Understanding Communities Today: Using Matching Needs and Services to Assess Community Needs and Design Community-Based Services

By Taylor, Kenneth I. | Child Welfare, March/April 2005 | Go to article overview

Understanding Communities Today: Using Matching Needs and Services to Assess Community Needs and Design Community-Based Services


Taylor, Kenneth I., Child Welfare


Matching Needs and Services (MNS) is a practice tool intended to help people who work with vulnerable children use rigorously assembled information on needs as a guide to design, implement, and evaluate more-effective services. To do this, MNS focuses on needs but links them to outcomes and thresholds before dealing with the services to achieve those outcomes.

In most jurisdictions, effectively moving away from broad, categorical services and toward more specific, community-based services requires new and different types of information. Administrative data are a powerful source of information for this endeavor, and agencies must maximize their use, but data are not sufficient on their own in the drive toward community-based services. Another important type of information, research from academic institutions, often takes years to come about, and communities may consider it suspect, because from the community's perspective, the findings apply to "other people." Academic research can certainly provide helpful guideposts, but even when coupled with administrative data, it may not be sufficient to drive system change. A third source of information practitioners can draw on is their personal experience and case-specific anecdotes. These too can be quite helpful, but they still provide an incomplete picture because, often, it is the worst-case scenario that is remembered. These anecdotes are thus of limited usefulness because the specific cases, however compelling, may not accurately describe broader community needs.

So if none of the individual information sources at their disposal are sufficient to move agencies away from ill-fitting categorical services to a more tailored, community-based service system, what are? This article argues that all these data sources, with the addition of needs-led, community-specific information, are necessary for system transformation. Each type of information described previously has strengths and weaknesses. In combination, the strengths of one can offset the weaknesses of the others to define opportunities, develop a truer picture of community needs, and then develop more effective community-based services.

The Dartington Approach

Dartington staff have developed an approach that integrates research evidence, information design, and implementation that addresses design challenges; develops this additional type of needs-based information; and is beginning to create more consistent definitions of the terms the field uses. They call this approach the common language. The common language seeks to improve the understanding of children in need and how society responds to their situation. Dartington staff view their progress thus far as a first step and hope that others will pick up the challenge and advance it further.

Dartington is, at its core, a research institution interested in the issue of children in need. For the past 35 years, Dartington, which is based in Devon, England, has produced high-quality research on various topics related to needy children, including prevention, residential care, secure care, child protection, foster care, and children's health and development. Dartington has had a special focus over the last 15 years on going beyond the normal publishing scheme (books and academic journals) to get research results into the hands of practitioners, many of whom do not have the time or inclination to read academic journals or books. To do this, Dartington has attempted to create additional pathways through which research methods and findings can be communicated to those in the field.

Through an emphasis on information design, Dartington has created structures that embed research evidence in frameworks that managers and practitioners can use to organize their work and interaction with clients. Now known as practice tools, these frameworks allow professionals and community members to gather information to create data that are "true for them. …

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