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Chapter 5 - Assessing target group needs

N.L. McCaslin and Jovan P. Tibezinda

N. L. McCaslin is a Professor in the Department of Agricultural Education, The Ohio State University, Columbus, Ohio. Jovan P. Tibezinda is a Lecturer in the Department of Agricultural Extension/Education at Makerere University, Kampala, Uganda.

Needs assessment techniques

The assessment of target group needs-often called needs assessment-represents one of the first steps in planning and developing extension programmes. Programme planning and development is an ongoing and interrelated process that, in addition to assessing client needs, includes selecting appropriate content and methods in programme delivery, managing programme delivery, and evaluating programme processes and outcomes.

In the United States, needs assessment first emerged with the passage of the Administrative Procedures Act in 1946 (Summers, 1987). In the 1960s and 1970s, more than 30 of the 54 largest pieces of health and human services legislation mandated federal, state, or local needs assessment (Zangwill, 1977). Since then, there has been an increasing emphasis on involving citizens in the planning, conducting, and evaluating of programmes such as extension. On the international scene, an increasing emphasis has been placed on citizen involvement through bottom-up and grass-roots programme planning and development. This is in stark contrast to earlier times when needs were determined by outside consultants and programmes were then developed in response to these needs.

Needs assessment, broadly defined, is a systematic process for establishing priorities and making decisions regarding programme planning, development, and operations. In this chapter, needs assessment is defined as determining if gaps exist between "what is" and "what should be" in terms of the outcomes of extension programmes and then determining the priority of these needs (Kaufman, 1982). Emphasis will be placed on making decisions and setting priorities based on information gathered from the people likely to be affected by these extension programmes.

When needs are being determined, it is essential that distinctions are made between needs, wants, and interests. Needs refer to something considered necessary or required to accomplish a purpose. Wants, on the other hand, are considered desirable or useful, but not essential. Interests indicate an individual's concern or curiosity about something. It is not unusual for individuals to confuse needs, wants, and interests. Therefore, extension personnel undertaking efforts to assess target population needs should ensure that they understand the meaning of "needs."

Needs assessment techniques

This section describes different data-collecting techniques available for carrying out needs assessment. The techniques are discussed under four categories: individual, group, secondary source, and rapid rural appraisal.

Individual Techniques

Individual techniques involve collecting data from people one at a time. The people from whom the needs assessment data are collected do not interact with one another in the course of providing data. Individual techniques include face-to-face interviews, key informant interviews, questionnaires, informal personal observations, and formal personal observations.

Face-to-Face Interviews. This technique is appropriate when dealing with less literate audiences or complex issues about which there is little available information. Both structured and unstructured questions are appropriate for face-to-face interviews, depending on the issues involved and the time available for the interviews. Unstructured questions are useful when dealing with complex or sensitive issues which require probing in order to get accurate data. For example, small-scale farmers may not have a direct answer about how they budget their resources. However, if probed about what they do on a typical day or week, they may provide insights into their economic activities and therefore their needs.

Key Informant Interviews. Key informants are people who are considered experts in a given area because of their professional knowledge or their position of influence in the community or organization. Examples include teachers, religious leaders, grass-roots workers, and traditional and political leaders. There is evidence to show that interviewing several of these categories of informants yields fairly accurate information about the problems and needs of the community at large. Key informants are particularly useful if the needs assessment has to be done fast, using a limited budget.

Questionnaires. This needs assessment technique tends to be more structured than interview schedules and can be administered by phone, mail, or in group settings.

Questionnaires are commonly administered in developed countries by conducting telephone interviews; however, in developing countries they are rarely administered in this manner because of the limited availability of telephones.

When dealing with literate communities that have access to good mail services (public or private), needs assessment surveys can be conducted by mail. Dillman (1978) provides excellent tips on conducting mail surveys which apply to developed and developing countries alike.

