Public Involvement Techniques
2.B.a - Brainstorming
What is brainstorming?
Participants "brainstorm" when they come together
in a freethinking forum to generate ideas. As now used, brainstorming
is no longer an unstructured method of eliciting ideas from a group.
Used properly—either alone or in conjunction with other techniques—brainstorming
can be a highly effective method of moving participants out of conflict
and toward consensus. For example, the Cape Cod Commission in Massachusetts
used brainstorming to develop goals and objectives to guide transportation
Brainstorming has these basic components:
- Generating as many solutions to a problem as possible;
- Listing every idea presented without comment or evaluation;
- Grouping and evaluating ideas to reach consensus; and
- Prioritizing ideas.
Experience suggests that each task can be further subdivided
to improve understanding of the overall process and its results.
For example, ideas may need clarification for the group to grasp
and evaluate, or the role of brainstorming in issue resolution may
need to be explained. As a basic means of involving people, it has
few peers if carried out successfully.
Why is it useful?
Brainstorming brings new ideas to bear on a problem. The
freethinking atmosphere encourages fresh approaches. Creativity
is enhanced, because individuals are encouraged to bring up all
ideas—even those that might appear outrageous. Even imperfectly
developed thoughts may jog the thinking of other participants. In
Atlanta, Georgia, a brainstorming effort produced future options
in the Vision 2020 process.
Problems are defined better as questions arise. Alternatives
appear in a new or different perspective. Novel approaches to an
issue can arise during the process. Brainstorming gives participants
a sense of progress and accomplishment and helps them move onto
more difficult tasks.
Brainstorming helps reduce conflict. It helps participants
see other points of view and possibly change their perspective on
problems. It may not be useful in resolving deeply felt conflicts
but can help set the stage for a different technique if an impasse
has been reached. Civility is required of each participant. (See
Negotiation and Mediation.)
Brainstorming is democratic. All participants have equal
status and an equal opportunity to participate. No one persons
ideas dominate a brainstorming session. Brainstorming heightens
the awareness of community and sensitizes individuals to the behavior
of the group and its participants. It helps mold participants into
a working group.
Does brainstorming have special uses?
Brainstorming demonstrates an agencys openness to new
ideas and its commitment to working with community participants.
It leads to further study of unexplored ideas. It helps find common
ground for consensus about a solution. Brainstorming has been used
by the Connecticut Department of Transportation (DOT) in exploring
multi-modal alternatives in an interstate bridge reconstruction
project in New Haven.
Brainstorming is easily understood and implemented. No special
training is required for participants to express their ideas. All
sides expect open and frank exposition of points of view. Argumentative
behavior is discouraged and creativity appreciated.
Who participates? And how?
Anyone can participate in a brainstorming session. It is
useful to encourage participants from diverse backgrounds and interests
in the issue to be discussed. Providing background information to
participants bolsters the ability of each to contribute. Information
should be distributed in advance of the session, if possible. Large
groups can be divided into smaller subsets to promote full participation.
(See Small Group Techniques; Public
People participate by bringing their ideas to the table, working
in groups of 6 to 10. All ideas are duly noted and recorded
to reassure participants that their comments are being adequately
considered. Participants can record ideas on newsprint or butcher
paper, or the agency can supply staff to record their ideas. People
can prioritize their ideas by using strips of colored adhesive dots
(found in office supply stores). About seven dots per person works
well. Working individually, participants use dots to indicate their
preferences. The dots can be divided among several good ideas or
concentrated on one idea that is very important. The sheets of paper
with dots are an effective display of the prioritization and help
identify the groups top priorities. Participation is furthered
when notes of the meeting and subsequent events can be distributed
to the participants.
How do agencies use the output?
Through brainstorming, agencies become aware of issues, problems,
and detailed solutions that might not otherwise come to light.
New ideas assist agencies in crafting compromise positions and in
setting priorities by using input provided directly by stakeholders.
Shelburne, Vermont, and Flathead County, Montana, used brainstorming
sessions to clarify and prioritize issues for new area plans.
Who leads a brainstorming session?
Brainstorming needs a facilitator or moderator, who may
be found within the group itself, agency staff, or an outside firm.
