Needs assessment

In this section:

  • Assessing the needs of your community and clients
    • Identifying different kinds of needs
    • Using existing data to understand a community’s needs
    • Finding out what clients say they need
  • Assessing the capacity of your service to meet the needs of community and clients
    • Setting objectives
    • Using a logic model to help in your planning and evaluation

Getting started

In ‘Agreeing Outcomes’ you asked yourselves: what outcomes do you want to achieve and for whom?

Critical to assessing the needs and identifying the outcomes will be the involvement of users or potential users of your service in the needs assessment process. The National Treatment Agency for substance misuse (now part of Public Health England) recognises that users need to be at the heart of the process of reducing the harm caused by substance misuse : ‘We respect the unique expertise and experiences of users and understand the health, esteem and other personal benefits that involvement can bring.’ Social Work as a profession also recognises that any assessment requires the involvement of the service user from the outset. And while references to social work assessments are usually referring to the assessment for an individual or family, assessments of community needs always have service users at the heart. Guidance on how to involve users or potential users in assessing need can be accessed from a number of source including the Big Lottery (for example Beneficiary involvement in funding processes at BIG A study by the Institute for Voluntary Action Research, March 2013 ) and local and regional voluntary groups like Creating Excellence.

Now ask yourself and your users or potential users:

  • What are the specific needs of the community in which you are working?
  • What are the needs of the clients you are hoping to help?
  • What age are the children?
  • Are there any other needs which co-exist with alcohol misuse such as domestic violence, mental health issues, homelessness or worklessness?
  • Can local partners work with you to identify those needs?

In answering these questions you will cover a wide range of needs, identified by Bradshaw as:

  • Expressed needs (What clients demand, usually unprompted)
  • Felt needs (What clients say they need, especially when they have had an opportunity to reflect on their situation and consider the options)
  • Normative needs (What professionals believe clients need, based on the available data)
  • Comparative needs (What professionals believe clients need based on their understanding of social and other forms of inequality).

Case study: Assessing expressed and felt needs

A large agency, bidding for funds to work with families with complex needs, including parental misuse of drugs and alcohol, worked with independent consultants to carry out a needs assessment to inform the development of the new service.
Through a series of face to face interviews with established groups of existing clients and telephone interviews with individual existing and potential clients, the consultants found that although the bidding team had a good understanding of the clients’ social and therapeutic needs some of the most significant barriers to change for the women in the past were practical. Many of the interviewees were single parents or victims of domestic violence living in hostel accommodation with their children. They could not attend counselling for their drug and alcohol needs, parenting classes or classes to improve their employability because there was no provision for child care, especially when services were provided in the evening or during school holidays. The lack of funding for transport costs was also a barrier, especially as public transport links were poor in the area. The agency amended the bid to take these needs into account and was successful in achieving the funds to match the service to the clients’ practical and therapeutic needs.

It is worth remembering that the more clients know about a service, what it does and does not offer, the more they can contribute to its ongoing development, so don’t think of needs assessment as something you do once and at the beginning. Formative evaluation provides a further opportunity to improve the service based on users’ growing understanding of their needs and how they can be met. The User’s voice is also important in the overall evaluation of a service.

Similarly, community needs can also change during the lifetime of a service due, for example, to economic changes. Work with partners to share intelligence about what is happening nationally and locally and try to anticipate the impact on your work with clients.

Tools to help you assess normative and comparative needs:

Indices of Deprivation

When assessing the needs of your local community start by looking at the English Indices of Deprivation. These are now published every three years by the Department for Communities and Local Government and are an official measure of how deprived places are. The most recent indices were published in 2010 and were based on an assessment of relative deprivation in over 30,000 areas of about 1,500 people each, called Lower Super Output Areas. The Indices measure deprivation according to seven domains:

  • Income deprivation (Income Deprivation Affecting Children is a sub-domain which may be particularly relevant when assessing needs in your local community)
  • Employment deprivation
  • Health deprivation and disability
  • Education, skills and training (children / young people sub-domain, skills sub-domain)
  • Barriers to housing and services (wider barriers sub-domain, geographical barriers sub-domain)
  • Crime
  • The living environment (the indoors living sub-domain, the outdoors living sub-domain).

However, findings are weighted so that the final scores for each area are most heavily influenced by income and employment data. The indices of deprivation provide a relative measure, enabling you to identify how deprived the area in which you work is, in comparison to other areas both locally and across the country. Use the postcode search tool at to access deprivation data for your local area.

