Public Involvement Techniques
1.C.c - Key Person Interviews
What is a key person interview?
A key person interview is a one-on-one talk about a specific
topic or issue with an individual recognized or designated as
a community leader. A key person might be an opinion leader, a spokesperson
for the community, an elected official, the head of an organization,
or a representative of local media.
The main purpose is to obtain information. While basic information
is provided to set the stage for discussion, interviews are designed
primarily to elicit the interviewees reactions and suggestions.
The goal is to learn about the persons views and constituency,
and his/her perceptions of the agency, the planning or development
process, and the political setting in which work is being done.
Key individuals are likely to have knowledge, wisdom, and insight
that can help an agency. In Texas, during the South Oak Cliff study
by Dallas Area Rapid Transit (DART), key person interviews led to
a delineation of significant issues within the community. A bond
issue that had major support was being implemented slowly. Though
not directly related to DARTs work on the transit proposal,
it was clearly identifiable as an issue.
Interviews start early in the process to learn about the
area and the issues and concerns to be addressed. An agency may
ask for names of other individuals who should be contacted for interviews
or be involved in the participation process. It may want guidance
on organizing a public involvement process that includes essential,
interested people, and that reaches out and includes people traditionally
Key person interviews also are held just prior to decision-making.
The Maryland Transit Administration found that positions evolved
from beginning to end of a study and thus began to hold interviews
near the end of a process but before decisions were made.
Customarily, interviews are face-to-face events. Frequently,
a key person feels more comfortable if an interview takes place
on "home turf" such as his/her office or neighborhood.
Although usually conducted in person, key person interviews are
also done on the telephone. (See Telephone
Why are such interviews useful?
Information is transmitted informally outside of a larger
meeting that may be inhibiting. Key people often provide more detail
on political or emotional aspects of an issue that are difficult
to discuss in a public meeting. Liaison staff for a master plan
study in Bostons South End interviewed community and business
leaders to learn about potential developments that would not have
been revealed in a large public setting. Interviews also elicited
input about ongoing concerns to help create a vision of the character
of redevelopment for the area.
Interviews help identify issues, concerns, and desired agendas.
They are helpful in rapidly getting details on the community and
in understanding residents priorities. They also help establish
points that must be covered in meetings.
Key person interviews help target potential participants
in the process. They identify stakeholders who may be involved and
interested in a project or proposal.
Interviews elicit ideas for structuring a public involvement
program. They help set a framework for discussion by identifying
potential members for an advisory committee or meeting places perceived
as neutral. (See Civic Advisory
Committees.) The Atlanta, Georgia, Regional Commission received
advice on structuring its public involvement program from its key
person interviews. For a Newark subway rehabilitation project, interviews
led New Jersey Transit to set up several station task forces rather
than a single advisory committee, as originally proposed. The Newark
interviews also identified safety as the overwhelming issue of community
concern, which led to changes in the work undertaken by consultants.
Key person interviews enhance an agencys credibility.
They show interest in the community and in understanding the concerns
of a leaders constituents. Conducting interviews sets a positive
tone for subsequent public involvement activities.
Do they have special uses?
Key person interviews are useful when a project affects a small
group in a unique way—for example, a block of businesses,
a neighborhood, or a specific institution. The group may be concerned
about impacts of a proposal and welcome early contact. (See Ethnic,
Minority, and Low-income Groups.)
Interviews are a good way to introduce agency personnel to the
community before beginning a public participation process.
One-on-one interviews can defuse a potentially confrontational
situation. Parties to disagreements want to be heard. Listening
to key individuals views is rewarding to both parties, as
well as to the larger community. This is particularly important
if the key person has been antagonistic in the past, since it enhances
an agencys understanding of opposing viewpoints and gets them
stated more clearly for the record.
Who participates? And how?
Key people are individuals who work with or represent other
people. They are crucial in understanding a constituency. Key
people include community group presidents, officers, former officers,
and representatives. They can be elected officials, respected people
involved in community activities, and officers or active members
of clubs, agencies, organizations, and interest groups. Key people
can be active business people and practicing professionals, or representatives
of professional societies, such as chapters of the American Institute
of Architects and the American Public Transportation Association.
