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The decision to undertake a community assessment will evolve out of the pre-assessment phase as you learn about the community and establish a network of contacts who see the benefits of participating in this kind of community information gathering process. Once there is agreement that a community assessment is necessary and timely, setting priorities and establishing a plan before getting started is imperative in order to make the assessment process and products as useful as possible. It is important not to rush through the planning process or steps will need to be retraced later.

Worksheet 1 and 2 have helped clarify issues regarding the scope, timeliness and purpose of the community assessment. Next, build on this by considering the key factors that will influence a community assessment process. While assessments will vary from community to community, the literature suggests that consideration be given to the following core elements when developing a plan for a community assessment.

Establishing a Representative Planning Group

The community assessment should be done by the community, rather than to it (Bruner et al., 1993). Planning and guidance throughout the process should be provided by a group that is broadly representative of the community. It should include community members, service providers, consumers, indigenous leaders and decision makers.

Defining the Community

It is important to define the community before collecting data (Samuels et al., 1995). The community may be defined on the basis of geography, attribute/function, interest or a combination of these (Lee, 1992). A geographic community includes people living in the same physical area such as a neighbourhood. A community of attribute/function includes people who share or possess a common characteristic such as gender, ethnicity, religion or socioeconomic status. A community of interest exists when a group of people is drawn together as a result of a strong common interest such as a fight to stop child prostitution or homelessness.

Information Collection and Analysis

Identify the information to be collected. A good community assessment should examine needs, issues, resources and strengths. It should also incorporate, to the degree possible, statistical information as well as the perspectives of community members. A number of different techniques can be used to collect the required information. Then, use the best available analytical techniques to interpret the data (Bruner et al., 1993). When necessary, seek out assistance to ensure that the data collect and analysis processes are successful. (for more information, see Information Collection and Analysis and About Methodologies).

Considering the Community's Unique Characteristics

Each community is unique and therefore the purpose of the community assessment will be unique as well (Bruner et al., 1993). Assessment strategies need to be tailored to the community and the characteristics, strengths and limitations of its people.

Sensitivity, Openness and Inclusiveness

The assessment should be planned and undertaken with a high level of sensitivity, openness and inclusiveness (Bruner et al., 1993). Otherwise, large parts of the community may not participate and needed information will not be acquired. Participation in the assessment will be enhanced if the benefits to the community are clearly outlined and understood (Samuels et al., 1995). Also, consideration needs to be given to who will receive the assessment results and how they will be used. This information needs to be conveyed from the outset.

Timing and Sequencing of Activities

Establish a realistic time frame and sequence of activities before proceeding with the data collection process (Bruner et al., 1993). In some circumstances a pre-established time frame may dictate what information can realistically be gathered rather than the reverse. Gather the particular information needed to answer critical questions for early implementation activities and delay other assessment activities until later. The assessment process should not be so time consuming and labour intensive that, once completed, no one will want to participate in the organization/development and action phases.

The literature suggests that a community assessment can take four months to a year to complete depending on the community and the level of detail and activity decided upon for such an initiative (Bruner et al., 1993; Lee, 1992; Samuels et al., 1995).

Availability of Financial and Human Resources

Identify the financial and human resources available to undertake the community assessment process. Establish your assessment plan on the basis of what is realistic given the available resources.

Anticipating the Challenges

Anticipate the challenges that might arise during the assessment process and consider how they might be handled. This will help prevent unnecessary work and the assessment will be completed without unnecessary delays and complications.

Worksheet 3 asks questions which will help address these core elements. The process of completing the worksheet, will provide the information needed to develop a plan for the community assessment. As engagement of the community in the assessment process is critical to its success, it is important to work through these questions with the community members who expressed an interest in the process. Utilize the network of contacts developed during the pre-assessment phase to begin to establish a planning group which will guide the process.