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Needs Assessments

July 14, 2023

Balancing Approaches for Holistic Insights

Needs assessments are important decision-making tools for policy planners and senior leaders, particularly those working in housing.  They collect information regarding the current situation and existing gaps to help identify opportunities and targets for intervention.  The work is qualitative and quantitative and uses various information sources to develop the understanding and recommendations.  

Two methodologies can be employed: the asset / deficit approach and the perception-based approach.  They are both valid frameworks for this type of project and complement each other well.  

The asset / deficit approach for needs assessments looks not only at what is missing from the current program suite but also at what exists to be built upon.  Rather than focusing exclusively on the problem, which can lead to participants feeling negative or insufficient, it also looks at what good works exist in a positive frame.  It changes the conversation from ‘What are you doing wrong’ to ‘What are you doing right’.  A balanced approach takes into account the existing body of work while identifying the gaps to be filled.

From a stakeholder engagement perspective, it is supportive and reinforcing and can help elicit stronger participation if they feel like they aren’t being picked on or insulted.  Starting from the strengths or assets in a needs assessment helps reinforce that the initiative is not a witch hunt and takes participants off the defensive.  From there, they are more willing to acknowledge gaps and weaknesses that they may have otherwise not mentioned for fear that they would be punished.  

A perception-based approach acknowledges that participants only know what they know and that what they know may be incomplete.  Every participant involved in housing and social services in their respective jurisdiction has deep knowledge about their work and the work of their peers.  However, each of them will have different knowledge from each other.  This is why it is important to gather information from a variety of sources – to make sure that all the perceptions are present.  This may paint a fulsome picture, or it may not.  

As a framework, a perception-based approach acknowledges this deficiency and allows the consultant to ask questions to first identify where participants do not have visibility.  We can work with participants in different ways to help identify those perception gaps by asking different questions or comparing results from other localities for expected responses.  From there, we are able to identify other participants who may have that visibility for further engagement.  The information may be found in metrics that expand beyond the current frame of reference (i.e., a particular need is actually being filled by a neighbouring community’s service providers).  It is also possible that the information to fill that gap is unavailable or not yet.  This is still a good outcome – it takes something from an unknown unknown to a known unknown.

ISC has worked with both of these frameworks in our needs assessment work, as well as in our program evaluation practice.  We generally start our mandates with a literature search and materials review to understand what the current body of knowledge is related to the initiative.  This allows us visibility into what is perceived as known and what exists as an asset.  Working with our clients, we are able to identify areas where there is less information and where potential gaps may exist.  This allows us to tailor our engagement to gather the needed information and validate our understanding of the current knowledge.  We find the combined approach worked well and allowed for deeper engagement with the stakeholders.  

If you have identified gaps in your current knowledge related to social service delivery, housing, or program design, we would be pleased to help you frame your research problem to get the best possible outcomes.