ACORN stands for A Classification of Regional Neighbourhoods. The data is derived from census information and it classifies every UK street or neighbourhood into one of 6 categories, 18 groups and 62 types. Using ACORN can help you draw conclusions about economic status and habits of the families you are working with at the level of the whole post-code. For more information go to To find out the ACORN category for the postcodes where you are working, you will need to register to use this facility – registration is free.

There are also data which can help you to understand the scale of alcohol misuse in your community. Public Health England Health Profiles include information about the hospital admissions for alcohol as well as a wide range of other health and social indicators such as academic achievement by school aged children.

You can also compare your community with others in the same region (former regional health authorities) across the same range of indicators.

More specific information about alcohol use in a community can be found at: Local Area Alcohol profiles.

The National Council for Voluntary Services gives a helpful list of data sources for anyone assessing need under the heading ‘External Sources’ on its webpage on Addressing Needs.

Local Safeguarding Children Boards and Health and Wellbeing Boards can tell you about the needs of the most vulnerable children in your community.

You should also take account of the transport links and lifestyles of your possible clients. Where possible, try to compare these needs with those of other similar and neighbouring communities.

Service capacity

Now ask yourself:

  • Do you have the capacity to meet the needs you have identified?
  • Do you need to develop better or more specific partnerships before you submit a bid to set up or run the service?
  • Do you have enough well qualified staff and volunteers to meet the needs of your clients?
  • Do you have access to accredited training and professional support for staff and volunteers? (See also sections 7-10.)

One important step in assessing your service capacity is to be clear about exactly what you intend to do in order to meet the clients’ needs. In other words you need to be clear about your aims and objectives. Objectives should be SMART.

SMART Objectives are:

  • Specific: they clearly identify who will be affected by what is done, and how they will be affected
  • Measurable: there are ways of measuring the achievement of the objectives
  • Achievable: the objectives can be achieved based on evidence and experience
  • Relevant: the objective meets the needs of the families and the community
  • Time-bound: the objectives can be achieved within a defined timeframe.

Listen to this audio clip for a more detailed description of what SMART objectives are.

Case study: Using SMART objectives

A drugs charity began offering parenting support when they found that parents (especially mothers) recovering from addiction struggled to re-assert normal parental relationships with their children. Often the children had become accustomed to being in a caring role, either for their siblings or for their own parents. In some families, the stress this caused parents could lead to a relapse and a further cycle of treatment. Professionals identified the need for parenting support (normative need), and considered this was particularly needed by this group compared with other parents where substance misuse was not a problem (comparative need). The suggestion was welcomed by clients, although they did not specifically request it (felt need).

The aim of the service was: to improve outcomes for children affected by parental drug misuse. The objectives were:

  • to reduce harm to children from parental drug misuse through whole family support including: treatment and counselling for the substance misusing parent and partners at all stages in the cycle; counselling and support for children
  • to improve parents’ communication with their children and practise strategies of successful parents e.g. boundary setting, nurturing, playing with their children, all within a structured programme lasting 24 weeks. The service was confident that they could recruit the staff needed to offer the range of interventions they wanted to offer through part time sessional therapists. They planned to offer a parenting programme which had been evaluated with drug using parents before. They had suitable premises to offer regular meetings with adults and children.

Once you have established the aims and objectives for your service you are in a good position to develop a logic model which will assist in the monitoring and evaluation of your service.

Logic models

A ‘logic model’ is the theory of change of your service or intervention. It describes how what you plan to do will lead to the outcomes you have identified. Listen to this audio clip for a detailed explanation of what a logic model is, how it works and how they are constructed.

For further information and resources relating to the use of logic models there is a great deal of information available from the University of Wisconsin – Extension.

A logic model can act as a road map and can help you and your organisation to: - clearly identify what you have set out to achieve (aims and objectives) - plan and design your service - manage your service - communicate what you do to others - indicate when and how to evaluate your service by measuring your outcomes - demonstrate the relationship between what you invest in your service (the inputs), what you do (outputs) and the effect you have (short, medium and long term outcomes).

Using a logic model it will be easier to identify the milestones and key performance indicators for your work. These elements are usually essential when writing a bid to fund a new service or to sustain an existing service.
To create a logic model, you and your team, your service users and your other stakeholders should work together to identify:

