William U'Ren forever changed Oregon by giving its people new tools for democratic participation. The father of the initiative, referendum and recall in Oregon, U'Ren advocated for these reforms because government officials still worked with "old tools, with old laws, and with institutions and charters which hindered progress more than they helped it."
The initiative and referendum passed the Oregon Legislature 120 years ago ... they are officially old tools. We can debate when and how these tools have helped and hindered progress, but what's clear is that Oregonians deserve a new tool. More specifically, we deserve a tool that aligns with U'Ren's faith in the wisdom of the crowd to build a better state.
It's time for the Oregon Policy Panel.
Like serving on a grand jury, service on the Oregon Policy Panel (OPP) would be random, compensated and long-term. The state would gather 100 Oregonians responsible for meeting every month that the Legislature is in session. The panel would review bills that had been referred to them by traditional legislative committees. Legislators, experts and stakeholders would walk through the merits and drawbacks of the legislation while fielding questions from the panelists. Once testimony finished, the panel would then start a private, moderated deliberative session. Only decisions — such as referring the legislation to its appropriate chamber — that received 75 votes would be binding on the Legislature.
This consensus style of governance has a legacy in Oregon. It's commonly referred to as the Oregon Way. Legislators have tried to continue this tradition by hosting legislative roadshows and the like, but these methods fall short of truly tapping into the wisdom of the crowd. For one, roadshows tend to only attract the most passionate individuals, rather than a representative sample of the community. Additionally, roadshows don't give Oregonians real influence over the legislation. By contrast, the Oregon Policy Panel would be random, representative and really in line with the Oregon Way.
The OPP isn't outside-the-box thinking. In fact, it's simply implementing what works for states and countries around the world. Vermont has a state holiday for town meetings in which legislators and community members identify the area's legislative priorities. Brazil hosts National Public Policy Conferences that facilitate public deliberation and enable ordinary community members to influence policy. Gram Sabhas, in South India, bring policymaking to the village level and empower people from all backgrounds to get involved. The OPP is simply the Oregon adaption of proven, deliberative, democratic practices.
Unlike jury duty, service on the OPP would become celebrated. Panelists would generate discussion on Oregon's future wherever they go. Suddenly, Oregonians would have 100 more voices to connect with, learn from and educate on their experiences and priorities. What's more, these panelists wouldn't feel compelled to always have re-election on their minds. A panelist would aspire only to bring their representative voice to the table.
The current tools available to Oregonians leave a lot of wisdom on the table. It's true that 60.5% turnout in the recent midterm election deserves celebration and that Gov. Brown has done great work to make voting easier, but we can do better. Until Oregonians truly become a part of the process, the wisdom of the crowd will go untapped.
U'Ren once declared, "I'd go to hell for the people of Oregon!" Oregon's leaders don't have to go that far to make this place a little bit more like heaven. The OPP is a sensible step toward a more representative Oregon.
Kevin Frazier has worked in various capacities in Salem and presently studies at Berkeley Law. He lives in Washington County.
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