How to assess existing capacity and define capacity needs

Summary: key points and action steps

The starting point of any capacity development planning process is assessing existing capacity. For any given context that means starting with the initial definition of capacity, in response to the question ‘Capacity for What?’, which is then considered at the different levels. Individual, organisational (network/sector) levels are framed in terms of performance and results, and at the institutional level in terms of conditions, but there may be overlap between these categories.

Steps in the process

1. Identify key actors and stakeholders and how to engage them in the assessment and analysis

2. Frame the assessment in terms of:

  • The definition of capacity and any capacity development framework that is being applied in the particular context being assessed
  • The purpose of the assessment
  • The mandate of the entity to be assessed
  • Change readiness and stakeholder agreement about the need for the assessment

3. Decide what to assess and how to analyse data. For example, think about the:

  • Levels of capacity: whatever the starting point going on to‘zoom in and zoom out’ will lead to a holistic understanding of all the factors enabling or inhibiting performance and capacity change, (see below for an example)
  • Types of capacity: remember to assess both hard and soft capacities, including powerdistribution, incentives and sanctions, leadership, and values and beliefs
  • Themes for application: the capacity development framework will help to prioritise the areas for the assessment  
  • PLUS understanding gender and other cross cutting issues can be essential to gaining a comprehensive assessment

4. Choose the overall approach and specific tools

  • An incremental approach starting with identification of existing capacity as the foundation for identifying realistic steps forward, or
  • gap analysis starting with definition of how things ‘should be’, then looking at how they are and defining the difference between the two as what is missing, i.e. ‘the gap’
  • There are many tools available for different aspects of assessment.  They can and should be adapted to local context
  • The specific data needed and questions to ask will be determined by all the above factors

Points to remember

  • Every entity has an ongoing development process – a history that not only created the present but can also help to inform the future
  • Be pragmatic – too much information can be as problematic as too little.  It is not necessary to know and analyse everything – what is needed is sufficient relevant information for a ‘good enough’ analysis so that the design of interventions will be appropriate and realistic 
  • Avoid sweeping generalisations in the analysis, conclusions should be sufficiently focused to guide action
  • Processes that support self-assessment are preferable because they are very effective for creating ownership of the analysis and buy-in for any change initiatives that follow


Assessing existing capacity should be the starting point of any capacity development planning process.  To be relevant and useful all capacity development initiatives need to be grounded very clearly in the practical realities of delivery against mandate so a great deal will be framed by the answer to the question ‘Capacity for What?’ linked to a development goal. For example, related to Millennium Development Goal to ‘Achieve universal primary education’,a national education sector would need capacity to achieve the first target, to ‘Ensure that all boys and girls complete a full course of primary schooling’. Capacity should be defined in terms of function and performance at all levels – individual, organisational (network/sector) and institutional.  So, whichever level is under consideration, the assessment process has to start with understanding what the capacity is needed for. Appropriate assessment of existing capacity and capacity needs can only be made when these background factors are clear and understood. 

Who should do the assessment

Many people and agencies have different interests and roles in capacity assessments. In multi-stakeholder settings it is necessary to be selective about who should be involved at which stage. It might be best for the starting point to be with a core group, which expands and involves others over time. For example, local leadership is one of the important prerequisites for a successful process so that might be the best place to start. There are ‘power tools’ that help with a quick and dirty initial assessment of stakeholders in terms of ‘leadership’ for the development goal. Who can really lead on change towards this goal? At what levels can ‘leadership’ be seen, and where is it missing? What does this mean for where change can start, and how it can spread? What if certain stakeholders are not on board yet? Just as it isn’t necessary to have all the information, so it isn’t necessary to involve all the stakeholders all the time.

A further point about ownership is that key stakeholders will only accept the findings if they feel they have been appropriately involved. For example, the management and staff of an education department might reject a critical report done by an external expert, whereas if they have been asked to assess their own strengths and weaknesses, any negative findings in the analysis will be accepted as true and reasonable. So, while contributions from and facilitation by external parties, such as national or international consultants, can be useful for a variety of reasons, the core assessment activities need to directly involve the relevant stakeholders. This means it is important to allow enough time to consult the stakeholders appropriately in the design and implementation of the assessment, including explaining assessment and analysis tools before the process begins. This can be time-consuming but will pay off in terms of creating buy-in, energy and excitement for the process to come.

