Responding to the coronavirus pandemic: Conducting a needs assessment in a time of rapid change

Content type
Practice guide

June 2020


Shae Johnson

Conducting a needs assessment during times of major change is important to ensure your service is responding effectively to community needs.

This article is part of a series on responding to the coronavirus pandemic. See the other articles on Assessing rapid service changes and Documentation tips for monitoring and evaluation.

This short article provides guidance to services on conducting a needs assessment during the coronavirus pandemic. Conducting a needs assessment during times of major change is important to ensure your service is responding effectively to community needs.

Assessing the needs of your community

A needs assessment is a systematic process for getting information about social needs or issues in a place or population group. It can be used to determine which issues should be prioritised for action. This process supports good decision making by creating a more complete picture of what is happening for the community.

We have published resources on how to do a needs assessment here. However, the coronavirus pandemic might have affected family needs in new ways. Different issues may have emerged in your community and the transition back to what may or may not be normal has many unknowns. So below we outline some of the basic steps in undertaking a new needs assessment in a time of rapid change. These steps do not replace a comprehensive needs assessment but will allow a timely response when needs are continuing to change.  

1. Establish the purpose of the needs assessment

Be clear about the purpose of your needs assessment and how you will use the findings, to ensure the information you collect is useful. For example, do you want to identify any new needs in your target group? Or do you now have a different target group? Or perhaps you are interested in knowing if needs are still being met after changes to service delivery.

It is useful to engage with key decision makers within your service at this stage. This will help to ensure you have appropriate resourcing and agreement on the purpose of the needs assessment. These decision makers may be program, operational or strategy managers within your service. 

2. Collect data

Identify suitable questions that relate directly to the purpose of the needs assessment. Also think about who it would be best to gather information from. It may be current service users or participants that are no longer engaged with your service. To minimise the burden on participants, only collect data directly if you are unable to gather the information from other sources.

Asking targeted questions that are within your service’s capacity could be more useful than asking general questions on need. In this way, your service will be able to respond to the identified needs. For example, if your programs have a focus on providing parenting support then frame your questions within this topic. A question may be, ‘With the current social isolation restriction have you noticed new issues arising with your child’s behaviour or routines?’

With the current social distancing restrictions, telephone calls, video conferences or a short survey on a web-based program may be the best ways to quickly gather information. Keeping the number of questions to a minimum and letting your participants know it will only take a short time can help with completion rates.

When conducting interviews or surveys it is important to identify any privacy or ethical considerations. Ensure you are letting participants know the purpose of the data collection, that the information gathered will not identify them and that it is a voluntary process.

For details on survey methods and other ways to gather participant information, this Toolkit from the Community Tool Box provides practical examples for assessing community need.

3. Use multiple data sources

Due to the rapid response needed at this time, your service may not be able to conduct a comprehensive systematic needs analysis. Even so, it is valuable to gather data from multiple sources to ensure your approach is evidence-informed. To gather this evidence, you could survey or speak to a small number of service users and service providers within your organisation for insight into lived experience and practice expertise.

Research providing current best evidence can come from a number of sources. Secondary data sources (data that already exists) may be reports from services such as mental health helplines or data agencies such as the Australian Bureau of Statistics. Your local government council or Primary Health Network may have already conducted needs assessment surveys with your community. It may be worthwhile contacting local organisations such as these to identify community need within your region.

There is also a growing research base on how families and communities are adjusting to the coronavirus pandemic. Review what is available on the websites of organisations that you regularly go to for evidence-informed practice and program information. For example, the Centre for Excellence in Child and Family Welfare. This information may not be localised to your community but may provide evidence on the best way to address identified needs.

4. Identify and prioritise needs

Once information has been collected, bring together the data from your multiple data sources. You may find it useful to group similar needs within program areas, such as parenting support, and highlight those that have been identified by multiple sources. Have your findings identified new needs or new target groups? What is the current evidence to address these findings?

How your service prioritises the identified needs will depend on a number of factors. Considerations may include available resources, the long-term impact of the issue or staff expertise. What are the priorities and what can your service realistically achieve in the short term?

Your service may respond by adjusting the focus of a program that is already being delivered or by delivering a new program. It may be useful at this stage to work with partner organisations that are already delivering diverse programs.

5. Review needs as necessary

As the impact of the coronavirus continues, needs may change in your community or new needs may arise. Reviewing the needs of your participants again at future time points will ensure you are able to match your response to emerging need. If you are already monitoring participant experience of program delivery, a small number of questions on changing needs could be included.

If your service is anticipating that you will continue with program changes into the future, it may be worthwhile undertaking a more comprehensive systematic needs assessment of the community.

Further information on conducting a systematic needs assessment is available here.