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International Cooperation

Public Participation Guide: Form-Based Tools

Form-based tools are tools that require participants to complete a form – whether in hard-copy (paper) or on the web – to respond to specific questions, register general comments about particular issues, evaluate various options, or rank order preferences.

Although there is a wide range of possible forms, we focus on two types:

Qualitative Responses

Questionnaires use open-ended questions to encourage participants to respond in their own words. When summarized, they provide a measure of community opinion and/or issues at a certain time or in a certain area. Questionnaires ensure that exactly the same questions are presented to each person surveyed, and this helps with the reliability of the results. Questionnaires provide information on which to base decisions about planning and management of community and/or natural resources.


  • Encourages more honest answers based on the anonymity of the format
  • Reaches respondents who are widely scattered or live considerable distances away
  • Obtains information from those unlikely to attend meetings
  • Allows the respondent to fill out response at a time convenient to them
  • Provides larger samples for lower total costs than interviews and telephone surveys

Challenges to Consider

  • Generally only useful for qualitative data
  • Low response rates can bias the results
  • Generally requires a postage-paid return envelope to encourage participation
  • Requires a high degree of literacy among respondents
  • Wording of questions needs to be unambiguous to avoid bias and should be pre-tested on a sample audience to ensure accuracy of responses 

Principles for Successful Planning

  • Draft clearly worded questions
  • Keep questions as short as possible
  • Pilot test the questions to make sure they are unbiased, straightforward and not open to misinterpretation
  • Indicate the purpose of the questionnaire at outset
  • Include qualitative data (e.g. age, sex, address, education, etc.) to allow for further extrapolation of the results
  • Send out with printed information materials
  • If the budget allows, provide stamped addressed envelope to improve responses
  • Document responses as part of the public involvement process

Quantitative Responses

Surveys are designed to collect information from community groups in relation to a particular issue. They are used to gauge the level of public information or public opinion about an issue at a particular time. The results of the surveys provide information about the demographics and/or opinions of a specific group of people. This information can permit decision-making bodies to make better-informed decisions or to better inform the community in relation to an issue or proposal. Unlike Questionnaires, surveys typically ask close-ended questions and require respondents to choose from a limited range of responses (by marking tick boxes or scale-ranking items), making the survey results more amenable to statistical analysis.

Principles for Successful Planning

  • Find out what is already known, and what relevant surveys are being done or planned elsewhere. This will avoid duplication, and will help establish what you need to find out from your survey
  • Talk to locals with strong views and local knowledge to sharpen the focus of the questions
  • Seek expert advice on the pitfalls and requirements of survey writing, but rely on your own understanding of the issue or topic
  • Select your target audience. How will you sample them? Which stakeholders do you need to reach? How will you ensure that your survey gives a representation of the ideas of the group?
  • Draft the survey/questionnaire
  • Pilot test the survey to ensure the answers will give you the information you want (check readability and clarity of questions)
  • Conduct the survey
  • Collate and analyze the results. Develop a report and make it available to those surveyed and to appropriate

Resources Needed

  • Access to questionnaire design expertise
  • Trial group for pilot-testing survey
  • Staff to administer and analyze survey responses
  • Interpretation, if necessary
  • Paper and printer/photocopier to reproduce surveys
  • Web-site for online posting of questionnaires or surveys
  • Self-addressed stamped envelopes to encourage response
  • Computers for statistical analyses
Planning Time
  • Good surveys or comment forms can require substantial time to identify targeted stakeholders, develop sampling plan, determine the information sought and the best format and means for obtaining it

Implementation Time

  • Can be implemented quickly; however, implementation time will depend in part on whether the information being collected is being driven by a specific decision milestone and what kind of data analysis will be necessary.
  • Implementation time should allow at least 2 weeks for respondents to complete and return the form. 

Group Size

  • Unlimited 


  • Depends on the number of persons targeted and the extent of analysis.

Most relevant participation levels:

  • Consult, Involve

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