Public Involvement Techniques
2.B.d - Small Group Techniques
What are small group techniques?
Small groups have fewer than 20 or so members, making it
easier for people to actively participate. They meet as small gatherings
or as break-outs of large meetings and offer many opportunities
for creative, flexible interchange of ideas and lively, meaningful
Small group techniques help people participate freely and actively.
They include special activities or formats that help interest and
engage people. They foster active participation and steer participants
toward constructive activities and dialogue. They help avoid complaint-oriented
or conflict-driven sessions.
Small group techniques have certain basic characteristics:
- They emphasize active participation and interaction;
- They are usually run by a group leader or facilitator;
- They have a task, theme, or goal;
- They help reach consensus or develop priorities;
- They gather a range of ideas, opinions, and concerns;
- They are applied to either planning or project development;
- In a breakout group, a small group task reflects the larger
group agenda; and
- Breakout groups report back to the larger group.
Specific small group techniques covered in this section include
breakout groups, workshops, seminars, community juries, roundtables,
study circles, conflict utilization opinionaires, decision science,
delphi, dialogue facilitation, nominal group process, open space
technology, Samoan circle, SWOT (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities,
threats), synetics, and value analysis. Brainstorming is also used
in small groups and is discussed as a separate technique. (See Brainstorming.)
The definitions given here are generated from common practice
and various materials. However, the techniques are far from
standardized, and their names, conduct, and organization vary throughout
the country. Some techniques overlap, or a "hybrid" meeting
or process uses elements from each. The key to using them is to
identify the element or structure that addresses the needs of the
participants and the goals of the meeting.
Why are small group techniques useful?
They encourage broad participation and promote a sense of equality
among members. Individuals speak and are heard. Participants
ask questions and comment freely.
Small group techniques foster interaction between participants.
People are encouraged to speak frankly and openly. Ground rules,
such as allowing only one person to speak at a time, help level
the playing field between participants. Open and fair meeting processes
promote give-and-take and interaction.
They make a larger meeting more efficient and productive.
Break-out groups use various techniques to address a specific issue.
Many ideas are brought forth in small groups that might not surface
in a large gathering. The larger gathering becomes more productive
as break-out group findings on specific topics are reported and
Small group techniques foster dissemination of information
to the broader community. Representatives meet in small sessions,
cover issues, and report back to their constituents. The Portland,
Oregon, Metro holds small group meetings in neighborhoods throughout
the region. Spokespersons from each group report back to their peers,
their elected officials, and other people about transit issues.
These techniques usually make meetings more fun and interesting.
The interactive nature of small group activities makes them spirited
and engaging. People are willing to attend and participate when
they know the session will be interesting and productive. The Dallas,
Texas, Area Rapid Transit uses small group meetings to obtain candid
reactions to innovative proposals. (See Improving
Small group techniques offer a strategy for achieving a meeting
goal. They help keep conversation on track or establish a step-by-step
process for handling discussion. They help develop consensus or
an action plan. To review elements of its 2020 long-range plan,
the New Jersey Department of Transportation (NJDOT) sponsored four
issues groups—economic development, goods movement, and mobility
and quality of life—made up of key stakeholders.
Are there special uses?
Small group techniques are useful on controversial issues.
They provide a non-threatening venue for all sides to express opinions
and encourage mutual respect and constructive listening. They help
reduce tension and defuse polarized groups.
Small groups provide a forum for technical issues. Complex
issues and concepts receive needed explanation and review, because
each individual has time to absorb material and ask questions. Participants
feel more confident in an analysis if they understand the technical
issues and methods involved. The Connecticut DOT used small groups
of participants organized by modal interest (i.e., those favoring
transit and those favoring highway options) to develop alternatives
for repair or replacement of a major bridge.
Small group meetings can re-charge a participatory process
with interesting and different ways of looking at a topic. Disenchanted
group members are encouraged to rejoin if they see a way to achieve
goals in a new and focused process. To critique and revise its public
involvement program, the Central Puget Sound Regional Transit Authority
(RTA) called together 60 community leaders and organized them into
small groups to work on specific elements of the process.
Participants affect the substance of plans and projects
through small group work. The Southwestern Pennsylvania Regional
Planning Commission used a small group to simplify its Transportation
Improvement Program for easier understanding by the public.
How are small groups structured?
The style, format, and organization of small group meetings
vary. Some techniques are familiar and regularly used; others
(frequently with fancy names) are less common. Some use innovative,
creative group processes.