The Metropolitan Council in Minnesota interviewed the Minority Media
Coalition by telephone to find out key issues in the minority community
prior to a larger meeting to discuss overall media strategy. It
is important to note, however, that in some areas such as minority
communities, American Indian areas, small towns, and rural settings,
opinion leaders are likely not to be office-holders. In these areas,
an agency should pay special attention to finding out who the real
leaders are. (See Ethnic, Minority,
and Low-income Groups.)
A key person meets with an interviewer via telephone or
Usually, the key person chooses the interview site. This
may be a home or office, or the location may be neutral to both
parties. Informal interviews can be held over coffee or lunch. The
choice of setting should reflect potential issues of security and
An on-site interview helps people point out specific issues.
In the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authoritys (MBTA)
Replacement/Transit Improvement Study, agency staff talked with
key community people on-site in Dudley Square, a busy transit node
and the focal point of the study. Community leaders pointed out
specific locations of concern about traffic, pedestrian crossings,
and land development. (See Site
How do agencies use these interviews?
Interviews demonstrate that an agency wants to learn about the
issues. This is particularly true if an agency seeks out key
people early in a process. Credibility is also enhanced if an agency
seeks advice on design of a public involvement program. For the
State Route 15 Vision Study in San Diego, California, the City Heights
Community Development Corporation conducted interviews with agency
officials, opinion leaders, residents, and others to help plan the
highways future. The interviews were useful not only for finding
out about the issues but also for broadening the list of potential
Key person interviews are a quick, personal way to learn a neighborhoods
concerns. They help identify players such as elected officials,
other agencies, opinion leaders, and other groups, as well as revealing
issues and interests in a project or plan.
Interviews help identify the "real" actors in a process.
Often, they are the fastest way to find out who in the community
is perceived as credible, who is difficult to communicate with,
and who is a potential ally.
Through interviews, an agency finds out what key people think
of its policies. The Little Rock, Arkansas, Metropolitan Planning
Organization (MPO) used interviews to discover the degree to which
past policies were out of favor. As a result, its Vision 2020 plan
reflected the need to replace past policies with proposed new strategies.
Key people help develop a list of contacts who can distribute
information. Interviews help build a network of critical people
to contact. (See Mailing Lists.)
They even assist in locating the best bulletin boards for advertising
meetings and opportunities for participation.
Interviews with key people establish lines of communication
between community members and agencies. Local people contact their
leaders to obtain information or to register opinions, concerns,
and complaints. This may fit with traditional methods of quick and
easy communication. (See Improving
Making one-to-one contact helps break down barriers that
might prevent sharing information and opinions. The Dane County
Regional Planning Agency in Madison, Wisconsin, learned about the
concerns of many groups through individual key person interviews.
Who conducts key person interviews?
Staff members usually conduct key person interviews. The
staff person conducting a meeting should be comfortable with one-on-one
contact, personable, open, a good listener, good at probing for
details, and able to respond to key questions.
Sometimes senior staff are more appropriate. On certain
occasions, senior agency personnel need to meet with key people.
For example, it might be more appropriate and effective for a senior
official rather than a junior-level staffer to meet with the vice
president of a major corporation. The head of the Atlanta, Georgia,
Regional Commission talks with key business leaders on a regular
basis. The director of the Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, MPO holds regular
visits with key people in the media.
Sometimes a well-briefed outsider is the appropriate person
to contact ethnic or minority members or polarized groups. The interviewer
must be well-briefed on issues important to the community and to
the person being interviewed. (See Ethnic,
Minority, & Low-income Groups; Negotiation
What do they cost?
Costs vary, but interviews can be relatively cheap if the
work is local. Staff time is intensive and the most expensive item.
It is particularly significant if a large number of key people from
various locations are involved and travel is extensive. Also, long-distance
telephone calls add quickly to the costs.
Costs are closely tied to the number of interviews conducted.
A sampling of 1020 leaders is effective for certain purposes,
while a more broad-based outreach may necessitate 100 or more interviews.
How are they organized?
An initial step is identifying the key people in a community.
