Evaluation of the Needs of Service Members and their Families

New Ideas

Since the creation of the all-volunteer military in the 1970s, military support programs have grown and continue to grow. A 1988 Department of Defense (DoD) directive requires that these programs meet the needs of service members and their families. Unfortunately, DoD does not have a systematic method for determining these needs.

Traditional program evaluation focuses on the use of specific programs and not on the needs of military families. A new research framework developed by RAND’s National Defense Research Institute (NDRI) and supported by the Department of Defense (DoD) attempts to fill this gap.

Defining an approach to understanding the needs of military families

The RAND approach places the values of service members and their families at the center of the analysis. It relates their perceptions of their greatest challenges and needs to the resources available to them and the extent to which they believe these resources meet their needs (see figure). The survey questions are as follows:

  1. What is the context (e.g., demographics, investment history)?
  2. What problems do respondents perceive across a range of areas (e.g., health, finances, child welfare, spouse’s employment)?
  3. What kind of help (e.g., information, advice, training) do respondents believe they need to solve their most important problems?
  4. What resources (military and nonmilitary) did workers or their spouses turn to in an attempt to meet their needs?
  5. What factors made accessing these resources easier or more difficult?
    Did the resources help respondents meet their needs?
  6. Is there a relationship between needs met and the satisfaction, readiness, and survival of workers and their families?


  • A new approach to military and family research places the needs of military personnel and their families at the center of the research, rather than evaluating existing programs.
  • In this approach, military personnel and their families identify their main concerns related to their primary needs, which in turn are related to the resources they use and the effectiveness of those resources.
  • A survey instrument representative of this approach was developed with the participation of soldiers, spouses, service providers, military leaders, and program managers, and was tested at two military bases.
  • The new approach is adaptable to other instruments, other populations, and other contexts.

A framework for assessing the needs of military personnel and their families


Designing a study to support soldiers and their families in the military.
Using the design framework, the NDRI project team developed a sample survey instrument to assess the needs of single and married military personnel and spouses of active duty personnel.

To develop the survey content, the team combined information from a variety of sources: focus groups with Army and Marine Corps personnel, spouses, and support providers; meetings with military experts and leaders; and a review of previous studies and existing DoD research tools on soldiers’ quality of life and family issues. The issues addressed in the study-child care, mental health, relocation, etc.-are not new. – They are not new. What is new is the framework of the study.

Within this framework, the new survey asks first about the problems, then about the help needed to solve them, then about the resources that could have been used to meet those specific needs, and so on. Because the different combinations of problems, needs and specific resources can be complex, the survey asks respondents to choose two main problems and, for each problem, two main needs.

These four combinations of problems and needs are discussed in more detail below. The questionnaire was tested at two military bases to better understand how participation is achieved and to obtain more information about the content of the questionnaire and the burden on respondents. The average response time was 18 minutes[1].

Managing barriers to implementation

To benefit from a consistent design of the proposed survey, the assessment should be conducted on a large scale (e.g., battalion, base, headquarters) and should be conducted via the Internet. A smaller-scale application could provide useful information on each category of problems, needs, and resources. However, the value of combining parts of the survey would be lost, as there would be too little information on each problem/need combination to allow meaningful statistical analysis by demographic characteristics or type of resources used.

Since the survey instrument has a dynamic breakdown to reflect the priorities of the problems and needs indicated by the respondent, this cannot be done on paper. For those who do not have Internet access at home, the Army could provide respondents with on-base Internet access or information on nearby locations where Internet access is free.

The main implementation issues are related to participant recruitment. Unit and installation commands could encourage participation by ensuring the legitimacy of the survey, supporting the effort, allowing service members to participate during their workday, providing the survey team with contact information for service members, and helping to obtain accurate contact information for spouses.

Using the results

The new survey can provide useful information beyond a snapshot of the quality of life and well-being of staff and their families. For example, the survey’s focus on military and nonmilitary resources gives base commanders insight into the benefits they can derive from civilian service. The survey can also give program managers insight into the unmet needs of their military communities and the reasons why personnel and their families do or do not use their services. This information can help managers refine their services or refer potential clients to other resources, if appropriate to the problem and need.

Other applications

The RAND framework is flexible and adaptable. The questions in the questionnaire can be modified to respond to changing needs and concerns, and to reflect changes in the resources available to help workers or their families. The framework can also be easily applied to other population groups, such as veterans and their families, Guard and Reserve members and their families, or wounded military personnel, or for entirely different purposes, such as assessing the operational problems, needs, and resources of military personnel serving in war zones.


[Further details on the survey design process, which may be of interest to research participants, are provided in the project documents listed below.

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