Setting Priorities

What We've Found

Setting priorities, with the input of the community, is an important step to better understand the issues of an area and to identify what goals are achievable. The process opens dialog, builds consensus, and teaches people how to work together.

Just the Facts

To set priorities is to give an item within a category, group, or list a certain rank. Ranking can be by importance, or by some other defined system of order or values. A vote, perhaps using an Audience Response System, or multiple-choice opinion survey, a discussion, or a lone individual can determine the ranking.
When understanding a project, it is helpful to establish priorities for issues to address and for goals to accomplish. For issues, the highest priority often is assigned to the resource that will potentially be most directly affected. Potential loss of recognized historic properties or recreational areas are readily identifiable by project participants. Threats to these can generate project interest and motivate either participation in the process by interested parties or project opposition. Ranking of issues may sometimes be influenced by perception or political reasons rather than actual importance. Other issues, such as non-point source pollution and stormwater runoff, may receive lower ranking simply due to complexity even though they may have a more pervasive impact over time.
Goals are often prioritized based on the availability of resources to address them or degree to which the project may influence objectives or external pressures such as pending legislation. Like issues, timing is also a consideration. Some goals will need to be worked on over a period of time while others can be achieved relatively quickly.

How To Do It

1. Get a list
Based upon group discussions, there should be a list of issues, goals, tasks, or some other items. The list should be refined to the point where similar information and ideas are grouped under one theme and everyone present is in agreement with the wording of statements and expression of ideas. All of this preparatory work should be posted on walls so that participants can see it, especially if time has elapsed between meetings or workshops.
2. Rank the items
If the group is less than 10 people, and the list is manageable, have each person write down on his or her own piece of paper how they would rank the items. Then randomly select one item and have each person take a turn sharing his or her recommendation for its ranking and why. A facilitator or recorder captures comments on a flip chart. When everyone has spoken, review the list and see if there is agreement about the ranking. If there are some whose ranks are completely opposite that of the majority, check back with those individuals to further discuss the ranking or to make sure they agree with the group’s decision.
For larger groups, give all of the participants an equal number of colored dot-stickers. Ask everyone to come forward and place their dots on the top three or five items, depending upon the size of the list, as they see it. When done, count the dot-votes and see if there is a natural consensus. Discuss the top items, then rate the remaining items by counting their dot-votes and discuss rates for any items without dots.
Another alternative is to use dot-votes in multiple steps. Participants vote their way through the entire list using different colors of dots: first step is to vote for top three using another a color (blue); second step is to vote for top one within those three using a second color (green); third step is to vote for top one outside of that first group of three using a third color (yellow); and so on.
If the group is especially large and so is the number of items, divide into subgroups each assigned to a category. Subgroups discuss and decide upon ranks within that category. Everyone reconvenes and reports their recommendations. The end result is a number one priority in each of the different categories. Or, have the whole group select an overall priority across the categories.
Alternatively, priorities may be ranked anonymously by various sized groups using KYTC's Audience Response System with wireless keypads.

Determining what matters most to individuals, a community, or a resource.

Use It If...
  • You want the group to focus.
  • You desire to form consensus among a number of people about a multitude of problems or challenges affecting a project or about what their vision is for the project.
  • You plan on building a strong public involvement campaign. Identifying and prioritizing issues launches goal setting and prioritizing and that leads into creating doable action agendas.
Forget It If...
  • You need action. There’s a clear, single threat that needs to be fought against, not multiple ideas.
  • You have not developed consensus about what the purpose is for a project.


Timing is Everything

Priorities can be set and reset anytime according to needs, resources, and opportunities.

Follow Us