Public Involvement Techniques
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
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
A focus group has these basic features:
- A carefully-crafted agenda, with five or six major questions
- Emphasis on gathering perspectives, insights, and opinions of
participants through conversation and interaction;
- Identification of major points of agreement and divergence
- 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 peoples
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
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 Chicagos 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, Bostons 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 sponsors 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 Chicagos Downtown Plan, the City used four focus groups—from
in-town and the suburbs—to find out what people liked and
didnt 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
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
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 Acts
(ISTEAs) 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 participants 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:
Department (Back Bay Transportation Strategies)
|Chicago City Planning
Department (Downtown Plan)
|Chicago Regional Transportation
Authority (South Corridor Transit Study)
of Transportation Long-range Plan
|New Jersey Department
of Transportation Long-range Plan
|New York Department
of Transportation Region 10
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