Currently, there are two predominant ways of gauging public sentiment around government policy, and they are both deeply flawed. We need a better system to decide how the public feels about complex policy options: I propose community involvement jury duty.
One way we typically assess public sentiment is through polling. While this can be highly effective in getting the general public's position on issues, it only really works if the issue is well known and/or easy to explain in a single poll question. Its biggest drawback is that it's ineffective for complex matters like comprehensive plans to rezone neighborhoods. Any issue that is too complex, too obscure, or that most people don’t pay attention to, is not well suited for polling.
The other way we measure public sentiment is listening to active public input - things like informational meetings, public testimony, community events, neighborhood associations, etc… While valuable, these processes are inherently biased in two ways. The first is an intensity bias. This tends to favor the status quo. Many policy decisions often result in large, diffuse groups who marginally benefit -- as well as a very small group of people who lose in a specific way. The winners are rarely going to show up at meetings, but the losers will. For example, a plan to cut down a tree to make a stoplight more visible will benefit the entire community, but only in a small way few are going to go to a public meeting about. But the person whose house is benefiting from the shade of this one tree might very well complain.
The other inherent bias is one that strongly favors people with the time, knowledge, and financial wherewithal to take part in these things. Rich people, retired people, people with flexible schedules, people without kids, and those already actively engaged in politics are all more likely to be able to take part in these processes. Efforts can of course be made to make these processes more open (widely publish meeting schedules, community outreach, having meetings at unusual times), but they can at best only slightly improve the situation. The simple fact is most working parents have limited ability and desire to weigh in on every issue.
Community Involvement Jury Duty
Think of community involvement jury duty like a mandatory, government-run focus group. It would operate much like jury duty does (or at least how jury duty should). For major issues, two different panels of roughly 13-21 people with a stake in the matter would be selected in a process very similar to jury duty. The individuals would be selected at random but in a way that ensured the whole group formed a representative sample closely matching the racial/ethnic economic mixture of the specific area.
Attendance would be mandatory in the same way jury duty is. All participants would be paid for their time, provided daycare and a legally binding excuse from work. The process would run for several hours over the course of a day. The relevant agency behind the proposal would give a presentation about the issue explaining the background and goals. Organizations opposed to and in support of the idea would also be given time to make their cases to the group. The participants would have plenty of time to ask questions, look over any materials, offer their group and later individual feedback.
The results of these sessions would not be legally binding but should be given significant weight in all planning and decision making processes. It is likely the best way to understand the opinions of the vast majority of the public who don't have the time or inclination to actively weigh in.