Public Involvement Techniques

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4. Using Special Techniques to Enhance Participationskip page navigation

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4.B - Changing a Meeting Approach
4.B.a - Improving Meeting Attendance
4.B.b - Role Playing
4.B.c - Site Visits
4.B.d - Non-Traditional Meeting Places and Events

4. Introduction

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 bike paths.

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 and Contests.)

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 people’s 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 public better.

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 process.

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 notes.

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 terms!

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; Computer 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, and suggestions.

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 (604) 623-3629
Dallas Area Rapid Transit District (214) 749-2543
Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority (617) 222-5000
Surface Transportation Policy Project (202) 939-3470

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