Instead of relying on conventional mail services, questionnaires also can be hand-delivered to respondents and collected after they have been completed. Alternatively, one may take advantage of occasions such as annual club or association meetings when potential respondents might come together. In this case, the questionnaires are presented to group members, who are asked to complete and return them before they leave. For best results, the questionnaire should cover pertinent issues and be short enough to be completed in the time the respondents have. When used appropriately, this method may save both time and money necessary for collecting the information. However, one must be cognizant of the high possibility for biases in the information collected. This is because there is always a chance that the assembled group completing the questionnaire is not representative of the audience in mind.

Stevens (1980) indicated that extension workers are often assigned to their positions without proper equipment and adequate preparation. Maalouf and Contado (1983) indicated that there was a need to assess the training needs of extension personnel and establish priorities. When using a questionnaire to collect needs assessment information, let's assume that an agricultural officer has decided to identify the professional skills of extension agents most in need of improvement in their region. One of the first activities of the agricultural officer was to identify the professional skills that extension agents should possess. In reviewing the literature, the officer found that Hedges and Rawls (1988) had identified needs for professional skills of Ugandan extension personnel, such as programme planning and evaluation, utilization of formal and informal teaching techniques, and administration and supervision techniques. This list served as the basis for developing a questionnaire for determining the agents' needs.

Once the initial list of skills had been prepared, it was necessary to assess the agents' perceived current level of competence and the importance they placed on each of the skills. In order to assess the current level of competence, a Likert-type scale was developed that included the following five categories of competence: not at all competent, little competence, moderately competent, fairly competent, and very competent. Next, another Likert-type scale was developed to assess the agents' perceptions of the importance of each of the skills, using the following five categories: unimportant, little importance, moderately important, important, and very important. The two Likert-type scales and the list of skills were combined by rating the current competence on the left of the skill and the importance on the right of the skill (Figure 1).

Once the questionnaires had been completed, the agricultural officer was ready to analyse the data and establish priorities for developing the professional skills of his or her extension agents. Hershkowitz (1973) identified a criticality function that is helpful in establishing such priorities. A 2 x 2 matrix is created in order to establish the priorities (Figure 2). First, an overall mean score is calculated for ability and importance scores for all items on the questionnaire. Then, the mean ability score is plotted on the Y axis and the mean importance score is plotted on the X axis. Perpendicular lines are then drawn from each of these points, resulting in a 2 x 2 matrix. The matrix has four quadrants-high ability-high importance (HH), high ability-low importance (HL), low ability-high importance (LH), and low ability-low importance (LL).

Next, the mean ability and importance scores for each of the professional skills are computed and plotted in the matrix. Those falling in the low ability-high importance quadrant are those with the highest need for development. In this example, skill 1 (producing educational-teaching materials) and skill 5 (determining information needed for evaluations) were those most in need of development.

Informal Personal Observations. Valuable needs assessment data often are gathered through informal observation. Fieldworkers see or experience a lot as they travel and work with farmers in the field. If noted or remembered, this information can be used in needs assessment. People in the habit of keeping diaries or writing notes to themselves are more likely to provide more accurate observational data for assessing needs.

Formal Personal Observations. This needs assessment technique is based on using rating forms, checklists, or observation schedules for collecting information. Formal observations differ from informal personal observations in that the items to be observed are predetermined. This technique also can be used to collect both quantitative and qualitative data.

Group Techniques

Group techniques allow participants to interact with one another during needs assessment activities. Information can be collected in writing, as in the Delphi technique, or orally in a group setting such as a focus group, m both cases, successful needs assessment depends on competent leadership and on having participants who have both the knowledge and willingness to participate actively in the interactive group process (Caffarella, 1982). This section will discuss the Delphi, focus group interviews, the nominal group, and informal group methods.

Figure 1. Sample of the partial questionnaire.

