At INASP we provide small grants to support capacity building activities in many areas. In all areas including mine, the evidence informed policy making (EIPM) programme, we are very interested in if a capacity gap a) exists and b) if the proposed intervention goes some way to filling that gap. As such we provide small grants to conduct needs assessments and pilot activities.
In some cases we do get applications where the research has been carried out and gaps identified and the application is thus for a targeted intervention. However I have noticed that a number of applications coming to us include a needs assessment (which is a good thing) but also include detailed plans to tackle the skills gap (before the results of the needs assessment are in). This raises a number of questions which I hope others will be willing to share their thoughts and experiences on:
Is the needs assessment considered a box-ticking exercise to make an application better?
With an increased focus on making sure that interventions and limited funds are spent in the most efficient way possible and on projects that are more than gut feeling there is a push to ask for the evidence that a problem exists and that the proposed intervention will go some way to solving the problem. I wonder if this push, though laudable, creates an incentive to add a needs assessment section to an application to get the associated ‘bonus point’ in the way a large number of applications include ‘monitoring and evaluation’ to mean asking participants if they liked the workshop.
Is the needs assessment going to be carried out properly if the project team has already decided what the gaps are (and what the solutions are too)?
This question follows on from the first and is really asking what is the needs assessment for? Is it to identify a problem so that you can design an intervention to tackle it or is it to justify an approach you have already decided upon? In the EIPM discourse there is reference to evidence-informed policies versus policy informed evidence – I can see the similarities here. From a methodological point of view it is hard to imagine any needs assessment data being analysed objectively when you have already decided what you are going to do. As a researcher I get concerned if my results fit my hypothesis perfectly and this challenges me to see if I am asking the right questions or even using the right tools to understand a problem.
Is there a way to incentivise the approach of finding out what needs to be done before proffering a solution?
This is really about asking how you encourage applicants to value the process of understanding the problem first before coming in with solutions. In the wider sector sometimes funds are allocated to very specific problems such that an organisation may find itself applying for funds to do work within a very narrow remit regardless of whether that work is a) relevant to the context or b) the organisation has the expertise to deliver such work. Does this create a situation where people are working on the current ‘hot’ topic and end up with a bizarre situation of having a solution (dependent on the funding) in need of a problem?
Of course a needs assessment only helps you identify a problem; it does not tell you if your solution will necessarily solve the problem. However I do think the process of clarifying exactly what the issue is is very important. I use needs assessment in this post but of course this applies to other areas of project design and management. I am sure there are other questions raised but I look forward to your thoughts and experiences on some of those above.