Don’t scroll down! Don’t hit back button yet, read this first! My name is Ryan Watkins and I am a professor at George Washington University. Whereas many aspects of a needs assessment parallels an evaluation, the making of recommendations about what to do next is often a new challenge for us when we move from the back-end to the front-end of project (or program) design. Needs assessments, by definition, do however require that we not only identify and measure the “needs”, but that we also make recommendations about what to in order to satisfy (or partially satisfy) those needs in the future.
The good news is that there are many tools that can help us through the challenges of making these difficult choices. And yes, these are typically very complex decisions without any clear “best” options. The nature of these decisions is that we must forecast the future and what results we can reasonably expect of various alternatives. Foresight is never an exact science and it does present some risks to our projects and institutions. But making recommendations is a distinguishing characteristic of needs assessments.
The systems theory principle of equifinality tells us, however, that for any result we want to achieve (or need we want to satisfy) there is always more than one way to get there. Therefore we must know about our options and make choices among competing alternatives – which is typically not an easy task. To succeed, and to end our needs assessment with valuable recommendations about what to do next, we should balance our rational decision-making with our value-based decision-making.
- See Watkins, R., West Meiers, M., & Visser, Y. L. (2012). A Guide to Assessing Needs: Essential Tools for Collecting Information, Making Decisions, and Achieving Development Results. Washington DC: The World Bank. In the second-half of this book we have describe a variety of tools and techniques that you can use to guide the decision-making process within your needs assessment. And it is FREE to download from the World Bank.
- The 2015 World Development Report (published by the World Bank and available free) is a comprehensive guide to behavior economics and provides an excellent guide to understanding the complexities of how we make decisions.
- A great TedTalk video on balancing the relationship between reason and value in our decisions, and how we navigate the sea of pros and cons as we make decisions about how to satisfy needs.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org. aea365 is sponsored by the American Evaluation Association and provides a Tip-a-Day by and for evaluators.