socioeconomic status (SES), etc. Ideally, researchers working in these communities will be conducting Community Engaged Research (research in partnership with communities), or perhaps even Community Based Participatory Research (research developed with and guided by the community). However, assuming we want to engage in research that targets the primary needs of the community, how do we determine those needs? Here is the dilemma, and, in my opinion, a key source of distrust between universities and their surrounding communities: As the researcher, I will typically determine the needs of the community by learning about the community (demographics, etc.), examining prevalence rates of chronic disease, possibly talking with subject matter experts, and ultimately prioritizing which needs are most urgent or will be most impactful to the community (for more detail on this process, start with Altschuld & Kumar’s 2010 Sage book “Needs Assessment”). Sounds good so far, what’s the problem?

The problem: If, rather than assessing the objective needs of the community from the perspective of analyzing and prioritizing discrepancies or disparities, we take the approach of asking the citizens of the community (as opposed to leadership or subject matter experts), we will likely find very different needs. Let’s call them External vs. Internal NA results. Here’s a quick example: In a recent community needs assessment, the External NA determined the key factor for the community were Obesity, Diabetes, Teen Pregnancy, and Opioid Addictions. However, in this case, there was an Internal NA as well. Internal needs came up as Blight Remediation, In-School Tutoring and Mentoring, and Home Building/Home Owner Education. See the complication? Which are the real needs? It depends on who you ask.

Lessons Learned:

  1. Community Needs Assessments are complex and can be subjective. You need to figure out whose opinions need to be consulted. Know who your stakeholders are.
  2. If you want the community to support your research and/or improvement efforts, don’t just engage them when you implement your change plans, they need to be participatory from the start so they can help guide what you do, not just how you do it.

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@eval.org. aea365 is sponsored by the American Evaluation Association and provides a Tip-a-Day by and for evaluators.

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