It is important to undertake a wide range of efforts to learn who
the real leaders are, particularly in minority and ethnic communities.
(See Ethnic, Minority, and Low-income
Groups.) One approach is to use indirect methods; for example,
- Review old and current mailing lists;
- Review newspaper clippings;
- Review meeting notes from related projects or earlier planning
- Review impact reports, environmental documents, and project-related
- Get copies of sign-in sheets from meetings held by others;
- Observe neighborhood meetings for other issues/projects;
- Talk to people knowledgeable about local leadership; and
- Ask around at professional association meetings.
A more direct means to build a list of names is linked-chain
research or personal contact and networking. In this approach,
people are asked to name leaders, and the process continues until
nominations repeat earlier names and the agency is reasonably confident
most key participants have been found. Some initial ways to do this
by telephone include:
- Contacting local officials;
- Asking action groups and churches who the respected leaders
- Asking neighborhood groups and agencies who the respected community
- Contacting friends who live in the area or consultants who
have done work in the area; and
- Sending out a "community audit" survey that includes
a question on community leadership.
Interviews are arranged in several ways. To set up an interview,
an agency staffer can establish initial contact by telephone. Ideally,
an interview is face-to-face and at a time convenient to the person.
This may be after work hours, since many people find it difficult
to meet during the normal work day. In Dallas, DART always conducts
key person interviews as informally as possible so that the person
feels comfortable. A letter of invitation may be sent if someone
is particularly difficult to reach or if a formal tone is desired.
Often, a follow-up confirmation call is useful and courteous.
It is often important to meet key people in their own community.
Frequently, key people view their neighborhoods as neutral, comfortable,
and non-threatening places. (See Non-traditional
Meeting Places and Events.) The Portland, Maine, Area Comprehensive
Transportation Study (PACTS) conducted interviews in key peoples
offices on the impacts of a proposed connector on a school and county
jail along the alignment.
Many interviews are conducted by telephone. Phone interviews
are very informal and immediate, but less personal. They sometimes
are done while the key person is at work and can be very focused.
(See Telephone Techniques.) Although
phone interviews lack the personal contact of face-to-face talk,
they are easier to do impromptu. They are often revealing, because
the call seems more casual, immediate, and unrehearsed. A face-to-face
meeting encourages better preparation, perhaps by consulting with
others. During project development on the I93/Route 1 interchange
in Charlestown, Massachusetts, agency staff regularly called key
people in the community to report project events, then to converse
about their activities and reactions to the highway projects
The purpose and topic of the interview is communicated in advance.
The general topic is introduced immediately. The interviewer stresses
the importance and goal of the interview and states that several
key people are being interviewed. This lets the interviewee know
that his/her ideas will be considered along with others. It is useful
to explain that the agency wants to listen and learn rather than
lecture on the proposed project or process. A short description
of the planning effort with maps, drawings, or photos is useful,
along with brief written materials.
An interview begins with stating a specific proposal or issue.
Details should be available in case the interviewee requests them.
A series of questions prepared by the agency might be the next step.
An interview may be informal and free-form, with a brief statement
of a proposal, followed by questions and answers that guide the
interview. The interviewer makes it clear that the opinions expressed
are primarily for the agencys internal use in planning and
An interviewer should be able to piece together connections
and links that make up the mosaic of relationships within the
community. An agency should avoid alienating potential participants
or people who have views that might not be fully understood.
The interviewer documents the interview in writing. Documentation
frequently maintains the anonymity of the interviewee. At times,
it is important to be able to cite the interview as authoritative,
but permission should be obtained before quoting people who have
been interviewed. To maintain anonymity, individual interviews can
be summarized with other interviews. In summaries, the key peoples
names may be listed, but most comments are not attributed to specific
individuals. Interviews for the Portland, Maine, I295 Connector
were summarized according to several themes: comments on transportation
issues in general and pros and cons about the proposed connector.
Only when it was essential to identify the person who made a statementsuch
as a concern about the alignments effect on a specific propertywere
ideas attributed to individuals.
