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Public Involvement Techniques

Foreward  |   Table of Contents
Chapter 1  |   Chapter 2  |   Chapter 3  |   Chapter 4  |   Index of Techniques

3. Getting Feedback from Participants skip page navigation

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3.B - Designing Programs to Bring Out Community Viewpoints and Resolve Differences
3.B.a - Focus Groups
3.B.b - Public Opinion Surveys
3.B.c - Facilitation
3.B.d - Negotiation and Meditation

3. Introduction
3.A
3.B
3.C

3. B.a - Focus Groups

What is a focus group?

A focus group is a tool to gauge public opinion. Borrowed from the marketing and advertising industry, it frankly regards transportation as a product that can be improved and the public as customers for that product. It is a way to identify customer concerns, needs, wants, and expectations. It can inform sponsors of the attitudes and values that customers hold and why. It can help drive development of policies, programs, and services and the allocation of resources. Focus groups have been used by transportation officials in New York and Illinois as a way to determine public opinions on high-occupancy vehicle (HOV) lane additions and rail transit alternatives.

A focus group is a small group discussion with professional leadership. A carefully-selected group of individuals convenes to discuss and give opinions on a single topic. Participants are selected in two ways: random selection is used to assure representation of all segments of society; non-random selection helps elicit a particular position or point of view. A combination of selection techniques can result in a focus group of people well-versed in transportation issues along with those who are solely consumers of transportation services.

A focus group has these basic features:

  • A carefully-crafted agenda, with five or six major questions at most;
  • Emphasis on gathering perspectives, insights, and opinions of participants through conversation and interaction;
  • Identification of major points of agreement and divergence of opinion;
  • Minimal presentation of material to set context and subject;
  • Gleaning, not shaping, of opinions or perspectives;
  • Eight to twelve participants; and
  • Understanding that the participants’ role is to give personal insights and perspectives.

Why is it useful?

A focus group leader explores attitudes in depth through follow-up questions. It offers an opportunity to get behind people’s expressed attitudes and assess policy directions and program objectives. It is a chance to review allocation of resources. It helps confirm or deny established goals or set new directions.

Informality encourages full participation. The small size of the group lowers barriers to speaking out. A focus group is a place for people to speak out without criticism of their comments. Spontaneity in responding produces fresh information. Participants are not required to prepare for the discussion. Many focus groups have found that participants readily volunteer ideas and comments that have not been recorded elsewhere. For example, focus groups were used in Los Angeles to find out why commuters were not taking advantage of free transit passes.

A focus group supplements other forms of public involvement. It serves the narrowly-defined need for direct and informal opinion on a specific topic. For broad participation from all community residents on the same or other topics, alternative forms of involvement are used.

Does a focus group have special uses?

A focus group provides community input from otherwise unrepresented individuals. Residents from specific areas within an urban region can be heard. Geographically-based opinions and issues can be more readily defined and discerned. The Colorado Department of Transportation (DOT) used 20 regional focus groups for detailed discussion of issues following a statewide community survey.

A focus group can marshal expert opinion on a plan. Project California used six focus groups of engineers, systems analysts, regulatory officials, and other specialists to evaluate guidelines for encouraging technological development, including electric vehicles, intelligent transportation systems (ITS), and the mass transit industry in the State.

An agency can use focus groups to compare opinions. In preparations for Chicago’s Downtown Plan, opinions of Loop residents were compared with those of suburbanites; results suggested new directions in commuting and in aligning the proposed downtown light-rail line. Focus groups can also compare opinions that are internal and external to an organization.

Who participates? And how?

Focus group members are selected by the sponsor. Depending on the goals to be achieved, a focus group is heterogeneous (with a variety of people from different backgrounds within a single geographic area) or homogeneous (with separate focus groups for residents, businesses, and institutions, as in, for example, Boston’s Back Bay Transportation Strategies project). Members may be randomly selected or invited from previously identified, non-random groups.

Community residents participate by stating opinions. Individuals within the group may react to others’ opinions or bring up their own ideas. The facilitator of the group guides discussion to cover all agenda items and assure that all individuals get a chance to speak.

How do agencies use the output?

A focus group produces opinions from local people. For the Massachusetts Turnpike, focus groups helped identify user requests and needs for park-and-ride lots. The output of the group meeting is always recorded in written form for the sponsor’s use. In addition to the written document, some agencies use videotapes of the proceedings. Some use mirrored one-way windows to observe the focus group in process.

