Taiwanese Civic Tech is not Re-inventing Democracy, Yet
High-level collaboration between hackers and the government helped Taiwan to become the darling of the global civic tech community. But projects like vTaiwan still struggle to scale up nation-wide, and increase their scope outside digital economy issues.
Editor’s note: This article was edited by Mini Wu. A version was originally published on g0v.news (pronounced gov-zero news), a news platform about the civic tech community, by the civic tech community, featuring the latest civic tech trends from Asia and around the world. G0v.news is also the world’s first ever bilingual Chinese/English civic tech news platform.
Hillary Clinton won the popular vote by nearly 3 million votes, but Donald J. Trump won the presidency through electoral college votes. Progressives use social media to get Americans into the streets to protest against Trump, but the goons at 4chan are just as adept at rallying the base. The U.S. is a deeply divided society, and the activists and civic hackers at the 2017 Personal Democracy Forum (or PDF17) were looking for new ideas to unify Americans.
So when Audrey Tang, Taiwan’s highly-intelligent and soft-spoken Digital Minister took to the stage to talk up the Taiwanese government’s use of machine intelligence to spur on large-scale participation in policy formulation, the crowd at PDF17 started to listen more carefully.
“We use machine intelligence to try to get everyone’s feelings, and give binding power to any feeling that resonates with a super majority,” she said from the stage.
Tang is a prolific open-source coder, and an active participant in Taiwan’s
community (pronounced gov-zero), East Asia’s largest civic hacker collective. Ten months ago, Tang was appointed to a ministerial role, and charged with bringing a spirit of “open government” to Taiwan’s executive branch.
During her speech at PDF17, Tang talked about a website called “vTaiwan,” a platform that gathers diverging views and feelings on a particular issue, and uses machine-learning to morph these voices into a few opinion groups. On the site, the opinion groups are visualized into bubbles of different shapes and sizes, so everyone can get a clear idea of where the core problems lie.
But vTaiwan isn’t just a web platform, it’s also an on-line to off-line facilitation process that gets stakeholders to come together on consensus issues, and leads to real policy formulation. The process takes months, but it’s remarkable to see virtual banter eventually leading to a physical bill that changes government and society. The vTaiwan process even played a part in resolving an explosive conflict between Taiwanese taxi drivers, Uber drivers, and Uber riders.
“I’ll talk about how pol.is [the backbone program that provides VTaiwan with AI opinion polling] is far from being experimental, is now being done daily as part of the administration’s normal working system for all the controversial issues,” said Tang.
Best of all, it works at scale, and has the potential to engage with millions of Taiwanese about policy formulation.
Shortly after Tang’s speech, more than 80 Americans filed into a cramped conference room to attend a panel featuring Tang, called “Re-inventing Democracy: Lessons from Taiwan and Beyond.” Many asked if the vTaiwan process could work in the US.
“I’m about to hop on the phone with a mayor of a town in the U.S. who is at odds with city council. They see the whole vTaiwan process as a way through, and are asking, can you replicate that here? And this is a city in Alabama,” said Colin Megill, a co-founder of pol.is, and a speaker at the panel.
With the potential to engage millions of people, and a seemingly endless scope of issues to be discussed, vTaiwan is a rare example of a civic tech project being scaled to a national level.
But just three years after a wildly successful Occupy Movement that brought civic hackers like Tang to collaborate with the Taiwanese government, the spirit of openness and participation is considerably dimmer. Taiwanese society is once again divided, and the government works in a top-down manner familiar to Taiwan political watchers.
That’s not to mention Taiwan’s legislators making global headlines for throwing water balloons and office chairs at each other over an infrastructure bill; or retirees using tea-party style protest tactics to disrupt deliberations on pension reform; or Taiwan’s indigenous peoples being refused a meeting with the President over traditional land disputes.
All the while, meaningful forms of civic participation are few and far between. Even vTaiwan, a platform that has the potential to resolve societal and political quagmires, continues to tackle issues limited to the digital economy.
So what happened to Taiwan’s “re-invention of democracy”? What happened to the amazing digital tools with seemingly limitless potential?
Yearning for Participation
After years of divisive politics under the Chinese Nationalist Party (the KMT) and opaque business dealings with China, Taiwanese voters plumped for the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), and President Tsai Ing-wen’s inspiring vision for political and economic reform.
Tsai campaigned on a highly ambitious agenda. She advocated for pension and labor reform, and for progressive causes like same-sex marriage, and transitional justice for Taiwan’s indigenous peoples. Tsai won an overwhelming majority of votes to be the country’s first female president, and the DPP won a majority of seats in Taiwan’s congress, the Legislative Yuan.
When Tsai’s newly appointed premier, Lin Chuan, appointed civic hacker Audrey Tang to serve in a cabinet position, it seemed a good indication that President Tsai was serious about achieving her highly ambitious agenda. Tsai praised Tang for bringing a hacker spirit into the government and hoped Tang could do “more work in promoting open government and a digital country”.
During Taiwan’s Occupy Movement (also known as the Sunflower Movement) which protested the former KMT government’s opaque trade agreement with China, Tang and other civic hackers played an instrumental part in facilitating communication and logistics at the occupation site.
A year after the Movement, the government sought to make amends over its poor citizen participation strategy, and the KMT’s Jaclyn Tsai reached out to the g0v community to collaborate on a deliberative policy making platform. Tang and others accepted the offer, and soon vTaiwan was born.
The vTaiwan platform had a number of early successes. It helped facilitate consensus on e-taxes and closely-held companies, leading to new legislation. It was also used successfully on issues like crowdfunding, and distance education.
