A needs assessment is a systematic process for determining and addressing needs, or "gaps" between current conditions and desired conditions or "wants". The discrepancy between the current condition and wanted condition must be measured to appropriately identify the need. The need can be a desire to improve current performance or to correct a deficiency.
A needs assessment is a part of planning processes, often used for improvement in individuals, education/training, organizations, or communities. It can refine and improve a product such as a training or service a client receives. It can be an effective tool to clarify problems and identify appropriate interventions or solutions. By clearly identifying the problem, finite resources can be directed towards developing and implementing a feasible and applicable solution. Gathering appropriate and sufficient data informs the process of developing an effective product that will address the groups needs and wants. Needs assessments are only effective when they are ends-focused and provide concrete evidence that can be used to determine which of the possible means-to-the-ends are most effective and efficient for achieving the desired results.
Needs assessments can help improve the quality of policy or program decisions—thus leading to improvements in performance and the accomplishment of desired results. Improving results—that is, moving from current to desired performance—is typically a worthwhile and valuable effort. The results of a needs assessment will guide subsequent decisions—including the design, implementation, and evaluation of projects and programs that will lead to achieving desired results.
Defining 'need' is an essential starting place for needs assessments. Though the word need is used casually in many context without a definition, in order to assess them, a need is often defined as a gap in results where its satisfaction, or partial satisfaction, is necessary for the achievement of another specific socially-permissible result. Each need therefore consist of two related gaps in results, leading to the assessment (size, direction, characteristics, etc.) of each gap as well as the relationship among the gaps. This distinguishes needs assessments from surveys of people 'wants" or favorite solutions.
There are three perspectives on need in a needs assessment; perceived need, expressed need and relative need.
- Perceived needs are defined by what people think about their needs, each standard changes with each respondent.
- Expressed needs are defined by the number of people who have sought help and focuses on circumstances where feelings are translated into action. A major weakness of expressed needs assumes that all people with needs seek help.
- Relative needs are concerned with equity and must consider differences in population and social pathology.