The State of Our Union Is Strong (in Oregon)

The State of our Union is Strong.  President Obama and Governor Nikki Haley represented this strength last Tuesday as they reminded us of enduring American values like civility and inclusion.  Their words demonstrate that we have durable, resilient democracy in the leadership of both political parties.

At the same time, the state of Oregon has offered us nearly two weeks of a 21st century governing challenge. One that has demonstrated a durable, resilient democracy among American citizens. 

Earlier this month, a group of armed men seized a federal bird sanctuary headquarters in remote Harney County, Oregon. The group members claim that militant action is a justified resistance against government oppression.  Specifically, they feel aggrieved over federal regulation on public lands and want to impose their own rules for land use.   National reactions to the siege have ranged from alarm to scorn.  However, much of the back and forth has been a healthy and important democratic discourse questioning how we use and manage public lands and define terrorism and pointing out double standards in law enforcement.  Wanting to avoid violence, federal law enforcement has taken a "wait it out" strategy. 

The state of our union is strong in Oregon, where locals have demonstrated the capacity for calm, discerning leadership in crisis.  The closest city to the siege is Burns, with a population of 2,800, 30 miles away.  At a Burns Town Hall, citizens put aside their differences over land use (which are significant) and criticized the armed action.  Harney County Sheriff Dave Ward has been a key communication link, even meeting with the militants and offering them an escorted departure. Open deliberation and the unconditional rejection of violence is a sign of resilient democracy in action.

Federal land use is a long-simmering issue across the American West.      Arguments magnify the tensions of East vs. West priorities: wilderness vs. livestock; urban vs. rural; day trips vs. country livelihoods.  Yet almost everyone agrees that the laws governing public land are inadequate and obsolete--leftover from the 1870's push to settle the West.  To prevent widespread land degradation and abuse of the system, the grazing laws were revised in the 1930's and then the 1970's. However, much has changed since then and the law has not evolved accordingly.  

The Oregon siege is an extreme example of the modern struggle for legitimate power in a legal and leadership vacuum. Frustration with the inadequate law and the failure of government to respond and modernize it has led to an unacceptable outcome: citizens' use of force to be heard. In the Information Age there are better and more accessible democratic alternatives. 

Let Oregonians Update the Grazing Law 

We don't yet know how the drama in Oregon will turn out.  But one way we can support peaceful civic progress in future disputes is through new civic technologies that allow group participation in lawmaking. 

Civic technology is any information-sharing platform that facilitates citizen engagement and communication on behalf of the public good.   Examples include voting and resident feedback apps. More recently, tools for broadening participation in legislation are multiplying around the world. Policy Forge in Austria, Open Ministry in Finland and Plataforma in Brazil are some of the ongoing experiments with inclusive lawmaking.   The intention behind these open government developments is to build democratic legitimacy through transparency and shared decision making.

Why not use the latest in civic technology to encourage a modern upgrade of the law governing Oregon's public land? Oregon is already a national leader in civic innovation. Its Citizens Initiative Review is a deliberative process that includes citizens in policymaking. Across the USA, cities are also experimenting with new forms of collaboration. Just this week, Washington, DC went online with its Draft Open Data Policy . Open government platforms such as these, which allow scrutiny and participation in the formation of rules, create an unprecedented accountability mechanism for democracy.

Likewise, citizens in Oregon can use Madison, a hosted solution developed for use in the US Congress. They can then download the legal language from Cornell University's Legal Information Institute. Here's the link to US Code Subchapter IV on Range Management. You can find all US law on this site, and anyone can put this platform to work, running deliberative discussions without technical heavy lifting.  The questions for Harney County are who should administer the process and what are the rules for creating content together?

Ideally, a trusted local institution or individual would organize and facilitate the effort, and those directly impacted by the law would be vital participants. In Oregon this could include everyone from farmers and ranchers to birders and hikers. The Bureau of Land Management and its scientists are also essential players, but outside expertise might also be important and bring with it new kinds of forecasting tools like data science.  The challenge will be to find the balance so the process is inclusive but not unwieldy.

The state of the union is strong in Oregon. The threat of violence has been met with a counter force of civility.  In today's world of governing crises, the reputation of democracy is at stake. Harney County's adherence to civic rules of engagement despite deep differences is a bright light on a murky horizon.  The Oregon standoff is not over yet, but let us look to the citizens there with hope for an auspicious outcome. Harney County can stand as an example for Americans and the world of a more resilient form of democracy. One that rejects violence and grandstanding in favor of communication and compromise to solve a difficult problem.