Professional Skills Survey of Extension Personnel

INSTRUCTIONS: This questionnaire lists a number of professional skills that are used by Extension personnel in conducting educational programs. For each of the following skills we would like you to indicate: (1) your competence to perform the skill and (2) the importance of the skill. The following scales are used:

Competence to Perform the Skill
1 = Not at all Competent
2 = Little Competence
3 = Moderately Competent
4 = Fairly Competent
5 = Very Competent

Importance of the Skill
1 = Unimportant
2 = Little Importance
3 = Moderately Important
4 = Important
5 = Very Important

Please circle the number that best represents your response for each item. EXAMPLE:


Professional Skills


1 2 3 4 5

1. Producing educational/teaching materials

1 2 3 4 5

1 2 3 4 5

2. Using audio-visual aids

1 2 3 4 5

1 2 3 4 5

3. Conducting a method demonstration

1 2 3 4 5

1 2 3 4 5

4. Assessing community needs

1 2 3 4 5

1 2 3 4 5

5. Determining information needed for evaluations

1 2 3 4 5

1 2 3 4 5

6. Developing program budgets

1 2 3 4 5

Delphi. In this technique, people with exceptional knowledge about a given subject area are involved in repeated questioning and feedback, using written questionnaires, until a consensus is reached on the subject (Miller & Hustedde, 1987). The process begins with specifying the needs to be assessed, who will be involved, and how the information collected will be used. Ten to fifteen people may be used if responses are not expected to vary a great deal. If major differences in opinion are expected, then larger samples are recommended.

Three to four rounds of questionnaires are used to collect the data. The first round contains open-ended questions asking the participants to write their responses.

After the first questionnaire is returned, the responses are summarized and developed into a second questionnaire. The second questionnaire asks respondents to rank their concerns, support for or disagreement with the various group responses, and explain their position. It identifies areas of agreement and disagreement on priorities. The responses are analysed by tallying and summarizing the comments made. The third questionnaire is developed from the summary of the second. The respondents are asked to review their prior responses in light of the group responses and make additional comments. Additionally, they are asked to vote on the order of importance of the items listed. The third questionnaire is often the last, but if there are major areas of disagreement, additional questionnaires may need to be administered.

Once the questionnaires have been completed, a final report based on the last questionnaire is prepared and sent to the participants. The report should summarize the goals, process, and conclusions or actions reached as a result of the study.

The Delphi has two advantages. First, it avoids the direct confrontation of people with opposing views. Participants do not face the pressure to conform to the majority position. Second, it eliminates the costs of having participants travel to a central place, a major limitation of focus group interviews and the nominal group technique.

The technique has limitations too. Several conditions must be met in order to use this technique (Miller & Hustedde, 1987). First, adequate time must be allotted. It is estimated that in the United States it takes a minimum of 45 days from the development of the questionnaire to the final report. In developing countries, the process could take longer because of relatively poor mail services. Second, the participants must have good writing skills because the technique is used in a written context. Lastly, the participants must be highly motivated because no one will be available to encourage them to complete the several rounds of questionnaires.

The Department of Agricultural Extension Education at Makerere University, Uganda, used this technique to identify and prioritize policy issues related to the conditions of service for women extension workers in the Ministry of Agriculture, Animal Industry and Fisheries.

Women extension workers were involved and three rounds of questionnaires used. Because of the poorly developed domestic postal system, the questionnaires were delivered and collected in person.

Focus Group Interviews. Krueger (1994) defines a focus group interview as a technique in which a group of people who possess certain characteristics provide data of a qualitative nature in a focussed discussion. Each interview involves a group of six to eight people who discuss a common topic for one to tow hours under the direction of a moderator and assistant moderator. The discussion is recorded on an audio tape and later transcribed and reported as qualitative data. Typically, several group interviews are conducted. In each case, the moderator raises various issues pertinent to the needs assessments, following an outline commonly known as the questioning route. The interviews are recorded and analysed for patterns and trends among participants in one interview, as well as across the entire set of groups involved in the needs assessment.