- Breakout groups are subdivisions of a larger meeting
to deal with specific issues. Small groups meet in separate areas—corners
of a large room or several smaller rooms. Each group appoints
or elects a discussion leader, and each participant has a chance
to express an opinion. Afterwards, groups report back to the large
meeting. In neighborhood meetings to discuss transit service issues,
the Boston Transportation Department asked break-out groups to
identify priority issues. After each group reported, the larger
meeting set priorities to report to the regional transit authority.
In Washington, D.C., breakout groups from sub-regions worked within
a larger meeting on the areas long-range transportation
plan and reported their area concerns to the larger group.
Some small groups are established from the beginning, instead
of being formed from a larger group. The format is designed specifically
to accomplish the goals of the session.
- Workshops are small groups that focus on one or more
topics, working intensively over a short period of time. (See
Conferences, Workshops, and
- Seminars give participants an opportunity to learn about
a particular topic and exchange information and viewpoints. A
seminar usually focuses on a single topic. Often, a seminar offers
a short presentation followed by discussion by a panel or participants.
A seminar is distinctive in the high level of interest and knowledge
participants bring to it. In Wilmington, Delaware, the Metropolitan
Area Planning Coordinating Council began a larger meeting with
a seminar with experts to stimulate discussion. Wisconsin DOT
sponsored five issue-based seminars on land use, economic development,
urban and rural issues, tourism, and freight shipping for its
long-range transportation plan.
- Community juries consist of individuals impaneled to
hear testimony related to a specific issue. Jurors, chosen for
their impartiality, hear reviews of an issue by neutral experts.
The jury discusses and deliberates and subsequently issues its
findings. Always non-binding and with no legal standing, the findings
of such juries can pinpoint "fatal flaws" or gauge public
reaction. The Minnesota DOT assembled a community jury to determine
public attitudes toward congestion pricing as a traffic-reduction
measure. The jury met for five days of hearings with more than
20 witnesses and voted in favor of reducing traffic but against
congestion pricing. The jury then voted for increases in the gas
tax and for allowing its use in funding transit improvements.
- Roundtables are meetings, usually around a table, to
examine an issue through discussion by all participants. Each
participant is a stakeholder, so the issue is debated from many
sides. Free discussion and diverse opinions are encouraged. Experts
in a field can participate, as well as residents, business people,
and interest groups. Roundtables are often breakout groups, focusing
on one or more topics related to the entire issue or project.
Seminars and workshops often use a roundtable format, but what
is distinctive about roundtables is their emphasis on thorough
discussion of an issue. The Kansas DOT, Albanys Capital
District Transportation Committee, and the San Diego Association
of Governments use roundtables in many projects and long-range
planning efforts. The Central Puget Sound Regional Transit Authority
held numerous roundtable discussions with community and business
leaders to identify priorities for its regional transit plan.
- Study circles hold a series of meetings to discuss critical
issues. Members are assigned readings and other tasks between
meetings. The process is very structured, often using study guides
and discussion questions developed by an agency or a steering
committee. Participants discuss each facet of the issue in detail.
The same group meets periodically to investigate and debate the
issue. Participants are appointed or self-selected. In Lima, Ohio,
40 churches with Caucasian, African American, and other members
held study circles led by trained leaders to discuss ways to alleviate
racial tensions. Study circles on race relations have been formed
in Albuquerque, New Mexico; Baton Rouge and New Orleans, Louisiana;
Portsmouth, Virginia; and Columbus, Ohio.
How do people work within a small group?
Problem-solving strategies are essential for small group accomplishment.
Small groups need a specific format or process to achieve the goals
of a meeting. These alphabetically listed techniques can be used
within the specific meeting structures cited above:
- A conflict utilization opinionaire uses survey techniques
to explore how individuals deal with conflict. It enables a group
to use writing and discussion to deal with conflicts or controversies.
Before addressing the project issue at hand, a group of 8 to 20
people meet and fill out a questionnaire or complete a writing
task to express their attitudes about conflict. They then discuss
how staff or leaders should deal with it and suggest the best
techniques for reaching consensus or understanding.
- Decision science is a process of reaching consensus or
formulating alternatives. It narrows the focus of discussion to
the distinguishing characteristics of various options. A group
begins by agreeing on elements that are not in dispute. The group
agrees on as many points as possible; for example, "We all
agree that we should minimize the impact on the agricultural properties,"
or "We think improved access to that abandoned factory will
encourage economic development." Eventually the group reaches
points on which they do not agree. By laying a foundation of mutually
agreed-upon assumptions, decision science enables subsequent discussion
to directly target unresolved issues. The technique requires a
facilitator to develop the consensus items and organize discussion
to resolve an issue or formulate a group of alternatives. The
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service used this technique to develop
water management alternatives and explore structural versus operational
solutions to water resource issues.
