Winter 1988 // Volume 26 // Number 4 // Feature Articles // 4FEA3

Previous Article Issue Contents Previous Article

It's Not That Simple


Andrew J. Sofranko
Department of Rural Sociology
University of Illinois-Urbana

Asmatullah Khan
Assistant Professor of Extension
Agricultural University, N. W. F. P.
Peshawar, Pakistan

"Needs assessments" are a mainstay of Extension programming. They're done to identify problems and justify decisions about educational programs. Over time, they've become so widely accepted as an Extension tool that they've escaped a closer scrutiny of their potential strengths and weaknesses. In this article, we hope to take a closer, more critical look at some of the assumptions underlying needs assessments, raise several questions about how they're conducted, and make some recommendations.

Formally, needs assessment involves a systematic approach to setting priorities and making decisions about programs and the allocation of resources. In practice, it involves using people's perceptions of needs and problems, interests, and attitudes as criteria in the design of social and educational interventions. A strong conviction exists among Extension staff that successful programs begin with a local needs assessment, and program evaluation emphasizes the match between needs and activities. As a result of fiscal pressures on Extension, programs will become increasingly identified with local needs, preferences, and priorities. The recent "rural revitalization" thrust within Extension envisions precisely this sort of program grounding in articulated local economic needs.

Our intent here isn't to retrace the steps involved in conducting a needs assessment. This has been done elsewhere.1 Nor do needs assessments require much justification, since they're "a basic fundamental of American democracy."2 In addition, they're an effective means for eliciting opinions, preferences, and reactions to proposed interventions. Still, while they've become a proven information collection method, they're based on some assumptions of which Extension staff ought to be aware. As with other methods, needs assessments have strengths and weaknesses. It's these we focus on in this article.

Underlying Assumptions

As we see it, there are three basic assumptions underlying needs assessments. The first is that the individual is of primary importance. Extension staff accept that in any remedial or intervention effort, the individuals likely to be involved in, or affected by, an activity should be the starting point from which programs emerge. Although one can conceive of organizations or communities as the targets of programs, individuals are the primary focus. This leads directly to a second, related assumption - individuals' assessments of problems, needs, and acceptable solutions are paramount. Their perceptions are and should be the basis for programming. Resulting activities are often referred to as "demand-led."

And, third, needs assessments tacitly assume that fulfilling expressed needs is the equivalent of "success," or at least the beginning of a solution to existing problems. The main point is that delivering what people articulate as their "needs" is often viewed synonymously with rectifying a problem.

Reasonable and Realistic Assumptions

It's understandable that these assumptions have become embedded in what's identified as program planning, planned change, and social intervention efforts. Enough examples exist to reinforce claims that needs are the underpinning of voluntary change. But while good reasons may exist for suggesting that the assumptions are realistic, there's also a basis for expressing reservations about them.

For the Affirmative

We could argue that the above assumptions are reasonable and realistic in three ways. First of all, there's considerable evidence to suggest that people are more supportive of and less resistant to change when they've had some voice in the decisions about programs and projects affecting them and their families. It might also be argued that people are a good source of information about their conditions, experiences, and problems. That being the case, they should also be a good source of information about their needs.

And, finally, needs assessments, regardless of whatever else they may be, can be an effective "political" strategy for addressing problems. Providing people with what they want and say they need can be an effective way of ingratiating oneself to a targeted group. In this sense, fulfilling needs is tantamount to "success."

For the Negative

Unfortunately, a close reading of the literature and the research underlying needs assessments reveals some reservations about the above assumptions, and about the ways in which needs assessments are conducted and used. The following is an abbreviated list of these reservations, based on experiences with needs assessments.