  • Your goals – this is the big one! What are you hoping to achieve in the long term? For the Comic Relief services it was to reduce alcohol hidden harm. However, this is too big (and too vague) a target for a single service. There are many different ways to reduce alcohol hidden harm. A government could attempt to prohibit all sales of alcohol for example, or raise the price through taxation so that fewer people drink alcohol. A local authority could take into its care any child affected by parental alcohol misuse (although whether this would cause more harm might be debatable!) Nevertheless it is important to keep the goals in mind and to review whether what you are doing is contributing to this strategically.
  • Your aims – this is the specific change you hope to achieve with your service for your clients e.g. increase the number of children who are living in a safer environment, where adults do not misuse alcohol; encourage the development of resilience in children; improve parenting; raise awareness in universal services so they can recognise and act on signs of alcohol hidden harm, and so on.
  • Objectives – these are changes you expect to see which will contribute to your aim e.g. children feel safer; parents can discipline their children appropriately; children can identify adults who can support them outside the immediate family.
  • Inputs – the resources you have at your disposal including staff, premises, partnerships, training.
  • Outputs - what you will deliver e.g. parenting courses; play therapy; training for universal providers.
  • Short, intermediate and long term outcomes - These need to be specific and measurable e.g. Universal provider will make appropriate referrals, parents will attend 80% of a structured parenting programme over a period of 8 weeks; parents will practice parenting skills and strategies introduced during the programme; there will be observable changes in parent child relationships after 3 months.
  • Assumptions – These are the underlying assumptions and theories on which you have based your service. These can be difficult to identify and are often overlooked at the planning stage E.g there are no systematic barriers to parents’ attendance e.g. transport problems or school holidays; premises are acceptable and accessible to clients who most need the service; parents are willing (i.e. not required to attend by e.g. a court order), partners understand and implement the referral criteria.
  • Context – This is anything in the local or national arena which is relevant to your aims e.g. a government initiative on alcohol consumption or contradictory parenting advice is widely promoted to the general public through popular TV programmes.

These elements can be summarised in a table which fits on one sheet of paper and will help you to communicate with partners, funders and evaluators. Here is a logic model based on a template from the University of Wisconsin

You can use this to help you develop your own logic model:

Don’t expect to finalise your logic model on your own and in one go! Unless you have a lot of experience of project planning in this way it will probably take a few hours or a few sessions of head scratching for two or more people and there will be a few revisions before you reach agreement. It can be really helpful to involve some of your stakeholders in the process. However, the investment of this time at the beginning of a project is invaluable as once you have done it you will have a shared understanding of the way forward and the ability to see clearly when things are not working out as you expected so you can take early action to get things back on track.

The following is an example based on several of the projects funded by Comic Relief

Logic Model Alcohol Hidden Harm Project - Outreach

Inputs Outputs Outcomes- Impact
Activities Participation Short Medium Long
1 full time equivalent project worker and 0.4 full time equivalent manager both with extensive experience in the field of hidden harm.

Sessional workers (2x 5 hours per week)

Administrative resources at the project office.

The premises of the various universal services used for training, meetings and / or seeing clients as part of satellite services.
Training for staff at universal services.

parenting courses;

play therapy;

counselling for parents and children
Parents will attend 80% of a structured parenting programme over a period of 8 weeks;

Universal provider will make appropriate referrals

Children will be able to access play therapy at Children’s Centres and schools

Adults and children will attend a minimum of three counselling sessions
Parents understand the impact of their alcohol misuse on their children

Parents report practising parenting skills and strategies introduced during the programme;

Parents can discipline their children appropriately;
There will be observable changes in parent child relationships after 3 months;

Children report they feel safer;

Children can identify adults who can support them outside the immediate family
Increased children’s resilience

Partnership working continues to sustain the hidden harm agenda within universal children’s services.
Assumptions External Factors
Closer working with universal children’s services is successful in reaching families who are not currently in contact with specialist services. there are no systematic barriers to parents’ attendance e.g. transport problems or school holidays; premises are acceptable and accessible to clients who most need the service; parents are willing (i.e. not required to attend by e.g. a court order), partners understand and implement the referral criteria. Contradictory parenting advice is widely promoted to the general public through popular TV programmes. Economic climate: Children’s Centres and other universal providers may not continue to receive the same level of funding as previously.

Case study: Developing a logic model

A drugs charity established a service for families with complex needs and asked an independent consultant to evaluate the service. The consultant began by asking the managers to identify their aims and objectives and worked with them to develop a logic model for each element of the service: a parenting course and play therapy. The first one took almost two hours to complete, but the second one was much quicker, around 15 minutes. At the end of the session managers were pleased with what they had achieved. ‘It’s so good to see it all on one sheet’ ‘I can use this with my team, but also when I meet with the Local Authority’. The evaluator also knew what the key priorities were for the service and which elements to measure to demonstrate the effects of their work for funders, current and future.


Understanding all the different needs of your potential clients is key to the planning and delivery of an effective service and helps you to determine whether you have the capacity to meet those needs; what the aims and objectives will be and how you will deliver the service, which is best described in a logic model.


References from this section: