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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