Participatory needs assessment

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Needs assessments are typically conducted exclusively by practitioners at the cost of quality or entirely by external evaluators at the cost of relevance. This article makes a case for participatory needs assessment, which we define as a systematic approach to setting organizational priorities in which trained evaluators and program stakeholders share responsibility for all substantive and procedural decisions. We outline potential advantages and three critical challenges: enlisting genuine participation by program staff, reducing time demands on stakeholders, and maintaining evaluation quality. We conducted a case study in which 81 stakeholders worked with an external evaluator to identify and prioritize needs in one school district. The district developed nine strategies for dealing with the challenges of participatory needs assessment. The result was a needs assessment that reached relatively high levels of utilization (support for discrete decisions, conceptual use, and process use) and moderately high levels of quality, particularly with regard to credibility with users. We argue that participatory needs assessment is an appropriate extension of participatory approaches to program evaluation.

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