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Our Services: Assessments

Sometimes the most pressing question is ‘where are we now and how do we move forward?’

Assessments and Organizational Audits exist to answer these questions.

Recounted by Allison Van, Applied Research Team Lead

You may need to understand the assets and needs of communities you serve or wish to engage with. Or perhaps you’re a leader in an organization or network and want hard data about what’s happening that you can measure progress against.

I spent three years just doing assessments full time. My team and I traveled across the United States to large human service agencies in crisis.  We would then look at every aspect of the system to determine what the underlying issues were that caused the crisis, and what needed to happen to re-build better. 

The whole secret to a good assessment was learning about the system from as many perspectives with as many kinds of information as possible.  We knew we were done when we no longer heard or saw anything new. Typical elements of assessments we would do include: 

Observation and casual conversation:

  • For community assessments, that often involves regularly visiting local bars, coffee shops, parks, or community centres and starting conversations. Tracking basic information about where we went and who we talked to and lining it up with local demographic data helped us be sure we’re getting an appropriate range of perspectives.
  • Similarly, in organizational audits, after building relationships with each unit, my team would go in and observe, ideally on and off for several days so any “best behaviour” fell away.

Scouring the data and collecting our own:

  • My team would request all the data that was being collected from every organization in the system and analyze all of it. What we saw in the raw data would inform what we asked in interviews and surveys. 
  • Sometimes data seemed a little questionable, so we’d find a simple way of collecting new data that would help either confirm or repudiate what we got. I once stood outside a juvenile court in the rain for five hours talking to families as they came out in order to check the accuracy of data on charging that seemed a bit off. It was. Checking kept us from using inaccurate data.

Process mapping:

  • We would work with all the different groups that were part of the process that clients experienced from their first engagement with the system until they were completely done – this often involved multiple organizations and some informal groups.
  • We’d bring them together to map out in a lot of detail, how people moved through each step of the system. This process is always INCREDIBLE because even in small organizations, people had all kinds of assumptions about what others in the system were doing.  Hearing directly from each other and then talking about how to make the processes better for clients and the functioning of the system revolutionized a lot of workplaces.
  • For a lot more about process mapping, check out a talk I gave during our Productivity During Pandemic series.

There are a bunch of other elements, including sometimes using ‘secret shoppers’ and always doing interviews and surveys of people engaged in the system in every kind of role.  The goals of an assessment are always:

1) to understand what’s really happening, from every perspective;

2) to build a plan, and the will amongst all those involved in the assessment, to change things – starting with the easy stuff and building momentum.