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Public Involvement Techniques

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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.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 and Mediation.)

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 I–90 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 other’s 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 agency’s 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 with Disabilities.)

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?

Facilitation 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.

Group consensus 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.

Who facilitates?

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 meeting’s 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 long-range plan.

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 controversial issue.

For further information:

Idaho Department of Transportation (208) 334-4444
Maine Department of Transportation (207) 287-3131
Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission (717) 939-9551
Virginia Department of Transportation (804) 786-2935
Washington State Department of Transportation (206) 440-4696

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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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