• By Kevin Mount
  • Posted on Wednesday 04th February, 2009

How is needs assessment measuring up?

Before distributing scarce resources for childrens services, it makes obvious sense to try to measure childrens needs. It helps to establish priorities and shape the services, and provides baseline data against which to assess effectiveness. In England and Wales, furthermore, local authorities are required by law to determine the nature and extent of childrens needs in their areas. So how are they doing?Numerous needs assessment studies are completed but, anecdotally and according to inspection reports, their nature and quality vary considerably. And, good, bad or indifferent, the results are often left to gather dust. These suspicions have recently been confirmed by an empirical study. Dartington Social Research Unit analyzed 83 needs assessment reports from between 1999 and 2007 for a large city and a rural area respectively covering the main childrens services agencies health, education, youth justice, social services and so on. All met certain criteria, namely a focus on children, attention to need, inclusion of information on one or more dimensions of childrens lives, and analysis of empirical evidence.Relatively few (19%) studies looked at all children and young people in the area. Instead, most considered a sub-population as defined by, for example, age. Further, the largest number of needs assessments concerned children in contact with services only (41%). Fewer (37%) examined children living in the community, and children provided direct input in only 31%.In terms of the focus of the reports, only 22% addressed all five outcome areas enshrined in the UK Governments plan for childrens services Every Child Matters: being healthy, staying safe, enjoying and achieving, making a positive contribution, and economic well-being. A third (35%) considered one outcome area only. And there was a large emphasis on perceived need (49%), in other words what children or families feel that they need. Relatively little attention was paid to normative need (16%) as measured using more objective criteria. Most reports (62%) did not examine the severity of need, and just 35% of reports analysed the extent to which available services matched the needs identified.In terms of the quality of reports, 34% were judged to be good, 53% average and 13% poor. Too many were based on small, unrepresentative samples that gave undue weight to particular sub-groups of the population, or included poorly-formulated measures, or had little interpretation of findings. Often there was confusion about how data had been collected and analysed.So, what kind of needs assessments should local authorities conduct? And how should local authorities encourage such studies to be undertaken and used? The authors argue that local authority childrens services should refocus needs assessments so that they display as many as possible of the following features:

  • a multi-dimensional perspective of need
  • a focus on outcomes (child well-being) rather than outputs (process)
  • an objective measure of the seriousness of need
  • analysis of how needs in childrens lives connect
  • a focus on children in the community rather service populations
  • the collection of data from children and young people directly (and parents where necessary)
  • the use of standardized measures with norm reference data and proven validity and reliability
  • the facility to repeat studies on a regular basis (for example, annually) so trend data can be fed into the planning cycle
  • the clear and transparent reporting of the methods and results.
If this were to happen, the authors argue, service planners would have a better picture of the well-being of the children for whom they are responsible and be in a stronger position to identify the outcomes they want to achieve and over what period. They would be well placed to determine what services are required to meet identified needs and so achieve desired outcomes, and be able to judge more accurately which existing services need to be decommissioned because they are not meeting identified needs.As for the second question, the authors argue that local authorities should have a central location for information about children and childrens services, for example collating and maintaining an up-to-date store of all local data and reports.They should also develop a strategy for knowledge management, ti include, for instance, a commitment to understand the needs of all children in the area in question and a method for identifying gaps in knowledge.Lastly, the authors argue, needs assessments should be located in the context of strategic development and service design. Several useful operating systems for service development have emerged in recent years. Most involve the analysis of need early in the process, and some require that this be done by way of a scientific survey of the prevalence of different risk and protective factors among children in the community.Needs assessment studies, the authors argue, are often conducted badly and for the wrong reasons: to deal with a budget underspend, to satisfy personal curiosity, to give the impression of doing something, to keep inspectors happy. This creates a vicious circle: the research is found wanting by policy makers; such studies are not prioritized, and receive inadequate funding; practitioners are reluctant to invest time in doing something that will have little impact; and so on.Robust methods for needs assessment and needs-led service design exist, the researchers conclude. The problem is that their use is the exception when it ought to be the rule.See:: Axford N, Green V, Morpeth L, Kalsbeek A and Palmer C. (forthcoming) Measuring childrens needs: how are we doing?, Child & Family Social Work.

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