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Focus groups/workshops

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Brief description of technique
These are discussion groups of between five and twenty people, usually led by a trained facilitator. The participants are residents or people with a particular interest, involvement or stake in the subject being discussed.
To what kinds of consultation situations is this approach best suited?

Focus groups can be successfully used for in-depth consultation regarding strategic plans, positioning policies, service-specific planning. They can also form part of consultation strategy for community-building activities.

How much time is generally needed?
Three to four hours
What skills are required?

Well-developed facilitation skills are important. Focus groups rely on the expression of different views and opinions. A facilitator will generally ensure that everyone has the opportunity for input.

What kind of information do participants require prior to their involvement?
This will vary depending on the issue, ranging from nothing to detailed reports on the issue.
Brief outline of how the process usually works

One or multiple focus groups may be organised to discuss an issue.

Participants are introduced.

The facilitator will outline the process and determine any ground rules for the conduct of the focus group. Some agreement may be reached over the time taken for each part of the process described. Proceedings may be recorded by a nominated scribe, local government staff member or through video or tape recording. With any audio visual recording, permission should be sought from participants.

Depending on the level of information provided, an overview of the topic will occur.

A set of structured questions or issues are then discussed by the group in some detail.

How the process is successfully concluded?

Focus groups will conclude after issues have been thoroughly discussed or time is up.

How this approach is usually evaluated?
A simple evaluation sheet provided to all participants is a good way of finding out how the process was viewed.
Strengths
  • Useful for obtaining in-depth responses to an issue.
  • Creates an environment where people may feel more comfortable in airing a view than in a larger public meeting.
  • Lots of opportunities for deliberation and debate.
  • Can be very productive, given the smaller amounts of people involved and structured debate.
Weaknesses
  • Not representative.
  • Will only target a relatively small proportion of the population.
Resources Required
  • Staff time for facilitation and recording of proceedings. This will depend on the number of focus groups being run. External facilitation may be sought.
  • A venue with space to match the number of focus groups proposed.
  • Tape or video recording equipment and staff to operate it.
  • Tea and coffee and some food provided depending, on time of the day.
  • Participants are often paid for their time or may have their travel costs reimbursed.

CASE STUDY

Council or other authority
Moreland City Council
Name of Project
Financial Strategy
Date of consultation
September - October 2001
Aim of consultation
To understand community attitudes to infrastructure funding for the next 30 years, through either borrowing or establishing an infrastructure fund.
Consultation methods used
Focus groups
Description of consultation

Moreland City Council, like most Victorian municipalities, faces major funding challenges in relation to built and community infrastructure. Council needs community ideas about borrowing or setting up a fund. The council's financial strategy posed some difficulties because it was a high-level consultation without any immediate impact on the community. This type of consultation poses considerable challenges for council because most of the interest or possible participation is generated around immediate issues such as planning and traffic issues.

The first phase of the consultation involved a general meeting of community leaders across the municipality. The response was extremely poor and only a few people attended. The strategy was then redesigned to involve the community through focus groups.

The consultation highlighted the value of using paid focus groups when dealing with remote and high-level issues. Participants became more willing to attend meetings when they were paid $40 for their attendance. Many made a point of saying they were going to donate the money.

The focus groups explored the attitudes of several different groups including:

  • Young people
  • Non-English speaking communities
  • Business
  • Residents
  • Environmental and sporting groups.

This was followed by surveys of about 100 residents to test the veracity of the qualitative information, which was broken down by age and demographic area.

Participation was low, but the use of paid focus groups did get around the perennial problem of finding people to discuss these issues. The number of people surveyed following the focus groups also balanced the low participation level. The survey produced quantitative backing for the qualitative research done in the focus groups.

The end result was a clear profile of community attitudes to borrowing or establishing funds for infrastructure development. Informed policy development could then proceed.

Success of the consultation

The consultation was evaluated on the quality of information it provided to the council. Moreland now has a body of information about community perceptions of its proposed financial strategy. The consultation strategy gave some surprising results about the introduction of a levy for infrastructure development.

This consultation worked better than previous efforts which involved a static display and metropolitan advertisements. For the same cost, a far more comprehensive report was developed that gave officers clear indications of community feelings on borrowing. For example, older people were less inclined to borrow than young people, who had little objection to it.

The information was presented to council for discussion and paved the way for a financial strategy.

Other comments
This consultation showed the importance of using focus groups linked to wider surveys. Consultation must sometimes be active. Local governments cannot passively wait for people to come to meetings; they must engage the community. The consultation also underlines the importance of having a flexible approach.
Contact person
Name: Kevin Brianton Position: Manager Public Relations and Citizens Services
Phone number: (03) 9240 2431 Email: [email protected]

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