Why do we need to assess? We create programs because we know we need them, so why is assessing them so important -- we know they're good, and we'll get complaints if they are not good. We know our students and what they're like, so why profile them? It's all just related to accreditation, isn't it?
Over the years the term "assessment" has cultivated quite accidentally a very negative connotation. To "assess" brings images of extra work, data that sits and is not analyzed, reports looked over perhaps once but which then sit on dusty shelves, and surveying fatigue. Additionally, to many, to "assess" something seems to imply that there exists a problem and we are using some methodology such as a survey to search out this flaw.
Personally, I prefer the term "information gathering". It is not that we program then we must "assess it", investigating the program to see what is wrong. Instead visualize the following: we have some important question that we would like answered, and whose answer we will use in some predetermined way. How do we gather the information? We look to see what information we are already collecting and if we can slip our question in there, or perhaps we are already collecting this information and are just not documenting it in any systematic way. We may need to come up with a new way to collect this information altogether. Since this information is important to us, we know how it will be used, and we've thought about the least effortful ways possible to collect it, it is not a waste of time to us.
This is assessment to me.
The information you collect may be about students' profiles, experiences, needs, thoughts, attitudes, the campus environment, your department's needs, predictors of needs etc. -- any question/kind of research that is important to you (important being defined as being necessary and/or usable). To close the circle, information on a program can be collected too, but think of it more as a profile of your program -- what are its characteristics and how well do they fit the planned characteristics of the program?
If we think of assessment in this way, "information gathering", most will occur before programs are initiated, and will feed into how the program is shaped. Information about the program itself would be as a follow-up, and would be just one of the types of information a department would collect.
Happy information gathering!