We’re literally the first generation that can actually do democracy because it was illegal in our parents’ age. Because of that, there’s a lot more room to innovate.
Audrey Tang, Taiwan’s Digital Minister
Taiwan is a nation with a complex recent history and an uncertain future, faced as it is with an aggressive and extremely powerful neighbour which utterly rejects its claim to independence. But while this future largely depends on the winds, or whims, of international support for its fledgling democracy, it is making progress on its own with new approaches to participatory decision-making, using crowd-sourcing and other digital methods.
These new approaches had their foundation in 2014, when a mass protest movement, called the Sunflower Movement, sprang up in opposition to an attempt by then President Ma Ying-jeou, of the governing Kuomintang, to create a trade deal with China, called the Cross-Strait Service Trade Agreement (CSSTA) – clearly a highly sensitive issue, especially for Taiwan’s youth. The demonstrations – effectively opposing the one China policy in general – were massive, involving half a million people out of a population almost equal to that of Australia, but they were also ‘smart’, as they involved the use of smart phones to communicate and organise effectively.
The success of the Sunflower Movement led eventually to a change of government – the Kuomintang, which had democratised since the 1990s but which had long been tainted with neofascism, was finally ousted in 2016, and a centre-left government, the Democratic People’s Party (DPP), was installed, and returned with an increased majority in 2020. But a perhaps a more interesting outcome of the movement was the development of online participatory democracy platforms such as vTaiwan. The DPP has embraced digital technology to the point of creating a Digital Minister, Audrey Tang, a heroine to a diversity of communities.
Participatory or open democracy is an attempt to flatten hierarchies by creating online spaces for citizen deliberation and more open access to elected representatives. The emphasis is on diversity, and ‘forking the government’, a joke term of sorts, which Jess Scully explains:
In programming, forking means creating alternative approaches to a subset of a program (that is, writing some new code) and testing those in parallel with the status quo. Once the alternative code is working well, it’s merged into the system permanently.J Scully, Glimpses of utopia, p 60
As Tang explains, forking, in the strictly digital sense, has become a more flexible process in recent years, and this can be seen as a metaphor for governance. She sees her department as horizontal, and set within a broader government system that is as horizontally organised as practicable. Other terms such as sandboxing, are taken from the new tech world to describe experimental processes contained in lower-risk spaces such as the nation’s Social Innovation Lab before unleashing them on an unsuspecting public. These processes encourage the testing and tweaking of a diversity of inputs and responses to proposals from within or outside government, and clearly vTaiwan, the online platform, plays a key role. Government bureaucrats are encouraged to be proactive in formulating ideas and expected to be accountable in providing feedback to others. Accountability and reward go together.
It all sounds very idealistic, and there have certainly been roadblocks – such as getting government reps to take the issues discussed seriously – but vTaiwan and other such open-source platforms have allowed dissenters to articulate their grievances, and more importantly, to suggest solutions. Demonstrations can give way to consultations and collaboration. One key innovation in this consultative process is that no comments are permitted on proposals, thus eliminating divisiveness and trolling. Instead, proposals are upvoted or downvoted, so that maps of consensus can quickly emerge. Also, some proposals garner more attention for or against than others and so can be seen as focusing on issues of greatest public concern.
An even more successful platform, endorsed and utilised by Tang, is Join, created by the National Development Council, another government initiative. Often debate and contributions on these platforms lead to a complete reformulation of the original issue with innovative and wide-ranging solutions.
Taiwan’s outstanding performance in combatting Covid-19 has naturally made the country a focus of international interest. In an article written last December, ‘Digital participation in Taiwan: takeaways for Europe’, Dominik Hierlemann and Stefan Roch described the country’s success:
Taiwan’s open and vibrant social media called the “PTT bulletin board” was able to pick up the news and evidence of a new and dangerous virus in Wuhan as early as December 2019 and directed the information effectively to Taiwan’s Centre for Disease Control. Based on that information, the centre started to check all incoming flights from Wuhan and created a collective information system for all citizens, as well as with the help of citizens. As Taiwan immediately started rationing masks, an interactive App was quickly developed that helps people track down pharmacies that have masks on stock, so that the entire population could be effectively supplied. To this day, the Centre of Disease Control holds daily public briefings based on information collaboratively collected by itself, experts and citizens.
As Audrey Tang points out, Taiwan has more social media accounts than it has citizens, and it treats cheap broadband access as essentially a human right. With encouragement from one of the world’s most tech-savvy governments, the population is digitally interconnected like no other. And the Social Innovation Lab, based in Taipei, has a drop-in centre, open 16 hours a day, for people to meet, talk and eat in a relaxed atmosphere, exchanging ideas and plans informally and face-to-face. It all seems to be working, and more and more people worldwide are taking an interest.
Jess Scully, Glimpses of Utopia, 2020
D Hierlemann & S Roch, ‘Digital participation in Taiwan: takeaways for Europe’, Dec 1 2020