Helping Participants Make Group Decisions

In some participatory processes, people will need to select among options or alternatives, or make other kinds of decisions about implementation or action.

Key Talents for Better Public Participation, Part 13

In some participatory processes, people will need to select among options or alternatives, or make other kinds of decisions about implementation or action. Two skills may be particularly helpful for making decisions in participatory processes: dotmocracy and keypad polling.


One technique for making decisions is dotmocracy, also known as dot-voting or idea rating. This technique is useful for ranking or selecting ideas, alternatives or options.

In dotmocracy, the facilitator gives all participants an equal number of stickers – usually dots, but any stickers will do. Markers can also be used in place of stickers. The options are written legibly and largely, usually on individual flipchart sheets that are posted on a wall. Participants are then invited to “vote” for their favorite options by placing their stickers on the flipchart sheets.

Participants may spread their votes among a number of options, or consolidate their votes on a single option. The option(s) with the most dots at the end of voting “win.” One variation of dotmocracy uses different color stickers to signify different values, for example, a green dot means something is liked and a red dot means it is disliked.

When using dotmocracy, facilitators should be conscious of at least two important issues. First, they must attend to the number of options being put up for a vote. There is a balance between having too few options (where there is not much from which to choose) and too many options (where participants cannot effectively review, consider, and compare ideas).

Expanding the number of options is probably best left to the participants, though if necessary, facilitators could unpack different ideas that have been consolidated into a single option. Reducing the number of options can be done by consolidating similar ideas or generalizing unique ideas into broader concepts.

Second, facilitators should be aware of posting options that are very similar, as this can cause vote-splitting and ultimately lead to the penalization or dismissal of ideas.

Keypad Polling

Handheld keypads have become a commonly used tool in all kinds of meetings to poll participants, rank options, collect data and conduct surveys. The first keypads, or ‘clickers,’ were handheld devices that looked somewhat like a remote control. Although these are still used today, there are also various apps, software, and texting tools, such as Poll Everywhere, PrioritySpend and OneCounts, that enable people to use their smartphones in the same way.

Regardless of the particular technology used, keypad polling allows facilitators to ask multiple choice questions to which participants can respond immediately. The aggregated responses can be displayed almost instantaneously on a large screen.

Keypads allow meeting organizers to interact more directly with audiences while capturing and displaying results in real time. When used well, they can increase participant satisfaction, improve interaction and process flow and assist in capturing useful data.

In a recent publication, our colleagues Martín Carcasson and Michelle Currie identify several kinds of questions that can be asked with keypad polling, including:

  • Demographic questions about age, gender, background and political affiliation so that everyone can get a sense of “who is in the room.”
  • Fact questions to better understand what people know about the issue being discussed.
  • Experience questions – for example, how often people use public transportation or whether they have been a victim of crime.
  • Perspective questions to gauge attitudes or identify views.
  • Prioritization and comparative questions to understand how the group weighs different options.
  • Process and assessment questions to get a sense of participants’ satisfaction with the process.

Keypad polling has several advantages. It provides opportunities for everyone to participate, which can improve meeting dynamics and prevent meetings from being dominated by the loudest voices. It can provide immediate feedback on issues and give transparency to the process of gathering and analyzing input – the participants see the results at the same time as the facilitators and decision makers in the room. Finally, it complements small-group discussions well. By moving back and forth between the relative intimacy of a dialogue and the spectacle of the voting process, the meeting can allow insights to emerge while also giving people a sense of the potential impact of their participation.

When using keypad polling, however, participation leaders should be aware that the technology does not allow for open-ended questions. Only multiple choice questions can be used, and if the questions are poorly worded, the responses can be misleading.

Keypad polling is a relatively straightforward skill, but its proponents urge people not to overlook its larger meaning and potential. In a personal communication with the authors, David Campt said, “Never before in our history have huge numbers of people had the ability to make collective decisions almost instantaneously." Keypads and other technologies herald whole new horizons for direct democracy.

Read other blogs in this series:

Part 1: Ten Key Talents for Better Public Participation

Part 2: Building Coalitions and Networks

Part 3: Cultural Competence and Engaging Youth

Part 4: Recruiting Participants

Part 5: Communicating About Participation

Part 6: Managing Conflict

Part 7: Providing Information and Options: Issue Framing

Part 8: Providing Information and Options: Sequencing Discussions and Writing Discussion Materials

Part 9: Managing Discussions, Blog 1 of 3: Facilitating Face-to-Face Groups

Part 10: Managing Discussions, Blog 2 of 3: Recording and Online Moderation

Part 11: Managing Discussions, Blog 3 of 3: Ground Rules and Feedback

Part 12: Helping Participants Generate and Evaluate Ideas

Portions of this post were excerpted with permission of the publisher, John Wiley & Sons, Inc., from Public Participation for 21st Century Democracy by Tina Nabatchi and Matt Leighninger. Copyright© 2015 by John Wiley & Sons, Inc.. All rights reserved. This book is available at all bookstores and online booksellers.


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