Public Involvement Techniques
4.B.b - Role Playing
What is role playing?
In role playing, participants act out characters in a predefined
"situation" dealing with controversial aspects of
transportation planning or project development. A role playing session
is followed by an evaluation of the interaction and the statements
made. At a recent conference of Federal agencies and private groups,
participants took roles as members of groups competing for funds
from the Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act (ISTEA).
The range of groups included one arguing for a larger share for
highways, another representing air quality environmentalists, and
one speaking as a national cycling lobby seeking more money for
Role playing allows people to take risk-free positions by
acting out characters in hypothetical situations. It helps participants
understand the range of concerns, values, and positions held by
other people. It is sometimes called game simulation, simulations,
simulated discussion, simulation games, and gaming. (See Games
Role playing has these components:
- A clearly defined and simple "situation" applicable
to the problem or issue at hand;
- Written descriptions of the "roles" (characters) for
participants to play;
- Goals to be accomplished during the session;
- A trained small-group leader/facilitator;
- Sufficient time for each participant to speak;
- An overall time limit for the session; and
- An evaluation period.
Role playing encourages active participation in confronting
a situation. There is no script. Participants improvise how their
characters might respond in the given situation and interact with
the other characters.
Role playing is also used to dramatize proposed changes. In
Hawaii, skits were used at an electronic town meeting to compare State
funding for traditional industries with State help for new high-tech
industries. Instead of the participants themselves assuming roles,
a local improvisational acting company acted out several scenes, and
viewers were then asked to react to issues raised by the role playing.
Why is it useful?
Role playing is an enlightening and interesting way to help
people see a problem from another perspective. It builds bridges
between people, so they can appreciate the pressures and constraints
faced by others. Rather than simply listening to speeches, people
actively address the impacts of their decisions, actions, and positions
on other people. Since statements made while playing a character
are not binding on any participant, role playing facilitates involvement
by engaging participants in a non-threatening process.
In role playing, players become interactive. They step out
of their normal roles and into another role—often one that
opposes their own goals and values. In this way, for example, an
environmental activist and an industrial representative might change
roles for purposes of the exercise. By presenting their own interpretation
of how their characters would react, participants are often enlightened
about the attitudes and behavior of others.
Role playing shows how people stereotype others and make judgments
based on those stereotypes. The British Columbia Hydro and Power Authority
used role playing to help measure attitudes toward exportation of
power. Participants opposed to exporting power assumed the role of
an energy exporter and discussed the benefits of exportation. Then,
each drew a picture of what he or she thought an energy exporter looked
like. By being forced to show biases through role playing and graphic
representations, participants could see how stereotypes cloud peoples
ability to be open to others ideas.
Does it have special uses?
A common application of role playing is employee training.
As part of its Neighborhood Transit Services Workshops program,
the Boston Transportation Department used role playing and other
techniques to train staff in facilitation skills and responding
to questions and comments. This enabled city staff to continue a
program initially developed and conducted by consultants.
Role playing helps when interaction among participants is needed
to break down barriers or reduce conflict or tension. Role playing
jump-starts a lifeless group or helps people get to know each other
at meetings or conferences. Role-playing exercises are particularly
useful when groups have clearly defined positions that draw battle
lines and limit communication.
Role playing is also used to bring expert opinion to bear on
a problem. At a recent conference, a group of public involvement
specialists participated in a role play that examined the needs
of a power authority preparing a sustainable energy strategy. Through
the role play—in which a wide range of interest groups, elected
officials, and residents were portrayed—the expert group helped
the power authority outline appropriate responses and involve the
Who participates? And how?
A full range of representatives of community groups, interest
groups, or key stakeholders can participate. A broad array of
positions should be represented. If groups are large, some participants
may be teamed with others to allow greater participation. Participants
who have difficulty acknowledging other interests, are unable to
see the problem in context, or appear to be wedded to a particular
position need particular encouragement to become engaged in the
Role playing is usually best with informed participants,
since they already have some knowledge of the issues and the positions
of the various parties. In any case, characters positions
and interests should be reasonably clear and well-defined. The Dallas
Area Rapid Transit Authority (DART) used role playing with the general
public during its bus planning efforts and with its advisory group
for the South Oak Cliff Alternatives Analysis. DART found that the
role-playing exercises were most productive when participants were
informed community members and not simply "persons on the street."
Agency staff also participate, provided they do so on equal
footing with community members. This helps staff to better understand
the positions of participants and break down barriers between them
and the community members with whom they need to interact.
A trained leader describes the process orally. Participants
receive a written description of the situation, setting, and characters
involved. The leader reads it aloud, sets time limits, gives examples
of how responses might be presented, assigns roles, and begins the
exercise. Each person speaks with the "voice" or viewpoint
of his/her assigned character. As role playing progresses, time
checks are helpful to keep participants focused and directed toward
presenting their characters full positions and reaching closure.