Facilitators must be sensitive to group dynamics and be able to
draw statements and positions from participants in an affable way.
They must assure that all participants are heard and that civility
is maintained. An agency staff person may be needed to assist groups
that have difficulties with the process. (See Facilitation.)
What are the costs?
Brainstorming is inexpensive. The group leader can be an
individual on an existing staff, but a person experienced in facilitating
the technique is preferable. Depending on the issue to be discussed
or the degree of anticipated conflict, an outside consultant may
be a desirable addition.
Material needs are minimal. A quiet room is essential. Materials
should be on hand to provide necessary data and background information.
Although this information need not be overly detailed, questions
are certain to arise, and it is preferable to be able to respond
appropriately. Potential materials include:
- Large newsprint or butcher paper, with markers to record ideas;
- Boards to display applicable data;
- Large, easily visible maps;
- Overlays to allow sketching on maps; and
- Adhesive dots for prioritization.
How is brainstorming organized?
Careful management facilitates a brainstorming session best.
Agency staff people organize and implement a brainstorming session.
Staff needs are minimal but may include a facilitator and probably
an assistant for physical management of charts and recording of
ideas. Resource people should be present for responses to questions.
Initial efforts include planning the brainstorming session—defining
the precise issue to be addressed, identifying potential participants,
deciding on the process and schedule to be followed, and determining
anticipated outcomes of the session so that players will know the
scope and stakes involved. It is also important to detail for participants
how the agency expects to use the results.
Effective brainstorming sessions are small (6 to 10 people).
If the group is too small, participants are not stimulated to generate
ideas; if it is too large, the more vocal few may dominate the meeting.
At large meetings, participants are divided into groups. The Central
Puget Sound Regional Transit Authority (RTA) held five subregional
sessions at key milestones. Roundtables of 8 to 10 people at each
event used brainstorming to generate regional plans that fit within
given financial scenarios for future transit options.
A brainstorming session usually has a simple agenda:
- Introductions with brief outlines of participants backgrounds;
- Discussion of the brainstorming process and how it fits into
the overall process;
- Generation of ideas, listed without evaluation or criticism;
- Clarifying and explaining ideas, as required;
- Review, grouping, and elimination of redundant ideas;
- Prioritization; and
- Presentation of each groups results by the moderator to
the larger group.
How is it used with other techniques?
Brainstorming is always a stage of a larger process. It
is frequently used when an agency is starting a lengthy or complex
undertaking with a separate element for public involvement. It can
be part of a focus group—to open discussion and introduce
participants; it can be part of a charrette—to establish the
points of view of participants; it can be used in civic advisory
committees —to establish a consensus on a project; and it
can be used in public meetings. (See Focus
Groups; Charrettes; Civic
Advisory Committees; Public
Meetings/Hearings.) Brainstorming was used in conjunction with
public opinion surveys to design a public involvement program for
the Albany, New York, area. (See Public
Opinion Surveys.) In Pennsylvania, community members used brainstorming
to select representatives for a civic advisory committee.
What are the drawbacks?
Facilitation can pose unique challenges. A single questioner
can disrupt proceedings by continuously raising questions and suspicions
about the motivations of participants or sponsors. Unassertive participants
may be neglected without active solicitation of their participation.
Opponents may refuse to consider each others ideas.
Unspoken attitudes may affect results. Individual participants
who feel diverted from more apparently purposeful tasks become impatient
if they feel the process is a waste of time. It is essential to
focus brainstorming on issues that make sense to the participants
and to clearly explain how the results will be used. People who
feel they are being controlled or patronized often withdraw from
full participation. Agency staff members who feel that the process
is leading nowhere may not respond appropriately to questions from
For further information:
Regional Commission (Vision 2020), Atlanta, Georgia
Commission (Cape Cod Regional Plan)
District Transportation Committee, Albany, New York
(public involvement program)
Puget Sound Regional Transit Authority
Department of Transportation, Environmental Planning Bureau
(Q Bridge Study)
Department of Transportation, Bureau of Environmental Quality
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For more information about the TPCB program, contact Michelle
at FHWA (202-366-9206) or John Sprowls
at FTA (202-366-5362).