Can Civic Tech Prevent More Oregon Standoffs?

We’re living in a world of governing crises, where the reputation of democracy is at stake. It’s time for all us civic technologists to innovate and build a modern, resilient system of self governance.

Case in point. Earlier this month, a group of armed men seized a federal bird sanctuary headquarters in remote Harney County, Oregon. The siege leaders claim that militant action is a justified resistance against government oppression. Specifically, they feel aggrieved over federal regulations for grazing cattle on public lands and want to impose their own rules for land use.

The Oregon public land occupation 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. Collaborative drafting of legislation is one example.

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.

Resilient systems route around obstacles — in this case, a backward looking land use policy. In Harney County, locals have demonstrated the capacity for calm, deliberative leadership in crisis. At a Town Hall, citizens put aside their differences over public lands (which are significant) and criticized the armed action. Open participation 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 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.

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. After all, the best way to prevent armed actions is to discourage unlawful permissive environments by creating opportunities for legitimate self-governance.

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. 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 that 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 citizens in Harney County, Oregon deserve applause. The threat of violence has been met with a counter force of civility. Oregonians’ 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 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.