One of the hardest tasks in any community is how to truly discern public opinion and values. This is an essential first step in a community planning process. In this paper we’ll learn how to apply a marketing technique, called the focus group method, to planning and how it can lead to truly engaging citizens in local governance.


Q. What’s wrong with how public officials currently assess what the public wants?

A. Public policy makers often do not get a complete reading of the public pulse through hearings and speeches. “Lateral conversations”, or dialogue that occurs among community members of similar social settings, is far more insightful than “vertical” conversations, or comments made at hearings.


Q. What does that say for policies reflecting the public will?

A. One of many implications is that public officials may be dead wrong when they say that the will of the citizenry has been communicated through public meetings and speeches.


Q. If the traditional ways don´t work, why aren’t effective mechanisms used?

A. Part of the reason public officials continue to use less effective mechanisms to set policy is partially based on our leadership processes. In general, leadership styles contrast greatly, according to the process used. Here is a chart that illustrates differences between two processes used in leadership styles — Entrepreneurial and Facilitative:

Entrepreneurial Leadership Leadership Processes Facilitative Leadership
Set it How Agenda is Developed Process it
Control it How Information is Handled Shake it
Select Group How Ideas are Handled Inclusive
Claim / Leverage How Credit is Dispensed Share
Quick Implementation Thorough

In the past, entrepreneurial leadership dominated many communities. Today it is still common, but for the public it is less and less accepted. As information can no longer be exclusively controlled, traditional public hearings are sparsely attended and a few special interests can no longer assume to know what´s best for the communities future. Focus groups can be a technique to help make the transition to facilitative leadership.


Q. What can focus groups tell policy makers?

A. Focus groups can yield:

  • Information, out of lateral conversations;
  • Insight into different directions, out of sustaining conversations; and
  • Realization that investing in citizens can be a high value-added activity, out of metaphors that can change the game.

Q. Let’s assume we try focus groups. What are the steps to carrying them out?

A. Follow the steps below for a successful focus group:
  • Agree on a purpose;
  • Develop questions, from broad to specific;
  • Pilot test questions;
  • Conduct focus groups:
    •  Facilitator
    • Recorder
    • Participants, either paid or volunteers
    • Videographer; and
    • Prepare report.

Q. I’m still not clear how it works. Give me an example.

A. Ask focus group members, many of whom are opposed to any more special education spending, where 8th graders will be in ten years. Assume two are predicted to land in prison, costing $28,000 per year; three will be in drug rehabilitation programs, costing $19,000 annually; and others will require other expensive special programs. Because of the obvious costs for these “failed” lives, support for special education programs grows from the conversation, and it reveals blocks that, once removed, produce agreements, i.e., a stutter step to quick agreement. “Oh, I see” metaphors and concepts deepen the conversation and lead to commitment.

When starting the conversation of a focus group, a facilitator first asks a general question. Then the questions get more specific. Ideal size of the group is between 10 and 12. No preparation is asked of participants, just as you don´t with a lunch time conversation: it happens. Time is between 90 minutes and two hours. Participants may or may not be paid, depending on the circumstance. And folks need to be seated in a circle facing each other, instead of the dais/pews arrangement one usually gets in a public meeting room.


Q. This sounds like something that would benefit the mayor and county manager.

A. Public officials should not actively be part of the group. If they are there, they should let go to listen, instead of jumping in. Even a facilitator can well use silence, as part of his/her style. Experts or staff can attend focus groups, but they should only be asked to speak upon request by the facilitator, who frames a question out of the discussion. Videotaped versions of the sessions are ideal for officials.


Q. Sounds like focus groups can help our community!

A. Indeed, conversation leads to knowledge on complex issues, even by citizens relatively uninformed on the issues. With informed public dialogue comes informed choices and decisions. And that is the essence of true local democracy.