DON’T SPILL THE WATER: WHY ARE PEOPLE STILL DOING NEEDS ASSESSMENTS?

Introduction

In June 1984 the film “Gremlins” was released. The film told the story of a furry creature called a mogwai. The creature is purchased as a gift but when water is spilled on the mogwai five more aggressive creatures are released. When one is fed after midnight it creates an even more aggressive creature called Gremlins. If you haven’t seen the film track it down. It’s a lot of fun.

Likewise the contemporary model of service provision is like the creation of the gremlin. Whenever an issue is identified there seems to be a compulsion to add water (conduct a needs assessment) with the result of the creation of even more services for the community (the gremlins).

Needs: What are they?

A needs assessment is a tool used to identify needs and/or gaps between the current conditions and desired conditions. The information gained from a needs assessment is then used to determine the priority of issues or needs. This prioritisation can then be used to determine the allocation of resources and funding.

The Australian Institute of Family Study refers to label these identified issues as social issues as they refer to a problem in a location or population. Such issues or needs can include health related matters such as mental health, high levels of smoking or educationally related concerns such as a low level of literacy. The aim of the needs assessment is to inform service provision or development of social policy. (https://aifs.gov.au/cfca/publications/cfca-paper/needs-assessment/part-one-defining-needs-and-needs-assessment)

There are some problems with this approach:

  1. When viewing a community through the lens of a needs assessment a map is quickly generated showing a community operating with significant deficits. On a map of needs you will see issues such as: crime, graffiti, homelessness, dysfunctional families, domestic violence, mental health problems, drug/alcohol abuse, unemployment, vacant shops, social housing, illiteracy etc.
  2. It doesn’t take long for people living in a neighbourhood defined by deficiencies to start to see themselves as deficient and in need of the service offered. Once this occurs a person stops from being a citizen with an active role to play in determining their life and community circumstances and becomes a client or a consumer.
  3. Using a needs assessment funding and resources are dedicated to narrow focussed services. This is the approach used in social service provision. It results in a fragmentation of services. It is top down, aimed at professionals and not residents or communities.

The questions I would ask at this point having observed the provision of services to communities are:

  1. if they are meant to be designed for a particular circumstance or location why are they often national programs conducted throughout the country?
  2. Services are often funded over and over again and new services developed to extend on the current service. If this was a successful approach why do services appear to grow like Gremlins when added the water of needs assessment?
  3. Communities have been researched for years. We have so much information on what communities require to prosper. Is there any need to continue to conduct ongoing needs assessments when the services provided appear to be largely unsuccessful in making the desired social change?

There is a much better approach.

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs

In 1943 Abraham Maslow published an academic paper called “A Theory of Human Motivation”. In this paper Maslow proposed a theory of a hierarchy of needs. This was based in developmental psychology. The original theory was that the most basic needs must be met for a person to progress to the next level of needs.

The hierarchy is expressed as a pyramid with the most basic needs at the bottom and progressing to higher level needs.

The most basic needs are the physiological needs. Included here are food, water, shelter, sleep etc. These are the most basic needs required being fulfilled for survival. Progressing to the next level of basic needs are safety and security needs. These include all types of safety and security needs including: personal safety, financial security, emotional security, health and wellbeing etc.

The third level is the start of psychological needs starting with social belonging needs. This level includes friendships, intimacy, family, community. The fourth level are esteem needs such as prestige, recognition and accomplishment.

The last level is the level of Self Fulfillment and includes Self Actualisation needs. These are about the person achieving their fulfillment and can include creative fulfillment.

There has been debate about the necessity of fulfilling one level to progress to the next level. For instance, I would see that the need for community is a much more basic need and could possibly fit between the first and second level.

The important thing is that Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs already informs us of the needs we all have. We know what we need to grow and prosper as a species and as a community or society.

United Nations Covenants, Declarations and Other Legislation

There are a large number of covenants, declarations and other treaty type documentation that most countries have adopted. Many of these are United Nations documentation guaranteeing the rights of people in civil society. These include: The Universal Declaration of Human Rights; The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights; The International Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Racial Discrimination; Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women; The Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment; The Convention on the Rights of the Child; Conventions on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities; The United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

In short we know what people need to live successfully in a community and we know what rights each person should have in society. Additionally, most countries have a range of legislation to protect the community including the most vulnerable.

We don’t lack knowledge of needs. What we lack is an understanding of what we need to do when an issue arises showing that people are not being treated equitably or that something has gone astray in a community requiring some type of action be undertaken. Often a needs assessment is then conducted, mainly to prioritise that community for a service not to successfully address the issue.

We Need the How Not the Need or the Gap

The real question we have is how do we, as a society respond when a community has identified an issue that requires addressing. Communities are great at identifying issues that require some action. They often just don’t know how to deal with the situation. Instead of jumping to a needs assessment a much better type of action is to work with the community to understand what they see the issue to be. Is it the same as a service or government agency would see and work with that community to identify what assets and resources are readily available to address the situation.

In meeting community concerns there are four types of actions that can be entertained:

  1. The actions a community can take by itself i.e. identifying and activating their own assets to deal with the situation. This step is always left out when looking only at needs as people are already viewed as being a deficit,a liability and not an asset. It might take a bit of work but people will start to identify their own assets and become empowered for action.
  2. The actions a community needs some help with. These are those actions where the assets of the community require some support to achieve the desired outcome.
  3. The actions a community cannot do at all and needs to be conducted by an external body. This is the level where needs assessment start while ignoring the first two levels
  4. Those actions external bodies need to stop doing and allow the community to act.

The question is not what the need is but how can a community respond to an issue they have identified.

In 1993 McKnight and Kretzman published Building Communities From the Inside Out: A Path Toward Finding and Mobilizing a Community’s Assets. At the time this book was revolutionary. Prior to this book approaches were to view a community as a deficit and work being done to the community. What Kretzmann and McKnightr showed us was another way to address community issues and perceived problems, i.e. to look to the assets of the community, link those assets and mobilise to address the issue at hand. An organic, bottom up approach to community change. One where the community had a stake in the actions undertaken and not to have an outside agency conduct a needs assessment, inform them (once again) that they were a deficit to the process and bring in an outside agency.

It is time governments and agencies re-evaluated their approach and found a way to release the assets of the community instead of spilling the water of Needs Assessment on to the Gremlin on Service Provision done to people.

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