The following example indicates how the focus group technique could be used in conducting a needs assessment. Suppose a home economics extension agent noticed widespread signs of malnutrition (such as poor health and stunted growth) among children in a rural community of 2,000 households. The community produces a variety of food including poultry, livestock, fruits, and vegetables that are critical in diets for children. The community is served by one public health centre that functions fairly well in providing vaccinations and other basic medical services. Several drilled wells provide water for the residents.

The extension agent decided to carry out a needs assessment to explore the problem and to identify practical interventions to address it. The agent set the following objectives of the needs assessment: determining causes of malnutrition among children in the community and identifying measures to improve the situation. Focus group interviews were used because they provided an opportunity for the participants to engage in dialogue about the problem, its causes, and how to go about solving it (Krueger, 1994).

Five steps are critical in the use of focus group interviews (Archer & Layman, n.d.; Krueger, 1994), as seen in the example above:

1. Developing a questioning route. The questioning route was based on the objectives of the needs assessment. Brainstorming with colleagues and prospective users of the information helped to generate the questions. The questioning route, developed in the local language, consisted of four main questions and several questioning probes. The questions were: (a) What problems do parents in this village face in feeding their children? Are the problems similar for all families? (b) What should be done to make sure children get proper nutrition? What can parents themselves do? Can all parents afford these measures? (c) What problems do parents in this village face in keeping their children healthy? (d) What can parents do to improve the health of their children? Does the government have any role to play?

Figure 2. Matrix for determining needs.

2. Recruiting the participants. The extension agent selected one of her assistant agents to help in conducting the interviews. Five interviews, one in each of five villages in the community, were conducted to help ensure representative data and to minimize travel costs on the part of participants. For each interview, eight participants were recruited to represent women's groups, local politicians, school teachers, religious leaders, health practitioners, and parents. The extension agent contacted the prospective participant personally and explained to them the purpose and timing of the focus group interviews. The participants were selected on the basis of their knowledge of the village situation, ability to discuss freely in a group, and interest in child nutrition and health.

3. Planning resources. The extension agent developed the timetable for the sequence of steps involved, as well as the fiscal plan. She approached the administrators of local schools and secured rooms in which to conduct the interviews. A tape recorder was obtained from a local business person.

4. Moderating interviews. The extension agent moderated the interviews with the help of her assistant extension agent. Moderating is the process of keeping the discussion on track. It involved bringing the conversation back on target when irrelevant topics were introduced. This guidance had to be provided without reducing group enthusiasm and interest in the discussion. There are several personal attributes of a good moderator (Krueger, 1994), including (a) familiarity with group process either from previous experience in working with groups or through training in group dynamics, (b) good listening skills, © adequate background knowledge on the topic of discussion, (d) well-developed written and oral communication skills, and (e) a sense of humor.

5. Data analysis and reporting. Data analysis and reporting followed the interpretative summary format, whereby the data were not only described but also interpreted (Krueger, 1994). The analysis started with a debriefing immediately after the interview ended. The interview tape was played and a summary of the interview was written the next day. Each interview summary included key incidents, strong statements, and frequently occurring responses. Next, the key incidents, strong statements, and frequent responses were classified by question, coded, and grouped. The coding and grouping helped identify the general themes in the responses (Krueger, 1994; Miles & Huberman, 1994). The identified themes were then compared across interviews in order to develop a general picture for the whole community on a question by question basis. Lastly, specific concluding statements were made related to the two objectives of the needs assessment. Recommendations also were made regarding measures that extension and other organizations could take to improve child nutrition and health in the communities and region.

Krueger (1994) provides detailed guidelines and examples of focus group interviews as conducted in developed countries, specifically the United States. Focus group interviews have great potential for use in developing countries.