- Delphi (also known as policy delphi) reaches consensus
by asking a small group of experts to give advice. The results
can generate further discussion at committee or public meetings.
The delphi process begins when an agency distributes questionnaires
to a panel of experts, whose responses are then tabulated. Results
are sent back to the panelists, who reflect on their colleagues
opinions and either alter their stances or provide reasons for
holding to their own positions. This process is continued until
basic concepts and elements of a project or plan are identified
by a majority. The Atlanta Regional Commission (ARC) conducted
a delphi process to define critical issues facing the region and
to suggest possibilities for the future. These findings were presented
at ARCs Outlook Conference in May 1992 to launch the VISION
2020 public process. Delphi is considered a survey technique as
well as a way of involving small groups.
- Dialogue facilitation lets participants speak on deeply-held
personal beliefs about an issue. People hold conversations that
are outside the bounds of the topic under discussion. They can
focus around a meal as an icebreaker. Here, individuals do not
know which side of the main issue other people are on; they chat
about families, interests, etc. Participants then discuss the
main issue—not as enemies or antagonists, but as individuals.
Consensus is not expected. Rather, the goals are to open up communication
and knowledge that differing opinions can be held. Using a principle
of family therapy (you have to live together, so you might as
well get along!), dialogue facilitation asks each person to participate
- A nominal group process is a term used for several different
methods of identifying issues and priorities. One variation, employed
by the Pennsylvania DOT, uses index cards for participants to
register priority issues and other information; the cards are
then tallied or analyzed. In another variation, participants generate
ideas silently as individuals, and then list them as a group.
They discuss what each means and then silently and individually
rank the ideas. Yet another method is to have experts discuss
an issue with a small group and prepare suggestions for participants
reactions. To develop priorities for watershed management, the
New Jersey Water Resources Authority held successive small group
sessions. In the first, after a brief presentation, experts and
participants discussed the issue. In the next session, the experts
presented in ballot form an array of personal concerns and opinions
culled from the previous discussion. The group used the ballot
to rank their collective views. The top quarter of the selected
priorities formed the basis of a survey mailed to other people
participating in the public involvement effort. The results helped
to define the Watershed Management Plan.
- Open space technology is a method of assigning meeting
leadership. The Colorado DOT used this to manage breakout sessions
of a large group. Participants introduced a topic or concern,
wrote it on a card, and posted it on the wall. Examining the cards
to choose a topic, group members signed their names on the card
of their choice. Topics with the largest number of names were
chosen for discussion groups. People who introduced the topic
were responsible for leading a breakout session on it. The Colorado
DOT chose issues from these sessions as part of a management review
- A Samoan circle derived its name very loosely, with only
vague reference to the Pacific island group called Samoa. In fact,
the formal structure began during a land use study in Chicago.
Its purpose is to organize discussion of controversial issues
or within large groups, instead of holding a free-for-all, no-holds-barred
complaint session. It serves to identify stakeholders or to give
priorities to actions to be taken or areas of agreement, although
this is not a frequent used. A Samoan circle has no facilitator,
chair, or moderator. Participants are expected to maintain their
own discipline. They gather in two concentric circles—an
inner circle with a table and four chairs, and an outer circle,
with ample walking and aisle space. Everyone begins in the outer
circle. The issue is presented, and discussion begins. Those most
interested take chairs in the inner circle. Those less interested
stay in the outer circle. All are able to move in or out of the
center as the discussion flows or topics change. Each speaker
makes a comment or asks a question. Speakers are not restricted
in what they say or how they say it, but they must sit in the
inner circle. Someone wishing to speak stands behind a chair;
this signals those already in the circle to relinquish their chairs.
No outside conversations are allowed. Comments are often recorded.
Votes of opinions held by non-speakers are taken at the end, if
desired. To close a meeting, empty seats are taken away one by
one until there are no more chairs. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers
frequently uses the technique for both internal and public meetings
to define priorities and stakeholders in project planning. The
Village of Northfield, Illinois, used it to organize discussion
of controversial proposals for community development plans in
a forum of 150 residents and officials. The technique was used
in a meeting of FHWA officials and representatives of six Midwestern
states in discussing ways to improve working relationships around
environmental protection concerns related to projects and planning.