Ideally the assessment should be ‘owned’ and driven by a relevant local institute or entity. The team doing the assessment may be made up of local managers and staff, international and national consultants, each taking on different tasks and contributions through the steps of design, implementation, analysis and reporting.  Participants are the stakeholders who actually contribute information and opinions to the assessment.  They may be involved in self-assessment activities, or asked to contribute in other ways. Another group are those involved in different aspects of supporting the capacity assessment process, for example by: giving financial support; facilitating connections to key informants; giving political credibility; providing managerial or logistic support; or, sharing technical expertise. 

A final important point is to safeguard the interest of less powerful stakeholders, especially beneficiaries and traditionally marginalised groups. This can be done by special consultation exercises, or by identifying those who are able to speak on behalf of these groups.

Framing the assessment

Before starting on any capacity assessment process there are several important considerations that need to be in place. Any assessment that hasn’t addressed these prerequisites is likely to be inaccurate, incomplete or a waste of time and resources because key stakeholders have not engaged to support the process. The factors are:

What to assess

The entry point and focus of the assessment will be decided by several factors: the way that capacity is defined; any capacity development framework in use; the mandate of the entity being assessed; and, the purpose of the assessment. Again in the education example capacity could be defined as the ability to deliver the full primary education. Components of the capacity would be resources such as the existence of the curriculum and the materials to teach it, sufficient teachers with the right set of skills and knowledge, and so on. Where the entity’s mandate is clear, perhaps defined by law or in a mission statement, this can be the starting point for assessing current capacity and future needs. Where the mandate isn’t clear it will be harder to assess those issues and it could, in fact, represent a capacity need in its own right.

The core concept of capacity can help you to organise how you map out what to assess. Think about the:

  • Levels of capacity: wherever you start, don’t forget to‘zoom in and zoom out’ to get a holistic understanding of all the factors enabling or inhibiting performance and capacity change. Zooming out to understand the enabling environment is especially important. For example if you are assessing the provincial education department, you will need to zoom out to the legislative environment, and zoom in on schools and teachers.
  • Types of capacity: it is important to go beyond assessing hard capacities such as technical skills, structures, financial systems, work processes and so on to look also at soft capacities.  This includespower distribution, incentives and sanctions, leadership, andvalues and beliefs.
  • Themes for application: the capacity development framework will help to prioritise the areas for assessment. For example, according to the framework you might need to focus on human capacity, systems and procedures, knowledge management and good governance.  
  • Cross cutting issues: especially gender can be essential to gaining a comprehensive assessment

The data specific assessment questions needed to gather the right information will vary according to all of these factors.

Choosing assessment frameworks and tools

The approach to assessing capacity can start with choosing one of two basic questions – ‘What capacity is already in place?’ or, ‘How should it be and what is missing?’, and the choice will determine how the assessment is conducted.  ‘What capacity is already in place?’ starts the incremental approach of identifying existing capacity and using that as the foundation for moving forward.  ‘How should it be and what is missing?’ starts the gap analysis approach, which works from how things ‘should be’, then looks at how they are now, and define the difference between the two as what is missing ‘the gap’.

An incremental approach has a much more positive feel to it and, because of its affirmative starting point, it is very helpful for involving targeted stakeholders in participatory self-assessment. The incremental approach defines needs as realistic steps that will move the organisation forward in the right direction, rather than aiming for ambitious, high-level capacity targets. It has the advantage of being more flexible, allowing key stakeholders to define what they consider to be important for the context, including soft capacities and their role and importance in the overall analysis. The main weakness of this approach is that the stakeholders may not necessarily have the appropriate technical knowledge or other information necessary to frame their next capacity steps in a meaningful way.

The incremental approach

The gap analysis tends to be based on externally defined criteria for full and effective functioning of the organisation or sector according to its mandate – the ideal situation. This approach can be helpful for some types of needs, but it has three weaknesses that need to be taken into account when deciding whether or not to use it.  The first is that gap analyses tend not to recognise or value existing capacity sufficiently well to make it the starting point of new initiatives. The second is that the statement of the ideal situation is often far too ambitious to be helpful in setting realistic goals and objectives for moving forward. The third is that gap analyses tend to focus on hard capacities, with little attention given to essential soft capacities.  Another problematic aspect of gap analysis is that it tends to depend on outside experts and their assessment of how things should be, which often means that the people concerned do not have sufficient say in the assessment process.

The difference between an incremental analysis and a gap analysis can be shown in a very simple example of a rural school.  If at present the school has the capacity to teach only the first two years of the primary school curriculum, an incremental analysis would look at the strengths and capacities that enable the school to teach at that level and ask, what does the school need to build on those existing capacities and move forward to teach year three? The teaching staff and other local stakeholders would be the primary informants for the data gathering. The gap analysis would start with the assumption that the school should be able to teach the full primary curriculum and specify why the school can’t do it, in terms of its weaknesses and what is missing.