The Nominal Group. This technique can be used to generate possible items and set priorities in conducting a needs assessment. Although the data are generated in a group setting, verbal communication is minimized. For example, a chairperson of a farmers' association invited their extension agent to facilitate a meeting of selected members assembled to determine the activities for the following year. After learning that the farmers could read and write their native language, the extension agent suggested that the nominal group technique be used to assess needs for the association. The extension agent used the following six steps in conducting the nominal group process:

1. Stating of question or problem. This preceded the group session and involved clearly stating the question or problem to be addressed by the participants. The question addressed was: What activities should the association carry out next year?

2. Generation of ideas. The participants sat at a table facing each other and were asked to spend the first several minutes in silence, writing their ideas on a piece of paper. This silence allowed the participants to generate ideas uninterrupted and with out being dominated by aggressive members.

3. Presentation of ideas. After they had finished writing down their ideas, each member presented one idea from his or her list in a round-robin fashion. The chairperson served as the recorder and wrote the ideas on a flip chart in front of the participants. The chairperson listed the ideas in concise phrases without attempting to change the wording or judge the ideas. The listing continued in order until all the participants had presented their ideas. The ideas suggested included organizing a farm fair, conducting an agricultural tour, acquiring an office for the association, increasing membership, and starting a farmers' market in a neighbouring town.

4. Clarification of ideas. The farmers were encouraged to seek clarification of any of the ideas list ed. They were allowed to express their reasons for agreement or disagreement about each item, but argument was discouraged. This step ensured that the ideas listed were clarified without high status or aggressive members dominating the process.

5. Rating of priorities. At this stage, the farmers were asked to choose three of the most important ideas from the list and rank them in order of priority. The rating was done on small cards which, after being collected, were shuffled to ensure anonymity. The votes were then tallied and the results disclosed on a flip chart in front of the group. The three highest rated items were: starting a farmers' market in a neighbouring town, conducting an agricultural tour, and increasing member ship in the association.

6. Discussion and voting. In the last step, the farmers discussed the vote, made additional clarifications, and voiced their agreements or disagreements. Following this discussion, the farmers decided that they would only start a farmers' market and work to increase their membership.

Delbecq (1975) is the original source on the nominal group technique. Miller and Hustedde (1987) have provided some guidelines on the use of the nominal group technique in community needs assessment in the United States. The technique is not widely used in developing countries because, like Delphi, it can only be used with participants who have developed writing skills.

Informal Group Methods. This category includes gathering information at group meetings and social gatherings. It is common for participants at meetings to talk about issues and problems in their family, community, or organization even when they are not part of the agenda. These side conversations may provide insights into the problems facing the organization or the individuals involved, as well as what can be done to address them. Tea-coffee breaks also provide another setting for members of an organization to talk about issues important to themselves, the organization, and the community at large. Important issues or needs of an organization may be identified by simply attending and listening to the conversations going on among its members during these short breaks.

Social gatherings such as recreational, cultural, and religious events also provide opportunities for collecting information. Valuable information may be obtained by listening actively and seeking selected individuals to clarify the issues overheard in the conversations.

Secondary Sources

Voss, Tordella, and Brown (1987) defined secondary data as "information gathered for the purpose other than the immediate or first application" (p. 156). Secondary data sources include census reports, previous studies, and administrative records and reports. Extension staff rarely use these data sources in needs assessment, probably because their application is not straightforward (Sofranko & Khan, 1988).

Census Reports. These data provide aggregate national and community statistics on such important sectors as population, housing, agriculture, education, health, and labour. When recent, these data can be-used to identify the general areas of concern in the community and should serve as a good starting point in assessing needs. For example, small numbers of livestock, chicken, and fish would point to high chances of animal protein deficiency in the diets of community members. This might in turn imply poor health, especially among children.

