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International Cooperation

Public Participation Guide: Study Circles

Study Circles are voluntary groups of 8-15 people who meet three to six times to explore a subject or issue. A Study Circle process often involves numerous individual Study Circle groups meeting during the same time period to discuss issues of common concern.
 
Each Study Circle group meeting commonly lasts 2-3 hours and is directed by a moderator whose role is to aid a lively but focused dialogue. Between meetings, participants read materials they were given at the end of the last meeting. These materials are usually compiled by the sponsor or organizer of the particular study circle and used as springboards for dialogue.
 
By encouraging people to formulate their own ideas about issues and to share them with others, Study Circles help overcome people's lack of information and feelings of inadequacy in the face of complex problems. At the end of a Study Circle process, participants from all the individual Study Circles may come together in a large meeting to work on the action items from different circles.
 

Advantages

  • Engages many people on an issue without having them meet at the same place and time
  • Allows citizens to gain ownership of the issues and gain a deeper understanding of their own and others’ perspectives and concerns
  • Fosters new connections among community members that lead to new levels of community action
  • Can create new connections between citizens and government
  • Uncovers areas of agreement and common concern among a diverse group of people

Challenges to Consider

  • Can be difficult to recruit participation from hard to reach parts of the community
  • Requires coalition building to form an organizing committee that reflects the community at large. This takes time and effort, leadership, a working knowledge of community dynamics, and a willingness to learn by trial and error

Principles for Successful Planning

  • Identify an issue of broad community concern. Some of the issues communities have focused on include understanding environmental impact statements or exploring the issues involving proposed developments
  • Develop a Study Circle plan that includes the goal of the Study Circle process, geographic scope, how to achieve diversity in the circles, and how the sponsor agency will use the information and ideas that come from the circles
  • Organize easy to use, non-partisan discussion materials
  • Recruit participants using a variety of methods suitable for the populations you are trying to reach.
  • Conduct the study circles. Each Study Circle sets its own ground rules for respectful dialogue, and the process is guided by an impartial facilitator. An important principle for each Study Circle is to let people start “where they are.” It must be clear from the outset that participants are invited to share their personal stories and experiences early on in the discussion so that the ensuing dialogue will naturally welcome people of all backgrounds and points of view. The process progresses from a session on personal experience of the issue to sessions that examine many points of view on the issue, to a session that considers strategies for action and change
  • Study Circle facilitators summarize the results and bring them to the sponsor agency, which identifies themes across the circles. These themes form the basis of recommendations

Resources Needed

Staffing

  • Need a person or entity to organize and orchestrate the overall process.
  • Facilitators (paid or volunteer) are needed for each Study Circle.
  • Interpreters, if necessary

Materials

  • Discussion materials
  • Gathering space for each Study Circle group
  • Flipcharts, tape, and markers
  • Refreshments

Planning​ Time

  • Time is needed to form a representative organizing committee.
  • Additional time is needed to recruit participation, identify discussion topics, and develop discussion materials

Implementation Time

  • Individual Study Circle sessions last 2- 3 hours
  • Study Circles processes can take place over several months, depending on the number of participants and geographic scope of the process

Group Size

  • Unlimited

Cost

  • Can be used to engage large numbers of citizens for little expense.

Most relevant participation levels:

  • Involve, Collaborate, Empower

For More Information

Explore the full Public Participation Guide.


Contacts

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
E-mail: kandil.shereen@epa.gov