Focus group information supplements other community input. A purpose for the group is clearly identified beforehand. Its agenda fits closely within the information needs of a larger project or program. Opinions derived from the group inform the larger effort. For Chicago’s Downtown Plan, the City used four focus groups—from in-town and the suburbs—to find out what people liked and didn’t like about downtown Chicago.

A focus group is tailored to assess public reactions. Because it typically deals with broad policy or program goals and impacts on the community, it does not dwell on technical issues. It helps agencies or organizations understand overall public reactions to programs or policies at a single point in time. For example, in the San Francisco area focus groups were used to obtain commuter perceptions about ridesharing.

Who leads a focus group?

A focus group needs a facilitator. The facilitator is essential to hold the group to the agenda and elicit opinions from each participant. In some cases, the facilitator is essential to keep a single participant from dominating the proceedings. In other instances, opinions may be lost in a sea of anecdotes unless the facilitator firmly steers the group toward the agenda. (See Facilitation.)

A facilitator needs guidance on the agenda and purpose of the focus group. Sample questions for the group can be provided to the facilitator by the sponsor. The sponsor may be present at the group in a non-participatory function or as an outside observer. During a break in the discussion, the sponsor may confer with the facilitator to assure that all agenda topics are covered.

What are the costs?

A focus group is relatively inexpensive compared with the costs and effort involved in administering a full opinion survey. (See Public Opinion Surveys.) It consumes less time in both implementation and analysis. Extensive statistical analysis is not required, because a focus group provides only qualitative information. However, agencies often choose an outside firm to provide a paid, neutral facilitator. Public agencies tend not to pay participants, in contrast with private market research organizations.

A focus group need not be time-consuming. Meetings are seldom longer than two or three hours. For the participants’ convenience, it may be held after work hours. Schedules can be tailored to fit needs of participants and the sponsoring agency. If required, a focus group can be organized within a matter of weeks following a decision to proceed. It takes a moderate to long amount of time to select, invite, and confirm participants. The time required to prepare focus group agendas and questions is not major if an experienced facilitator is available to work with the sponsor.

How is a focus group organized?

A focus group is integrated with a larger program. It is used to inform executives and staff of public reactions to ongoing work. Thus, it grows from the needs of the larger work and provides supplemental input and information to it. For example, in Florida focus groups were used to define the preferences of commuters and travel-related businesses for community real-time traffic information.

Policy direction within an agency is required. A sponsoring agency selects the agenda, participants, and facilitator and may designate questions to be addressed by participants. A meeting site must be selected and may need to be on neutral ground if the sponsor is not to be identified.

How is it used with other techniques?

A focus group cannot replace other techniques of public involvement, but it can provide input. It is used to identify concerns and issues prior to implementing a media strategy. (See Media Strategies.) It is used to refine requirements for transportation alternatives and can be repeated at intervals to gauge changes in public opinion. It provides a qualitative supplement to quantitative community surveys. (See Public Opinion Surveys.)

What are the drawbacks?

A focus group provides solely qualitative responses. It is not statistically representative of society at large. While it fits the Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act’s (ISTEA’s) requirement of giving people an opportunity to comment on a project, a focus group includes only a sample of the community. As a one-time event, it does not meet Federal standards for continuing public involvement and cannot replace a more formal process that records each participant’s comments and presents all of them to the appropriate authorities.

A focus group brings no public consensus. Potentially opposing groups do not deliberate important issues. The goal is to obtain opinions—not disseminate information. Specific viewpoints of individuals or the groups they represent are the principal product of a focus group meeting. Thus, the results are used as a guideline for further thinking and analysis.

For further information:

Boston Transportation Department (Back Bay Transportation Strategies) (617) 635-3086
Chicago City Planning Department (Downtown Plan) (312) 744-4142
Chicago Regional Transportation Authority (South Corridor Transit Study) (312) 917-0700
Colorado Department of Transportation Long-range Plan (303) 757-9266
New Jersey Department of Transportation Long-range Plan (609) 530-2866
New York Department of Transportation Region 10 (518) 360-6006

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For more information about the TPCB program, contact Michelle Noch at FHWA (202-366-9206) or John Sprowls at FTA (202-366-5362).

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