Previous Studies. These reports include studies done by both groups and individuals. Although the issues studied may not be exactly the same as the needs assessment, there is always a chance that another development agency is, or has been, involved with similar kinds of issues. Local libraries and archives should be searched as a first step in needs assessment. In searching for previous studies, do not be restricted to school and alone. Also, do not forget the nonconventional sources of reading materials such as government departments, NGOs, and other local development agencies. In developing countries, local donor agencies (for example, the World Bank, Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, United Nations Development Programme, United States Agency for International Development, and British Council) maintain valuable collections of (consultancy) studies and reports on past and present projects. Such reports are good for providing expert opinion regarding the problems and prospects upon which needs assessments could be based.

Administrative Records and Reports. Both government and nongovernment organizations maintain records on their activities. Most organizations also publish their activities quarterly or annually. When accessible, relevant organizational records and reports should be perused as one of the sources of needs assessment data.

Rapid Rural Appraisal

Rapid rural appraisal refers to the use of several data collection methods to gather practical information on development issues in local communities quickly (Freudenberger, 1994). These might include interviewing key informants, reviewing secondary data sources, mapping exercises, and conducting semistructured interviews with groups and individuals. Refer to chapter 6 for a detailed description of both rapid rural appraisal (RRA) and participatory rural appraisal (PRA).


This section provides some guidelines to help in conducting a needs assessment. Extension personnel should be encouraged to be creative, efficient, and effective in designing their efforts. Consider the following guidelines:

1. Determine the purpose for conducting the needs assessment. Among these purposes are developing responsive programmes, generating awareness of programmes, satisfying official mandates, aiding in improved programme decisions, and promoting citizen participation and action.

2. Define the goals and objectives for the needs assessment. Show what it is you want to find out about and from whom. How are target clientele (including farmers of different resource levels, genders, and ethnicities) involved in the setting of goals and objectives?

3. Select the approach you will take in collecting the information. Summers (1987) suggests four considerations: (a) the reasons for involving the public, (b) the decisions to be made using the information collected, (c) the need to generate representative information, and (d) the cost involved. Decide whether the needed information already exists, if a new data collection effort is needed, or if a combination of approaches is needed.

4. Design the instrumentation and procedures. When you design needs assessment instruments, it is usually best to keep the process simple. Long and complicated instruments discourage responses. Additionally, short instruments are less expensive to produce, distribute, collect, and analyse. Once a draft instrument has been prepared, it should be checked against the original purposes, goals, and objectives to make sure that nonessential information has not been included.

5. Prepare an estimated time line and budget for the needs assessment. The amount of resources available is likely to be one of the major determinants of the technique used for needs assessment. This is particularly critical in developing countries where resources are more limited. Although critical, budget constraints should not be used as an excuse for poor needs assessment.

6. Conduct a pilot test of the instrumentation and procedures. Special consideration should be given to collecting information from farmers of different resource levels, genders, and ethnicities. Many mistakes can be identified and eliminated in a pilot test with small groups of target clientele.

7. Collect the information. Limit the collection time in order to help develop a sense of urgency and keep the needs assessment targeted.

8. Analyse the data and information. If there is a large response, try to have access to a computer to analyse the data. There are also software packages to analyse qualitative data.

9. Prepare a report of the findings. Make it as user-friendly as possible. Do not feel confined to create one long document. It is probably better to divide the report into several brief documents for specific audiences. Consider using "white space" and figures to help communicate important points. Also consider developing audio-visual reports. Video tapes, transparencies, and slides also can be effective in communicating results.

10. Evaluate your efforts. Take time after the needs assessment has been completed to judge its merit and worth. What worked well? What problems were encountered? How could it have been done better? Once the evaluation is complete, share it with others interested in needs assessments. This will provide an opportunity for others to learn from what was done.

11. Use the needs assessment information. In order to have the information used, the following suggestions are offered: (a) issues that users perceive as important must be addressed; (b) the information must be communicated to the appropriate potential users; © groups must feel empowered to design and improve their programmes; and (d) the information must be available in a timely manner and in an understandable form.


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