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Establishing Community Priorities

The involvement of the broader community is imperative in setting priorities.

Altogether the information gathering strategies described previously result in a large body of varied information. Analysis of this information has so far focused on the specific types of data rather than addressing how to synthesize all the findings to develop a coherent picture of the community. This section will outline a process for sorting through all the information in order to identify a core set of community issues and establish community priorities.

Once the data sources have been analyzed individually, all the data should be reviewed for areas of confirmation and conflict in order to establish a core set of issues (Samuels et al., 1995). An area of confirmation is one in which more than one of the information sources identify a particular issue as being important. An area of conflict occurs when only one data source indicates that an issue is important.

To begin this process, the planning team should look for issues that have been identified by more than one source of information. A good rule of thumb is that if two or more sources indicate that an issue is important, it should be added to the list of core community issues (Samuels et al.,1995). Issues that are raised by only one source of information also require further consideration before their status is determined. In some cases, issues may be identified by only one source of information due to the sensitivity of the subject. For example, an issue such as family violence may be identified statistically. However, it may not be mentioned by community members either because people are unaware of the problem or are reluctant to talk about it. Other issues may be identified by specific segments of the population rather than the community as a whole and, therefore, the importance of the issue may not be validated by statistical data. In these types of circumstances further discussion about the issue's overall importance is warranted. The following questions may assist the planning group in determining which issues should remain on the planning table (Samuels et al., 1995).

How important is the issue to the purpose and the objectives of the assessment? For example, if the community assessment is focusing on families and children the issue of family violence may be too important to ignore.

Who felt the issue was important? For example, if the community assessment is focused on the issue of homelessness, feedback from people who are or have been homeless should carry a lot of weight. Otherwise, members of this group may become alienated from the process rather than engaged in it.

Once the community assessment data has been analyzed for areas of confirmation and conflict, the planning group should have a set of core issues. To keep the process manageable the list should include 10 to 15 issues and a summary of each should be developed in order to provide a framework for establishing priorities (Samuels et al., 1995). See Worksheet 8 for a possible format for these summaries.

Using the list of core issues, establishing priorities is the next step in the community assessment process. The involvement of the broader community is imperative in this stage. The more inclusive the process, the greater the support for the decisions and the more likely that people will become engaged in the next phase of organization and development to address the issues. A "town hall" meeting using a group decision-making process will get the community to establish community priorities in a forum that facilitates collective ownership and organizational development. Nominal group process is recommended in the literature as a good method for group decision making (see About Methodologies for further information) (Samuels et al., 1995).