- SWOT (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, threats) analysis
takes an analytic approach to a concept or issue, identifying
its strengths and weaknesses, along with opportunities it represents
and threats to its success. Using those criteria, the group evaluates
chances for success or effectiveness. Priorities are resolved
by voting and reaching consensus within the group. The Iowa DOT
used the technique in establishing the basis for its strategic
plan. In a related technique, force field analysis, a group defines
"helping" or "hindering" forces and their
effects on the groups objective or discussion.
- Synetics recharges a discussion by diverting it away
from the issue being addressed. After discussing an unrelated
topic, a group analyzes the dynamics of the side discussion to
shed light on interpersonal relationships during discussion of
the main topic.
- Value analysis helps evaluate alternatives and their
consequences in terms of values (say, a clean environment or governmental
cost reductions) widely held in the community. This technique
is frequently used in the utilities industry. Participants compute
the attractiveness of each alternative, assign points for each
value, then total them into composite scores. The technique shows
what values are in conflict and what trade-offs might be possible.
It is often used in siting decisions—for example, by the
Florida Power Corporation. It has been used by the Department
of Energy in planning for a Tank Waste Remediation System in Washington
State and for the Santa Barbara County (California) Oil Transportation
Plan. The Oregon DOT has used it to evaluate specific agency actions
in relation to project alternatives analyses. The Ohio Housing
Finance Agency used it to establish suburban integration incentives
How do agencies use the output?
Agencies use results to refine plans or projects and move a
process forward. Small groups generate information, ideas, and
opinions. The Wisconsin DOT interviews small groups about preferences
and viewpoints. Small groups are a way to achieve consensus.
Small groups provide creative solutions or new ideas and scenarios.
In a small group session in Bostons Charlestown neighborhood,
a local resident architect sketched out a bold idea that became
the conceptual design for a major roadway reconstruction. Small
groups foster further interaction between agencies and the public,
often with a heightened level of trust.
Agency staff or outside experts lead small groups, but training
is necessary to lead them effectively. Training overcomes individual
worries about acting as a discussion leader.
Community people also lead small groups. A neutral outside
facilitator is important for small groups dealing with difficult
issues. Some agencies offer training for local residents in leading
discussions; others use outside experts. In Wilson, North Carolina,
a local bank donated the time and expertise of several senior staff
members to supplement agency managers. Working on the countys
strategic planning/visioning process, the bank staff helped facilitate
breakout groups focused on specific transportation topics.
Small groups usually have one or two leaders. Co-leaders
are chosen from opposing sides of an issue to make sure all positions
are adequately heard. This is important when no one group leader
is viewed as neutral or objective on the issue being discussed.
The choice of a leader depends on the complexity of the technique.
In cases where a specialized technique is attempted, it is important
to have an experienced leader.
What do small group techniques cost?
While actual monetary costs are minimal, staff time for
preparation and management is sometimes considerable. The staff
records events and reports back to a larger group or to the agency.
A person is assigned the role of recorder to write down ideas on
newsprint or blackboard. In some instances, agency staff facilitate.
Triangle Transit Authority in North Carolina used staff members
as facilitators of sub-groups analyzing transit potential and land
use/development impacts of a new fixed guideway.
Training staff or participants to run small groups is a factor.
Training improves productivity and leads to fewer meetings, thus
offsetting training costs to some extent. One alternative is retaining
consultants to manage small group sessions. Also, with minimal training,
participants can play other roles that help cut outside costs, acting
as recorders or reporters or in other support roles. These roles
reduce the need for staff effort.
Meeting facilities become a cost when a neutral location is
desired. To contain costs, publicly-owned facilities such as
schools or colleges should be considered.
Equipment, supplies, and refreshments usually have modest costs.
Adequate provisions engender good will between a sponsoring agency
and group participants.
How are they organized?
The format and organization of small group work need to be carefully
conceived. Good preparation is necessary. The choice of technique
must be targeted to the intended goals and topics of the meeting
and whether the process is short- or long-term. The organization
of the process should aim to achieve limited goals within a specified
deadline. Policy-makers must be informed of the process and its
goals to assist in its support.
Small group techniques must respond to both agency and participant
needs. Agencies may want to solicit opinions, develop action
items, and evaluate alternatives, while participants want to explore
impacts, suggest various alternative actions, and make their voices
heard. To remedy low attendance at large regional forums, the New
Jersey DOT sent staff out to hear from certain populations about
its long-range plan. Small groups met on Saturday afternoons in
senior citizen centers, colleges, and center-city neighborhoods.
