Public Involvement Techniques
3.B.c - Facilitation
What is facilitation?
Facilitation is guidance of a group in a problem-solving
process. The group leader—a facilitator—is neutral in
regard to the issues or topics under discussion. The facilitator
works with the group as a whole and provides procedural help in
moving toward a conclusion. For example, facilitation of community
meetings on the proposed Monongahela Valley Expressway between Pittsburgh,
Pennsylvania, and Morgantown, West Virginia, led to an agreement
by the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission to divide the project into
separate, more manageable segments.
It is managed by the facilitator with the consent of the participants.
The goal of both the facilitator and the group is to arrive at a
collective decision through substantive discussions.
Facilitation leads toward empowerment and consensus. To
the extent that a group is representative of stakeholders, the conclusion
is a position or a level of consensus it has jointly achieved.
Facilitation has these basic features:
- Group energies are focused on a task or a limited issue;
- Discussion is structured without controlling what is said;
- Discussion is kept to the topic, with new issues identified
and reformulated as they arise;
- Participation in discussion is equalized; and
- The facilitator probes for consensus or agreement on issues.
Why is it useful?
Facilitation brings out all points of view represented in
the group. In a small group, a facilitator can encourage discussion
from all participants. (See Small
Group Techniques.) Sharing viewpoints stimulates discussion.
Given a lack of full expression of views, a facilitator can ask
hypothetical questions to get discussion moving. (See Negotiation
Time is often saved through facilitation. Ongoing differences
of opinion or stalemate challenge a neutral facilitator. The application
of facilitation skills is useful to break a stalemate and allow
a group to move toward consensus. In Washington State, completion
of I90 depended on facilitation of agreement between the Department
of Transportation and a neighborhood group looking for mitigation
of nighttime construction.
Facilitators works for an open process.
They ensure that the group is fully aware of the issues prior to
discussion of steps to be taken. Facilitators assures that education
on technical issues takes place as appropriate and seek out the
stances of participants on those issues. They ensure that points
are clarified and elicit follow-up on questions. Opinions are respected
by facilitators, who assure that all members of the group are respectful
of each others views.
Does it have special uses?
Facilitation indicates a commitment to action. A facilitated meeting takes
on an importance a regular meeting does not have. Its designation
indicates an agencys commitment to offer a way of overcoming
a specific obstacle. Its existence demonstrates a commitment to
involving local people in the decision-making process. It demonstrates
that the sponsor is open to taking public comment to heart.
Facilitation is flexible. It can be used at almost any time
to assist a group in surmounting an obstacle to collaborative decision-making.
It can be used to discuss either small or overarching issues. It
can be used for comprehensive planning issues, project-level decision-making,
policy review, or detailed design.
Who participates? And how?
Representatives of community groups or stakeholders are
invited to participate in a facilitated group. A widespread diversity
in viewpoints is expected to exist on issues. This diversity must
be represented to ensure full discussion. (See Ethnic,
Minority, and Low-income Groups; People
No specialtraining of participants is required. Many individuals
within a group may have a depth of interest in issues being discussed.
This interest may range from a broad, long-term view of the issues
within a geographic area to a specific and more short-term view
of issues surrounding a project or program.
People participate by examining
and discussing issues with others in the group. Discussions are
in as much depth as available time permits. A facilitator helps
a group work within the time available to it. Typically, major points
of discussion are recorded by an individual assigned the task. The
facilitator may not be able to take minutes; another individual
can be assigned the task.
How do agencies use the output?
is aimed toward a product, which may be reactions to agency policies
or proposals or a consensus on an action to be taken. For example,
meetings to develop a regional transit plan for Seattle were facilitated
with professional assistance hired by an agency.
is used as input to an agency's work. A facilitator's goal is to
bring a group together on an action or issue and find points of
agreement. She or he may be able to craft a compromise position
through give-and-take and over a relatively short period of time.