At the end of this page there is a list of assessment tools for different types and aspects of assessment. However, it is important to remember that these tools should not be considered as fixed formats. Any tool can and should be adapted to local context and needs, either by amending a single tool, or by taking bits and pieces from several and merge them together. Either process will facilitate deeper thinking about what is needed to achieve a meaningful assessment, according to who needs to be involved and the circumstances in which it will be done. Again it is very beneficial to involve key stakeholders in processes to explore and experiment in order to find the best options.

Other points to take into consideration

All organisations, networks, sectors and the individuals in them have a history of capacity development prior to the assessment. This should be recognised as a process of evolution that has a past, a present and will have a future. Within this process of evolution many factors will explain the current capacity and how it was developed. Capacity assessment frameworks need to look not only at the present, but also at the journey to get there. Understanding the developmental history will result in a better design of future initiatives.

In some countries and within some core development themes people may already have been involved in many different assessments. Depending on how the assessments were conducted and what happened as a result the people concerned might be very cynical about the purpose and value of doing another one, and this might make them resistant to engage, or engage fully.  This situation could be described as assessment fatigue.

Time factors need to be considered in two important ways. Firstly, that there is enough time for the collection of data & information. Apart from anyone allocated or hired specifically to work on the assessment, everyone else involved will still need to work on their routine tasks and responsibilities.  It is important to be sensitive to this fact and not plan the activities in a way that place an unhelpful burden on any individual or group. Participants and key informants might not all be available at the same time, so activities should be scheduled to allow for flexibility.  Secondly, it is important not to rush to designing a capacity development response until the assessment process is complete. Interventions will only be effective if based on comprehensive rather than piecemeal analysis.

Another point is that it is important to avoid sweeping generalizations that cannot be translated into practical actions. Conclusions should be sufficiently focused to give good guidance to the design of interventions.

Some helpful assessment questions to work with

  • What is being done/produced that contributes to the organisational mandate?
  • What is enabling those outputs?
    • What soft capacities exist at institutional, organisational and individual competency levels?
    • What hard capacities exist at institutional, organisational and individual competency levels?
  • How has this capacity emerged or been developed?
  • What enabling environment factors explain the current capacity assets?
  • How can gender and other cross cutting issues be incorporated appropriately in the assessment process? (Assessments are often gender neutral, but it can be of critical importance to gaining a comprehensive understanding of where capacity exists and is needed. Again using the education example it may be necessary to set up processes for consulting mothers to ensure that their opinions about education for boys and girls are heard and their ideas for what they can contribute to bringing about change.)
  • Have all relevant stakeholders and ways to involve them in the assessment and analysis been identified?
  • What local capacity is available to manage a capacity development process?

Last point! Too much information can be as problematic as too little.  It isn’t necessary to know and analyse everything – only to be pragmatic in ensuring sufficient relevant information to do good enough analysis for the design of interventions to be appropriate and realistic. 

Some points to consider about the assessment process

  • Is it clear and agreed why the capacity assessment will be done?
  • Is the capacity assessment involving all the key organisations (and/or units) whose performance is central to the achievement of the wider sector objectives?
  • Are all stakeholders, including beneficiaries, appropriately involved in the assessment process?
  • Is sufficient attention given to the political and power dimensions of the organisation(s), in addition to the rational, functional dimensions?
  • Are previous, parallel or planned capacity assessment processes sufficiently taken into consideration?
  • Is the assessment process placing a reasonable burden on the organisation(s), considering other priorities and tasks?
  • Is the feedback and decision making process related to the assessment reasonably specified and made clear to all concerned?
  • Are the conclusions from the analysis sufficiently substantiated by facts, figures and arguments?

Some helpful assessment tools

This page was drawn from the following documents

EuropeAid (2005) Institutional Assessment and Capacity Development: Why, What, and How? Tools and methods Series, Reference Document No 1. European Commission.

UNDP Capacity Assessment Practice Note and Users’ Guide

Baser, H., and P. Morgan, with J. Bolger, D. Brinkerhoff, A. Land, S. Taschereau, D. Watson, and J. Zinke (2008) Capacity Change and Performance: Insights and Implications for Development Cooperation.  European Centre for Development Policy Management, Maastricht.

Next section: How to design the overall capacity development approach and an evolving mix of ‘best fit’ methods and tools