  1. People are limited in their ability to articulate their "needs" or preferred solutions to conditions and problems. Can one realistically expect people to express a need for a type of intervention or program that falls outside their realm of experience? Put simply, people may be ignorant of alternative solutions, and even unaware at times that their problems might be alleviated. Thus, even though people may not express a "need" for a particular program or activity of the type typically included in an Extension survey instrument, this doesn't necessarily mean it's unimportant or would be ineffective.
  2. People may be unable to express their "needs," either because they're not reflective, or haven't thought of problems in terms of their own needs. Given these possibilities, the results from a survey may be an imperfect indicator of what people truly need. While we assume that surveys will "reveal" needs, people more generally experience problems and deprivations, and not necessarily "needs." It may be more realistic, therefore, to elicit information on problems and conditions rather than on what people say is needed.
  3. Revealed or "expressed" needs are frequently imperfect guides for action. Needs may not be easily translated into programs or activities, and needs don't always lend themselves to realistic prescriptions. A necessary causal linkage may not exist between people's expressed needs and the underlying condition leading to their needs. That being the case, it doesn't follow that if particular needs are met, their problems will also be solved.
  4. People are often unable to integrate needs across different aspects of their lives, or with other members of their communities. It's not uncommon to hear people talk of "needs" in one life domain which, if met, would affect their lives or the lives of others in unintended ways. Expressions of the "need" for jobs locally is one example of where achieving the need may affect the realization of another equally desired need, for a clean environment, for example. Needs are also frequently expressed irrespective of "costs" - to others, themselves, or the community.

This list isn't exhaustive. The intent here is to sensitize Extension staff to some of the problems inherent in what is loosely termed "needs assessment." Several of these problems can be overcome, either with forethought or a change in approach.

Some Solutions and New Directions

The above reservations aren't intended to discourage needs assessments, but to point out their strengths and limitations and suggest some precautions. What's required are modifications in the ways they've typically been conducted.

Simply asking people what their "needs" are, in general or in specific life domains, isn't likely to yield much fruitful information. Despite the admonition that people are quite capable of "determining and identifying their needs," for a variety of reasons they may not be. For information on needs to be useful in any programmatic sense, you have to go beyond simple polling. Several complementary steps can be taken based on the suggestion that alternative ways exist for conducting needs assessments.

Needs might be inferred from delving into specific problems targeted groups experience and from examining constraints that prevent them from improving. An understanding of the specific problems confronting certain segments of the population in a given locality can provide insight into their needs and provide the basis for framing additional questions eliciting importance and intensity of needs. This will consume more time than a simple survey would, but the information will be more beneficial in the long run.

Needs also might be established from questions posed of well-informed persons or experts. On more than one occasion, Extension staff have performed the role of key informant in providing assessments of needs and problems of single parents, rural elderly, or farmers. This key-informant approach has been developed to the point where there's a fairly good understanding of who's likely to know about specific problems and needs. Key informants and experts are also potential sources of information on problems and needs.

Finally, needs might be established by examining the vast amount of published but under-used secondary data.3 To show the utility of secondary data, you could point to the geographical areas or communities without medical care. In Illinois, for example, a dozen counties have no doctors or dentists. Is this an indicator of health care needs? It certainly is a beginning point for a needs assessment. Going a step further, you discover that all of these counties also are lightly populated and entirely rural. Knowing this makes you realize that a solution to the potential health care problem may require a unique approach, or at the very least, won't be easy to solve. The role of such secondary data in needs assessments isn't well understood among Extension staff.

This approach to needs assessment via information collection from secondary data, key informants, or problem-identification surveys is generally more difficult than simple opinion polling. It involves spending time examining data, talking to knowledgeable people, following items in the local media, and asking informed questions that go beyond the "what-do-you-need?" variety.


There's certainly a place for needs assessments in the mix of methods Extension uses to develop programs and educational activities. However, it's not as simple a procedure as many suspect. Done simply and quickly, needs assessments don't yield much beyond people's perceptions of what they think they need, want, or would like. If the ultimate objective is to improve people's lives through some form of social intervention, standard needs assessments are usually inadequate. What we recommend is a variation of the concept of "triangulation" - that is, assessing needs from multiple information sources and angles, one of which is the individual.


1. See Rosemary S. Caffarella, "Identifying Client Needs," Journal of Extension, XX (July/August 1982), 5-11 and M. F. Smith, "Identifying and Prioritizing Citizen Needs for Extension Program Development" (Gainesville: University of Florida, Cooperative Extension Service, 1983).

2. Lorna Michael Butler and Robert E. Howell, Community Needs Assessment Techniques (Corvallis, Oregon: Western Rural Development Center, WREP 44, 1980).

3. Rabel J. Burdge, "Needs Assessment Surveys for Decision Makers," in Rural Society in the U.S., Don A. Dillman and Daryl J. Hobbs, eds. (Boulder, Colorado: Westview Press, 1982).