A neutral facilitator is selected by the sponsor to lead
the group. The facilitator must be accepted by the group as unbiased,
constructive, and fair. She or he is an experienced professional
familiar with assisting group discussions via group processes, communication,
and conflict resolution skills. The facilitator elicits both facts
and opinions and helps the group distinguish between them. It is
helpful if the facilitator is also intimately familiar with the
subject matter of the discussion.
In this capacity, a facilitator does not express a personal
opinion. Neutrality is maintained at all times. If an opinion
is requested, it can be given, but prior to offering the opinion
the facilitator announces that she or he is stepping out of the
neutral role. At no time should a facilitator make a decision for
the group. The "what I'm hearing" technique brings discussion
back to the agenda and checks on whether people are in agreement.
A facilitator leads the meeting in an informal manner. Humor is helpful
in providing a relaxed atmosphere. A positive attitude is essential,
as is uncritical recording of ideas from participants.
What are the costs?
Facilitation requires agency support staff. Minutes must
be taken. A site for the meeting must be selected. Agency representatives
typically attend to provide responses to participants' questions.
In some instances, an agency needs to carefully explain its position
or analysis, requiring staff to be available.
Material needs are minimal, but a quiet meeting room is
mandatory. A flip chart is essential to write down participants'
comments. Background information must be prepared as appropriate
so that participants can quickly grasp the issues. Written materials
dealing with contextual issues may be needed at hand to supplement
information provided to the participants at the meeting.
How is facilitation organized?
The sponsor determines the need for facilitation. A divisive
issue may call for facilitation. For example, the Virginia Department
of Transportation (DOT) used a facilitator to work on resolving
potential conflicts with neighborhood organizations. The sponsor
selects a neutral person for the role, sometimes from within the
agency but more usually from an outside source.
The sponsor determines the meetings agenda and schedule.
An agenda may cover one or more issues to be discussed. The sponsor
meets with the facilitator to discuss the agenda and approach to be
taken within the meeting. A site is selected, typically in a space
that participants perceive to be neutral.
The facilitator conducts the meeting. The sponsor does not attempt
to control the direction of the meeting once it is underway. The facilitator
conducts the meeting toward its stated goals and may add questions
to elicit responses from individuals. A facilitator records participants'
comments on a flip chart or butcher paper without editorializing.
How is it used with other techniques?
Facilitation supplements other techniques. A facilitator
can assist an established civic advisory committee to progress toward
its goals. (See Civic
Advisory Committees.) Facilitation is a requirement for a charrette
or a focus group and can also be used in brainstorming or visioning
sessions. (See Charrettes;
Focus Groups; Brainstorming;
Visioning.) It is
typically used in a collaborative task force. (See Collaborative
Task Forces.) Facilitation can be used in discussions associated
with transportation fairs. (See Transportation
Fairs.) Video can be used to record facilitated proceedings.
(See Video Techniques.)
In Idaho, facilitators helped with both focus groups and a civic
advisory committee working on the initial efforts in a regional
What are the drawbacks?
Facilitation must be done by a neutral person. When a group perceives that a facilitator
is biased, it feels manipulated by an agency. In practice an impartial
person may need to be sought from outside an agency—which raises
the expense of conducting a meeting. A respected community member
is often an appropriate choice.
There is a limit on the number of interests that can be facilitated in a meeting. The sponsor of
the process must recognize these limits in establishing the group.
Opponents may refuse to consider each other's ideas, despite the presence
of an experienced facilitator. People who feel they are being controlled
or patronized are likely to withdraw from full participation. Agency
staff who feel that the process is leading nowhere may not respond
appropriately to questions from participants.
Time constraints work against facilitation. A short meeting may not provide enough
time for a full discussion of the issue at hand. Participants feel
short-changed if insufficient time is allotted to discussion of a
For further information:
|Idaho Department of Transportation
|Maine Department of Transportation
|Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission
|Virginia Department of Transportation
|Washington State Department
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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).