An official website of the United States government.

This is not the current EPA website. To navigate to the current EPA website, please go to This website is historical material reflecting the EPA website as it existed on January 19, 2021. This website is no longer updated and links to external websites and some internal pages may not work. More information »

International Cooperation

Public Participation Guide: Focus Groups

A focus group is a small group discussion with professional leadership. Focus groups are used to find out what issues are of most concern for a community or group when little or no information is available. Discovering these issues can help determine preferred options for addressing the issues or what concerns would prevent a proposal from going ahead. The focus group may also be undertaken to discover preliminary issues that are of concern in a group or community, and on which to base further research or consultation. Focus groups should deliver detailed knowledge of the issues that concern a specific demographic or community.


  • Assists in developing a preliminary concept of the issues of concern, from which a wider community survey may be undertaken
  • Helps to make limited generalizations based on the information generated by the focus group
  • Identifies the reasons behind people’s likes/dislikes
  • Produces ideas that would not emerge from surveys/questionnaires, because the focus group provides opportunities for a wider range of comments
  • Allows for more open discussion and transparency from groups that may have experienced discrimination in the past

Challenges to Consider

  • Such small groups may not be representative of the community response to an issue, they require careful selection to be a representative sample (similar age range, status, etc)
  • People must be able to operate within their comfort zones--some people may feel ill-at-ease about being open with their opinions in an unfamiliar group setting
  • Requires skilled facilitation

Principles for Successful Planning

  • Carefully select 8-15 individuals to discuss and give opinions on a single topic.
  • Participants can be selected in two ways: random selection is used to ensure representation of all segments of society; non-random selection helps elicit a particular position or point of view
  • Develop agenda with five or six major questions at most
  • Provide background material as appropriate, or develop minimal presentation of material to set context and introduce the subject
  • Book venue and arrange catering if meeting goes across a meal time
  • Hire a facilitator
  • Brief participants and the facilitator on the aims and objectives of the session
  • Establish ground rules: keep focused, maintain momentum, and get closure on each question before moving on to the next
  • Record data gathered from focus group discussion
  • De-brief the session with the participants and the facilitator
  • Compile a report of proceedings for the organizers, and offer a copy to the participants

Resources Needed


  • Staff are needed to recruit participants, record and analyze the proceedings, and develop a report
  • Experienced focus group facilitator is essential
  • Interpreter, if necessary


  • Neutral comfortable space for the sessions
  • Means to record the information – possibly an audio recorder, video recorder, or flip charts

Planning Time

  • Can be planned fairly quickly, although sufficient time is needed to select the participants, reserve space for the focus group sessions, and develop thoughtful and well-phrased questions.
  • Ideally time should be set aside to pilot test the questions

Implementation Time

  • A single focus group session typically last 2-4 hours.

Group Size

  • Typically 8 – 15 participants per focus group session.


  • Can be implemented without great expense.
  • The most expensive feature is focus group facilitators.

Most relevant participation levels:

  • Involve, Collaborate

Explore the full Public Participation Guide.


For additional information on EPA's Public Participation Guide, contact:

Shereen Kandil
U.S. Environmental Protection Agency
Office of International and Tribal Affairs (2650R)
1200 Pennsylvania Ave., NW
Washington, DC 20460