Break it Down: Using a Participatory Needs Assessment Before Writing a RFP

Posted on February 17, 2016



Brian C. Bray

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All local government administrators have, at one time or another, been required to write a Request for Proposal (RFP) and/or score responses. The procedures are pretty similar:

  • An RFP is written to allow the government to solicit a vendor to provide a needed service.

  • The RFP is distributed and companies and agencies respond to the RFP.

  • Responses are scored by a committee made up of government employees experienced in the field.

  • A vendor is selected; a contract is negotiated and signed.

What is often lacking in the RFP process is the opportunity for the public to participate in these important purchasing decisions. Without adequate public participation, government can miss the mark of what the public actually wants. Services and programs are then less effective.

Local governments use the RFP process to identify potential solutions when information is limited. The RFP process often results in an array of opportunities, however, if the problem is inadequately defined, the  proposed solutions may not align appropriately with community needs. A Needs Assessment allows individuals to fully understand the problem so the proposed solutions address every major, relevant need.

Much like a RFP is a systematic process to identify different solutions, a Needs Assessment is a systematic process for determining project goals and existing barriers. The steps to completing a needs assessment are:

  • Formulate the question(s) you want answered;

  • Review information concerning the topic;

  • Analyze that information and make decisions.

A participatory needs assessment differs from a non-participatory assessment by its inclusion of the public in the process. Rather than reviewing existing data sources, a participatory needs assessment actively seeks out input from the public before making any decisions. Although this is often easier said than done, the burden of including the public is on government officials.

The first step in completing a participatory needs assessment is to identify the relevant stakeholders. Stakeholders are anyone that would be impacted by the decision. Often, for purchases that are for internal government use only, the general public may not be engaged. However, that does not mean there are no stakeholders – government employees may be considered stakeholders and they should still be engaged.

Now, consider what information you want to collect. Review existing information to identify knowledge gaps. After determining what is missing, formulate the questions you want answered.

Next, determine the appropriate method to collect the needed information. Balance the need of rich information against the desire for maximum participation. Methods include online surveys, focus groups, or a mix.

Collect the information. Meaningful participation may be challenging, but it is often helpful to take a solution-focused approach: a future-oriented, goal-directed approach to solving problems. Instead of focusing on what is wrong with the current situation, a solution-focused approach asks what is working right and how it can be replicated or enhanced.

Finally, analyze the information gathered and collected. Unless time is limited, it is helpful to take a step back before conducting the analysis. Without adequate time and space, it is tough to differentiate the forest from the trees. When complete, however, you will have a much stronger handle on the problem.

Once complete, it is often helpful to attach a summary of the Needs Assessment to the RFP so the potential vendors understand the problem they are proposing a solution for. The proposals will be much stronger, resulting in better programs and services.

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