Face-to-face contact is essential in role playing, so chairs
should be arranged around a table or in a circle. Props, such as
hats or clothes, sometimes help people get into their roles. A newsprint
pad and markers are useful to record comments during the evaluation
period. Index cards or pads of paper encourage participants to make
Evaluation is essential to the outcome. The trained leader
initiates an engaging discussion with participants—one that
focuses not only on the outcome but also on issues raised by participants,
probing why various stands were taken and decisions made. Acting
ability is irrelevant and may be discussed only in genial and friendly
Role playing is sometimes done spontaneously, without a
scripted situation or roles. In Santa Rosa, California, the city
worked with community members on the impacts of discharging treated
wastewater into the river. Through spontaneous role playing, with
participants arguing on behalf of other people's preferences, the
administration was able to understand better the public perception
of wastewater discharge.
How do agencies use the output?
Agencies create stronger participation by building on the increased
understanding of issues and positions that result from role
play. Role playing helps flesh out or clarify participants
opinions. They gain a clearer understanding of the planning or project
development process, the multiple issues and interests that are
involved, and the links between transportation and other areas like
land use. Some alter their own perspectives on issues and potential
solutions. Role playing also assists in negotiation and coalition
building, where participants test potential consensus points.
Who leads role playing?
Role playing requires a trained leader from within or outside
the agency who is clear about the goals. This leader must be skilled
at designing representative situations and scenarios that are applicable
to the real-life situation. The leader should also be knowledgeable
about areas of conflict and able to guide the group toward resolution.
Finally, she or he must be able to lead the evaluation and engage
participants in discussing the process, the lessons learned, and
their relevance to real-world transportation issues.
What are the costs?
Costs tend to be high in terms of staffing. If a trained
leader is not available within the agency, a consultant knowledgeable
about the issues needs to be hired for one or more days. Preparation
time for developing the roles and the situation is extensive, depending
on the complexity of the real-life problems. Even skilled consultants
or staff require several dry runs and revision cycles to get the
role play right. Agency staff sometimes finds that oversight of
consultants is demanding in terms of time and energy to assure that
they fully understand the issues to be covered. However, compared
to other interactive processes—such as charrettes or workshops—that
work on these different perspectives, role playing requires fewer
staff resources, funds, and materials.
How is role playing organized?
Role playing is part of an ongoing process to develop cooperation
among participants. Trust among group members is essential:
people are unlikely to fully participate if they do not know each
other and have not developed a sense of mutual trust.
Preparation includes developing a situation and roles, inviting
participants, determining the length of time for role playing, and
making the setting conducive to the event. Effective role-playing
games are relatively small, involving between 7 and 15 people.
Community representatives can be consulted to sound out
the idea, work on characters, and help determine whose participation
might bring out specific issues. Such consultation helps assure
that role playing is well-integrated with the larger process. Advance
notice and consultation mitigate distrust and questioning of motives.
Establishing clear and achievable goals is critical. Goals
might include resolving a conflict, increasing awareness of various
perspectives, looking at familiar issues in different ways, and
bridging gaps among participants and with the agency.
A time limit is usually imposed, but the atmosphere should
be light and friendly.
Observers or non-players may be invited to follow the action
and participate in the evaluation period. Agencies may observe the
proceedings first-hand for information to help an overall process
of planning or developing a project. However, observers dampen enthusiastic
participation or cause resentment if they are viewed as having unexpressed
or reserved opinions that are not addressed during the role playing.
How is it used with other techniques?
Role playing is part of a more extensive involvement process.
It is used to broaden understanding of an issue early in the process.
It is used with board or computer games that simulate situations
and require people to step into another "pair of shoes."
(See Games and Contests;
Presentations and Simulations.) It is used when people from
different walks of life are all working on a common project.
Role playing is used as an ice-breaker at regular committee
meetings. If participants thinking is changed through role
playing, they are more likely to accept opinions about a variety
of issues. As a result, later public involvement efforts are easier
and more productive. Participants come to see that their opponents
views can also change. Role playing also spices up an otherwise
dull topic by creating characters with humorous names that allude
to their roles (for example, "Douglas Fir," representing
the Forest Service).
What are the drawbacks?
Role playing requires significant time and skills, primarily
for preparing scenarios and roles, taking dry runs, and conducting
the exercise. A consultant can be expensive, particularly when briefing
is needed. This expense, however, is offset by time savings in reaching
an understanding of the problems and constraints. A consultant may
also train agency staff people to plan and conduct future role playing
sessions on their own.
Participants may be uncomfortable playing roles that negate
their true feelings. The leader must provide reassurance, support,
The outcome is unpredictable, even with a strong leader.
Although the action can go in an unplanned direction, a trained
leader can step in and refocus the session. In addition, an unpredicted
outcome may bring up new issues that have not yet been considered.
Lack of enthusiasm or minimal participation occurs if the motive
or sincerity of the agency is questioned. Agencies enhance the
chances of success by involving participants in planning the role
play, conducting the session early in the process, and providing
clear direction and strong leadership. Agencies need to show the
links between the role playing and participation in the real issues
and decisions at stake.
For further information:
|British Columbia Hydro and Power Authority
|Dallas Area Rapid Transit District
|Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority
|Surface Transportation Policy Project
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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).