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Overview

OVERVIEW AND EVIDENCE BASE

WHAT DO WE MEAN BY THIS PROCESS?

Analyzing Information about the Problem or Goal is a process to assess needs and resources and set priorities for change so that a group's efforts are both grounded in and responsive to community needs and concerns. When groups engage in this process, they examine key behaviors (e.g., youth alcohol use) and personal and environmental factors that affect them (e.g., peer refusal skills, easy access to commercially available alcohol). They also examine community resources that can be used and/or strengthened to address the goal. The process of Analyzing Information about the Problem or Goal can help an initiative to understand why something is a problem and how to address it.

As illustrated, Analyzing Information about the Problem or Goal is a key process to help communities anchor change efforts in a thorough understanding of the problem or goal and how to address it.

HOW IT WORKS

Successful change efforts are more likely to occur in communities where residents recognize and support the need for some type of initiative and action. Needs and resource assessments involve community members in "agenda-setting" efforts to identify an issue that is defined as important enough to warrant attention. Community involvement in a process to define and prioritize a group's focus can spark interest, participation, and commitment to subsequent program planning and implementation (e.g., Shortell et al., 2002). The continual process of Analyzing Information about the Problem or Goal can enhance the relevance and appropriateness of a community initiative. It can also set the stage for development of appropriate interventions (see Implementing Effective Interventions) and measurement and interpretation of data for making a difference (see Documenting Progress and Using Feedback) (Israel, Schulz, Parker, & Becker, 1998).

Although the functional mechanisms have not been explicitly tested, community engagement in Analyzing Information about the Problem or Goal may help to:

  • Stimulate buy-in and commitment by identifying and prioritizing a need, crisis, or opportunity that is viewed important to the community (Goodman, Steckler, Hoover, & Schwartz, 1993; Hogan & Murphey, 2002; Kegler & Wyatt, 2003; Mattessich & Monsey, 1992, 1997). By participating in a process of "problem naming," projects are often more focused on specific issues, concerns, and targets for change (Kreuter, Lezin, & Young, 2000; Ploeg et al., 1996).
  • Acknowledge and validate local features of the environment that represent actual barriers or promoters to change (Foster-Fishman, Berkowitz, Lounsbury, Jacobson, & Allen, 2001). Programs built on such assessments can generate community support and ownership when they are viewed as "ecologically valid" or relevant for meeting actual needs (Israel, Schulz, Parker, & Becker, 1998).
  • Encourage consideration of a full range of prevention strategies through articulation of local problem conditions believed responsible for the problem. Descriptions of the problem and resources to address them - before solutions are chosen - can enable selection and development of functional intervention strategies (Florin, Mitchell, & Stevenson, 1993; Sorensen, Emmons, Hunt, & Johnston, 1998). These assessments can also reduce or avoid duplication of current efforts in the community, and prioritize where additional efforts are most necessary.
  • Align subsequent change strategies with the unique cultural values, attitudes, languages, and behaviors among target populations (Foster-Fishman, Berkowitz, Lounsbury, Jacobson, & Allen, 2001; Israel, Schulz, Parker, & Becker, 1998; Shortell et al., 2002).

Yet, community involvement to identify needs and resources for change does not necessarily encourage involvement in other project phases or lead to a sense of community ownership. When assessments exclude and/or data lacks evidence of an expressed community concern, potential collaborators may withdraw (e.g., Goodman, Steckler, Hoover, & Schwartz, 1993). Assessment activities may need not only to clarify and build community awareness and concern (e.g., deliver media or Implement a social marketing effort), but also to strengthen a skill base for taking action (see Assuring Technical Assistance and the relevant toolkits for building core competencies).

EMPIRICAL AND EXPERIENTIAL EVIDENCE

A community initiative's strategy must be based on a realistic assessment of community needs and capabilities and resources relative to those needs. For example, In an evaluation of the Community Care Network (CCN) researchers suggested that community involvement in assessment activities (assuring community input) was critical for creating a "community focus" for mobilizing broad and diverse membership and planning partnership priorities for action (Shortell et al., 2002). For example, one rural site developed an interagency council made up on government and not-for-profit agency directors who served the target populations. It also created a community health council that reached out to grassroots leaders and concerned members of the community. Although the former group met to encourage cross-sector collaboration, the latter held quarterly open forums and conducted health service consumer surveys to identify and discuss pressing community concerns. As information was shared with steering, community health, and interagency committees, the project was able to develop and implement programs to address actual community needs (e.g., getting expensive medication into the hands of people who are chronically ill).

The Healthy Cities Indiana project used a comprehensive approach to identify community issues (Ploeg et al., 1996). Project staff provided census data and vital statistics about their city and county to members of the Health Cities Committees. These data were discussed and used to identify gaps in information, which in turn were addressed by conducting local surveys. To ensure community input into the process, partners used a combination of more traditional household surveys as well face-to-face workshops aimed at children, youth, the elderly, and other hard-to-reach populations. As a result, a list of priorities and concerns specific to each city was developed and used to guide action for change.

IMPLICATIONS FOR RESEARCH AND PRACTICE

At present, much of the information available on Analyzing Information about the Problem or Goal does not explicitly manipulate or test this process and its effects on community change and improvement. Although this process has been identified in several empirical and experiential reviews as a key ingredient for advancing change, there is a need for more systematic evaluations of its effects. Such research would provide a better understanding of the factors that enable communities to come together and address shared problems and goals.

Some key research questions include: (a) What knowledge and resources (and limitations and barriers) do key stakeholders bring to an initiative? (b) How well does current knowledge explain the determinants of community issues? And (c) How much of the context needs to be understood to design and conduct effective interventions and evaluations, and to interpret results?

OVERALL RECOMMENDATION FOR PRACTICE

Based on research and experience, we highly recommend Analyzing Information About the Problem or Goal as a key process to advance community change and improvement.