Telephone numbers are exchanged. The key person should be
made aware of the desirability of frequent contact and an agencys
willingness to respond to calls. To enhance contact, an agency can
compile a list of interviewees work and home phone numbers
and FAX numbers, if available and if people are willing to take
calls at home. The goal is to demonstrate accessibility and the
need for key people to call when they want to deliver opinions and
Follow-up is essential. Depending on the intensity of the
planning process and schedule, weekly, monthly, or bi-monthly follow-up
contacts, either by telephone or face-to-face, are critical. Follow-up
keeps key people and agency staff up-to-date on what is happening.
Follow-up can be based on initial interviews early in the process
to create and maintain a channel of communication. In Dallas, the
DART community affairs staff regularly contacts key people—by
visiting, telephoning, or sending information—to keep them
up-to-date and knowledgeable about the agencys work.
How are they used with other techniques?
Key person interviews help identify participants. Interviews
with leaders help identify potential members of a neighborhood planning
council. They help increase and improve outreach to traditionally
underserved groups, ethnic groups, minorities, elderly, and children.
(See Ethnic, Minority, and Low-income
Groups.) A civic advisory committee or task force can grow from
suggestions made in leader interviews. (See Civic
Advisory Committees; Collaborative
Task Forces.) In a transit study in Burlington, Vermont, representatives
of a new civic advisory committee were identified through interviews.
Interviews can help set goals and objectives for a task.
A civic planning committee working with San Franciscos Bay
Area Rapid Transit (BART) on a joint development project conducted
interviews with the heads of newly-formed groups to help determine
the extent and goals of the organization and its constituency.
What are the drawbacks?
Key people may not represent the total range of community values.
Interviews must be used with other techniques that help validate
the information gleaned from the interviews. (See Public
A variety of methods to reach people are essential to obtain
a full range of opinions. Heavy reliance on meeting notes and
sign-in sheets from public meetings tell an agency who the visible
public leaders are, but key people who work behind the scenes are
Key person interviews do not replace direct talks with interested
or affected groups. Such interviews do not substitute for direct
Community members may be alienated if their key people are not
interviewed. If some people are misidentified as key people,
community residents may accuse the agency of ignorance or malice.
In Portland, Maine, a school principal identified as a key person
turned out not to be as knowledgeable and helpful as had been anticipated.
In Dallas, certain community groups felt that the transit agency
gave equal credence to comments from individuals and from their
organizations. DART then encouraged the individuals who were outspoken
to join others in forming a new organization or to join an existing
Interviews should include a full range of people, including
opponents. The Sioux City, Iowa, MPO used its district directors
to help identify people to interview. It was careful to include
people who in the past had been critical of some of its activities
Many agencies interview only public officials such as the
town manager, aldermen, or planners. Although these interviews represent
one segment of key people to contact, they must be done in combination
with interviews and talks with representatives of interest groups,
opinion leaders, neighborhood associations, individual residents,
users, and more.
Are key person interviews flexible?
Timing and structure of key person interviews are flexible.
They can take place at any time, cover a variety of topics, and
be structured or open-ended. However, it is best to do interviews
before negative news gets out. Staffing is flexible, but interviewers
must be good listeners, open rather than defensive, and knowledgeable
about whom to probe and how.
When are they used most effectively?
Key person interviews are useful both at the start of a process
and just prior to decision-making. Of course, it may be necessary
and desirable to continue the contacts throughout the process. Follow-up
interviews are done in the same manner as initial interviews. To
save time and staff resources, follow-up may be done by phone. If
an agency does not follow up the interviews or maintain contact
with key people, credibility suffers.
Interviews help evaluate projects or proposals or the process
itself. In many cases, key people are well aware of a former process
that went awry. Their willingness to discuss it saves an agency
many steps. In addition, they have a sense of how a project or proposal
will be received within their community. This information aids an
agency in modifying plans to be more responsive to community concerns
and to present to the public.
For further information:
|Atlanta Regional Commission, Atlanta, Georgia
|City Heights Community Development Corporation
|Dallas Area Rapid Transit Authority, Dallas, Texas
|Little Rock Metroplan, Little Rock, Arkansas
|Portland Area Comprehensive Transportation Study, Portland,
|Sioux City Planning Department, Sioux City, Iowa
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