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International Cooperation

Public Participation Guide: Tools to Generate and Obtain Public Input

Tools to generate public input are techniques that you can use to obtain public input to the decision process. Through use of these tools you provide opportunities to members of the public to share information and express their opinions and perspectives for consideration in decision making. These tools take many forms and are applicable to all levels of public participation except Inform.

When selecting a tool, it’s important to match it to the participation situation and goal. Don’t always assume a public meeting is appropriate simply because that’s what you’re accustomed to doing. Rather, think carefully about the purpose of the participation event and select the tool based on that purpose and the attributes of your particular situation. A low-trust situation may call for an entirely different tool than one where trust is abundant. Similarly, the number of involved stakeholders or participants and where you are in the decision process will also influence your choice of tools.

In addition to considering your public participation goal and situation, one of the first questions you should think about when selecting a tool for obtaining input is whether you need to gather people together in-person to collect their input. You should consider having an in-person event or meeting if you answer yes to any of the following questions.

Participants in a Bangkok workshop provide input to improve public input on future projects.
  • Are you required to have some form of public meeting or hearing at this juncture of the decision process?
  • Do you need to present information to the public and be available to answer questions about, or receive comments on, the presentation?
  • Do stakeholders or members of the public need or want to hear or learn from other perspectives?
  • Do you need to build trust among stakeholders?
  • Do you want stakeholders to engage with you and one-another in problem-solving?
  • Are there marginalized parts of the community that may need additional outreach to ensure their opinions are heard?

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In-person Tools for Input

If you determine that your situation or decision would benefit from having an in-person event to collect input, consider the following questions to select an appropriate input tool.

  • What is the purpose or goal of the event? Purpose or goal should always drive your choice of input tool.
  • How many attendees are you expecting? Smaller numbers of attendees allow for more flexibility in the design of the in-person event and can provide for more interaction among attendees.
  • Do attendees want to have their comments as part of the public record? Formal public meetings or hearings typically allow attendees to make formal comment that can become part of the public record.
  • Do you want attendees to interact with one another, or only with the decision maker? If attendees want to interact with one another, then the event should allow for small group conversations and should not allow only one person at a time to make formal comment. If relationship building is important, you should select a tool that allows for more interaction across stakeholder groups and interests.
  • Do you want stakeholders to respond to a proposal? If you’re seeking comment on a proposal, public meetings, hearings, or those that involve computer-assisted processes might be appropriate.
  • Do you want stakeholders to work together to develop options or alternatives for consideration? Interactive and intensive processes, such as workshops or charrettes, are useful tools for stakeholders to work together to develop specific alternatives.
  • How much time and/or other resources do you have to prepare for the event? All in-person events require time and planning. Typically, more time and resources are required to plan and implement tools that involve more intensive interaction among stakeholders.

The following table lists some basic in-person tools for obtaining public input.

In-Person Tools for Generating Input
Tool # of Participants Best Suited for
Interviews Individual or Small Group Learning about individual perspectives on issues
Focus Groups Small groups (15 or fewer) Exploring attitudes and opinions in depth
Study Circles Small (5-20) Information sharing and focused dialogue
Public Meetings/Hearings Large groups Presenting information to and receiving comments or feedback from the public

Public Workshops Exit
(Effective Engagement Toolkit from Victoria, Australia, Department of Sustainability and Environment)

Multiple small groups (8-15 in each small group) Exchanging information and/or problem-solving in small groups.
Appreciative Inquiry Process Varies, but usually involves "whole system" Envisioning shared future, not making decisions
World Cafes Very adaptable, involving multiple simultaneous conversations (4-8 in each small group) Fostering open discussion of a topic and identifying areas of common ground
Charrettes Small to medium Generating comprehensive plans or alternatives
Electronic Democracy Unlimited Enabling the direct participation of geographically dispersed public at their convenience
Computer-Assisted Processes Large Receiving real-time quantitative feedback to ideas or proposals

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Other Input Tools

If you determine that you don’t need to have an in-person event, consider the following questions when selecting a public input tool.

Advisory boards can be a very powerful tool for obtaining public input.
  • What is the technological capacity/access of stakeholders from whom you want to hear? This is a threshold question for determining what tools you might use to obtain input. If the stakeholders have access to and the capacity to use computers, then you can use on-line tools to obtain input. If not, you’ll need to use other tools, such as phone surveys or paper comment forms/surveys.
  • What type of information are you trying to obtain? The complexity of the information you’re trying to obtain will influence your choice of input tool. It is easier to collect and analyze quantitative than qualitative information. Asking stakeholders to order rank proposed options lends itself to surveys, whether administered by phone, internet, or paper. However, soliciting stakeholder views or concerns on an issue, proposal, or visions for the future typically requires open-ended questions, which are better suited to comment forms. Thorough analysis of public comments requires considerable resources.
  • From how many stakeholders are you seeking to obtain input? The number of stakeholders from whom you are seeking input will influence the comprehensiveness and creativity of your information collection effort. If you’re seeking information from many stakeholders, you may wish to focus on quantitative information that can be easily tabulated. If you are only seeking input from a limited number of stakeholders, you have more flexibility to collect comprehensive qualitative information through comment forms or resident feedback registers.
  • What resources (time, staff, and funds) can you commit to obtaining stakeholder input? Resources determine what is achievable. It is better to perform limited stakeholder input efforts well than to do large-scale efforts poorly.
  • How will you ensure all voices are heard regardless of race, color, national origin, sexual orientation or income, with respect to the development, implementation and decisions made through the public participation process?

(More resources on tools to obtain and generate input)

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