Problem Statement versus Needs Assesment The determination of whether you write a problem statement or a needs assessment may hinge more on the funder’s priorities than your own passion for the project. Either way, the same information will be stated either as a reduction of what is currently a problem or an enhancement of a need to be added to a current situation. For example, let’s look at a fictitious rural community facing a particular environmental situation.
The federal public land manager in charge of a watershed surrounding the small, rural community of Cottonwood Creek brings a partnership of local stakeholders together worried about the namesake stream that flowed through their town of 4,000 people. The meeting includes representatives from the power generation plant, military installation and farmers upstream, wildlife biologists and recreation specialists from the state and county park systems, and business and civic leaders from the region. Other citizens show up, not yet convinced there is a need for action because they don’t trust government.
Collectively, they might talk about the situation as a problem of degradation of the banks right in town, pollution both upstream from agricultural activity and in town storm drain design. The sediments eroding from unstable banks are threatening fishing, including one endangered species of trout. Of course, the discussion would have to include evidence that a problem does indeed exist and development of the conviction that not acting would lead to a bad result for the stream, the town, and the individual stakeholders. Using the IDPER approach, a possible problem statement might read as follows: Cottonwood Creek – Problem Statement outline
I=Cottonwood Creek is experiencing destruction of valuable riparian habitat along several miles of streambed. In the past year, the signs of neglect and abuse have become hard to ignore, even from the most skeptical observers. D=The once scenic creek winds its way through several miles of private land and a military base, past a utility plant, before wandering through the city’s central core business district. The community has unrestricted access. The stream that, for generations, has sustained a vibrant local rural economy and withstood pressure from increased usage is now facing unprecedented degradation.
Older stands of cottonwood are noticeably weaker if not dead. Limited access upstream on private land and the military base has funneled even more users to the central access points along the commercial district. P=Disintegration of the proper functioning condition of a stream typically leads to type of habitat distress. Unregulated foot traffic destroys vegetation that normally guards against erosion. Increased sedimentation in the stream allows invasive species of flora and fauna to dramatically alter the character of the watershed while destroying the native species.
As pressure in usage continues, the existing habitat is destroyed and the capacity to regenerate is lost. E=Cottonwood Creek watershed has experienced a 40% increase in usage in the past five years, concentrated mostly in the central business district. The foot traffic has caused the death of the older trees. Unrestricted access along the creek has led to compacted soils, damaging the older trees and killing the saplings that would normally replace them. A corresponding increase in sedimentation of the creek has followed, especially in the central business area.
Additional run-off from fertilizers leached from acres upstream, untreated affluent from the utility, and pesticides draining from street gutters into the system have killed most of the native trout, being replaced by fish introduced to the system downstream. Native sedge grass wetland is now being replaced by a rapidly expanding stand of Russian Olive trees which takes much more water in its growth cycle, crowding out what few native cottonwoods remain. R=The area is headed for environmental collapse. The impact is causing rapidly growing economic and environmental distress for the entire community.
While this is an outline, it represents the beginning explanation of the problem, something not desired, and how the set of circumstances stated in the definition of the current status (Part D) theoretically or logically is not desirable (Part P) as general proof that such circumstances are not good in any location they are found. Then the way that theoretical explanation of the problem is actually happening in Cottonwood Creek is narrated as the current story in Part E. Coming back to the situation in general, Part R states the bad result if nothing is done to correct the problem to eliminate the cause leading to the effect.
OR This same group of folk concerned about the creek might approach the situation as a need for better environmental stewardship beyond what is currently in place. The same conditions might exist, but the focus is on what is lacking in the equation that, in turn, brought about the current status of the creek. Collectively, they might talk about the situation as a need to prevent further degradation of the banks right in town, pollution both upstream from agricultural activity and in town storm drain design.
The unrestricted access require some education to instill a missing element of environmental stewardship that is threatening fishing, including the endangered species of trout. Even in this approach, the discussion would have to include evidence that a need for action to improve the situation exists before one could suggest development of a solution (that would become part of the methodology later) and that not acting on that need would lead to a bad result for the stream, the town, and the individual stakeholders. Using the IDPER approach, a possible Needs Assessment might read as follows:
Cottonwood Creek – Needs Assessment outline I=Cottonwood Creek currently has no systematic advocacy for ongoing stewardship of the watershed. Very few people have taken up the cause of what is now significant environmental degradation. D=The creek winds its way through private agricultural land and a military base before meandering through the city’s core business district. Once the focal point of the town, where family picnics and community celebrations took place, the creek is now a swath of dead trees with saplings that won’t last the year without help.
No trails interpret the value of biodiversity and limited access upstream on private land and the military base has funneled even more users to the central access points along the commercial district. With the recent downturn in the local economy and the area’s youth leaving for more urban settings, an aging population is becoming more detached from changes occurring on both public and private lands. P=Unmitigated pressure can erode not only the land but also the regenerative powers that normally sustain the land.
Without sustained stewardship, factors that threaten the proper functioning condition of any watershed accelerate negative impacts. As vegetation is lost, sedimentation increases, threatening native species of flora and fauna. E=Cottonwood Creek is losing ground, both figuratively and literally, as resources that could protect the watershed disappear. Cottonwood Creek watershed has experienced a 40% increase in usage in the past five years, concentrated mostly in the central business district.
A lack of trails and environmental interpretation has led to a corresponding increase in sedimentation of the creek, especially along the banks in town. The foot traffic has caused the death of the older trees and won’t allow saplings to take their place. As the vegetation cover disappears, causing additional run-off, the native trout and sedges are nearly gone. Few people now want to use the area because of diminished recreational value. Little political will has surfaced to marshal resources to protect the area. R=The land is losing any ability to accommodate regeneration.
Without its advocates, the proper functioning condition is not only in danger, but the damages could be irreversible. While this outline is similar to the Needs Assessment in content, its intent is quite different. Here the case is made for change, bringing something to the situation that does not currently exist. It doesn’t state what to do, but it does try to make a compelling case that the situation is not good, that a bad result will come if the need for a certain action is not forthcoming. Again, any fix will go in the methodology later. This component only explains and proves the true nature of the need.