Participants need to feel that a meeting is structured well
enough to produce results. Audio-visual techniques—video,
overheads, displays, laptops—are just as important in small
groups as in large meetings, particularly when technical information
or concepts are being discussed. (See Video
Techniques.) They help engage participants, grab their attention,
and establish a firm beginning. Meetings should be dynamic, fun,
and interesting for participants. A method of summarizing, documenting,
and reporting findings and agreements must be established before
a meeting. Even a large meeting that is not well-attended can produce
results when participants work in small groups to focus on specific
issues or tasks.
The process must be fair and open. All participants need
to have equal roles and be treated as peers. A group must be as
inclusive of as many points of view as possible. Potential interests
and stakeholders must be identified before assembling a small group,
so that no one is ignored. If a large number of interests are represented,
agencies often hold more than one small group session.
A method for selecting leaders must be determined before a group
meets—whether leaders are to be appointed or chosen by
the group. In some cases, it is appropriate to train small group
leaders and clarify the responsibilities they are to undertake.
Participants need to understand the process, their role, and
the expected outcome of a meeting. As in a larger session, the
context, purpose, and goal of a meeting should be carefully explained
and understood. If the process is unusual, participants need an
animated leader to explain it and carry it forward.
Specialized and unusual techniques have specific guidelines
for implementation that should be carefully explained to a group.
Before beginning a meeting, it is essential to review the use of
small groups, the proposed format, and the procedures, as well as
possible issues that may arise and the results anticipated.
Adequate facilities and supplies are important. Groups use
easels with newsprint and markers to record ideas. Refreshments
help create a comfortable, informal atmosphere. Equipment such as
overhead projectors aids in reviewing a proposal. Breakout rooms
are desirable for small-group sessions that are part of larger meetings.
Supplies must be available for specific techniques, such as cards
for the open space technique.
Implementation validates both the findings and the process.
If follow-up is required, staff or appropriate parties make sure
it is done. A small group that is part of a larger gathering should
be linked back to it. Pennsylvania DOT held large public meetings
for its statewide pedestrian and bicycle plan, breaking into smaller
facilitated sessions. Participants identified critical design problems
as they affect cyclists and pedestrians. The groups then offered
possible solutions and reported their key findings to the large
How are they used with other techniques?
Small groups must be integrated into an overall public involvement
strategy. A regular series of small group meetings ascertains
participants views. Small group meetings are held periodically
to update community groups and interested people on the progress
of a planning effort or project development. Such meetings supplement
larger group meetings by developing detailed information or exploring
Small groups adopt techniques available to larger groups,
including charrettes, facilitation, visioning, and surveys. (See
Opinion Surveys.) Alternative dispute resolution techniques
such as mediation are used when an impasse is reached. (See Negotiation
Small groups can meet by teleconferencing. The use of telecommunications
brings people together without the need for extensive travel. (See
What are the drawbacks?
Preparation takes time and extends a project or planning process.
But small groups also save time in the long run if they provide
opportunities for many people to participate and become familiar
with a proposals its elements and impacts.
Small groups require care and feeding. Space must be available
and notices distributed promptly and to the right people. Staff
often lead meetings or record their progress. Agencies sometimes
provide a neutral site and refreshments for the group.
The support of small groups requires a commitment from both
the agency and the public. Both need to be assured that small
group meetings are worthwhile, productive, and needed and that the
results will be of use in the overall process of public involvement.
It is sometimes appropriate to have agency officials participate
in small groups or observe the process to demonstrate its utility.
Are they flexible?
Small groups are inherently flexible. They are used in a
variety of situations, with a number of different organizing techniques,
at various times in the process, at nearly any location, and with
a wide variety of participants. They are organized to respond to
specific issues and participants. Also, small groups meet just about
anywhere. Many meet in public agency offices, schools, or universities;
some in private business facilities. Staff members from the New
Jersey DOT have met with small groups in private homes. (See Non-traditional
Meeting Places and Events.)
Small groups contribute to almost any larger process. The
intended use of small groups must be identified early in a meeting
process so interested people can comment. In a large meeting, breakout
sessions should be identified on the agenda.
When are they used most effectively?
Small groups are effective at many different times in a process.
They are effective at the beginning to alleviate polarization and
early perceptual problems. When a process stalls, small groups restart
public involvement or move it forward. They are used before issues
reach an impasse, or if participants are feeling excluded. They
are used in either planning or project development to prioritize
issues or work on action items.
For further information:
Council of Governments, Washington, D.C.
||U.S. Fish and Wildlife
||Atlanta Regional Commission,
Project, Cambridge, Massachusetts
||Capital District Transportation
Committee, Albany, New York
||Dallas Area Rapid Transit
||Metropolitan Area Planning
Coordinating Council, Wilmington, Delaware
||Study Circle Resource
||Oregon Department of
State Department of Energy
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