But the platform gained its most notoriety when it played a part in facilitating a consensus between Uber and Taiwan’s taxi unions. After leaving Taiwan in February 2017, Uber came back under new regulations in April.
With Audrey Tang’s appointment as minister in charge of digital economy and open government issues, many commentator’s saw an opportunity for vTaiwan to expand its scope, and play a larger role in shaping the national policy dialogue.
Just six months after taking office, the Associated Press said Tang was “reshaping digital democracy.” This June, the MIT Tech Review cooed that “the internet doesn’t have to be bad for democracy,” and praised Tang’s use of pol.is and vTaiwan to turn “turn the energy of online interactions into a more positive force.”
In a popular piece for Civicist, Liz Barry reflected that “consensus building technology that works at large scale could be the internet’s missing link — the app we need to help us past just yelling ‘stop’ and figure out how we get to ‘go.’”
“Could it work in a setting like the United States, where people seem to have completely different versions of reality?” Barry asked.
The New Taiwan Government’s Ambitious Agenda
In order to facilitate a consensus, the DPP government’s desire to reform dozens of key policies and programs would require active interaction and participation with the public. Decades of unequal economic distribution between cities in the north and south, and between blue collar and white collar workers, has left Taiwanese society riven with tension. Taiwanese citizen would need to have ready access to relevant data in order to understand the Tsai-Lin government’s reform plans, and would need to compromise on wedge issues.
But the DPP government’s recent efforts to engage with the public and encourage civic participation are looking strikingly similar to its erstwhile political rival, the KMT.
In an efforts to shore up Taiwan’s flagging economy, Premier Lin Chuan recently introduced a national infrastructure bill worth a whopping $29.5 billion USD. Lin consulted with mayors about infrastructure needs, but failed to open a single consultation meeting with the public.
Civil society groups have protested in kind. A coalition of CSOs urged the government to redraw the infrastructure plan calling it “hasty” and “lacking civil participation.”
In a recent poll, more than 60 percent of the public said they “do not understand” the new infrastructure plan, and a majority “do not believe it would improve the economy.”
At this juncture, when severe social and political division has gripped the country, choosing the vTaiwan platform to facilitate a consensus would seem an obvious choice.
But Premier Lin has not directed Minister Tang to engage the public with vTaiwan. Instead, the platform’s scope has remained dedicated to digital and innovation economy issues.
vTaiwan on a Leash?
Chia-liang Kao, a co-founder of the
g0v community, notes that vTaiwan was an acceptable platform for the government to adopt because of its early focus on digital issues, as opposed to larger social and political issues.
“vTaiwan started tackling digital related issues, and it was a convincing point for the government to buy in, as we can be sure most of the stakeholders are on line,” said Kao.
But Kao is unsure how the vTaiwan process can be rolled out nation wide. Many of the core issues the government needs to resolve require engagement with stakeholders that are mostly offline. “You always have to ask how representative [the platform] is, and there’s no easy way to do that,” Kao added.
Nor does it appear that Premier Lin has plans to scale up the platform to a national scale. Shortly after Tang was approached to take up a cabinet position, Lin made relatively clear statements about Tang’s function in the new Tsai-Lin government.
“Audrey Tang’s work and function won’t be like other ministers we’ve seen in the past, the Executive Yuan (Taiwan’s executive branch) will not be giving her a lot of bills like other ministers,” said Lin. “We hope Tang can assist each department to set up a public policy and communication web platform, and make full use of the government’s data.”
But as pressure mounted on the government to clarify what the new infrastructure plan would mean for the public, Tang requested Premier Lin to open up a “Q & A” web platform about the plan, with the public asking questions like “will this infrastructure bill leave a heavy debt to our grandchildren?” and “will the infrastructure projects become useless husks in a couple years?”
During a press briefing about the new Q & A platform, Tang intimated that the vTaiwan platform could be used for debates about the infrastructure bill. Tang said she hopes “the government could use more data visualization and interactive models during the policy making process.”
Tang also added she hopes the government can “open up data and meeting records on hand so that all people can take part in the policy making process.”
But Minister Tang’s advice appears not to have been heeded, and Premier Lin later instructed a government spokesperson to do a live-feed “Ask Until You’re Full” question event on Youtube. Grassroots activists lambasted the event as “open-washing,” an example of only engaging the public after the decision process has been made, with no citizen oversight invited.
This lack of clarity on the infrastructure bill has given the rival KMT an opening to cause havoc within the Legislative Yuan, who claim the DPP are using the bill to buy political favors. This July, KMT legislators threw water balloons, and satchels of flour at the DPP to disrupt the reading of the bill. DPP legislators retaliated by throwing arm chairs at the KMT.
This is a familiar pattern for the Tsai-Lin government, and a number of other divisive issues have been handled in a typical top-down fashion.
Taiwan’s indigenous peoples were not consulted when the government decided to draw up which parts of the island would constitute traditional indigenous lands, leading to a 100-day sit-in by a group of venerable elders. They were later coldly evicted by the police without having their voices heard.
The streets of Taipei are also being rocked by months-long protests by retired teachers, civil servants, and military officers. In as little as three years, many of their pension funds will go belly up, and reform is desperately needed. But retirees weren’t satisfied with the top-down approach to public consultations, and soon used violent, Tea Party-like disruption tactics to disrupt government processes, and have hounded President Tsai around the island.
vTaiwan has also hit one more unexpected roadblock: the new DPP-held Legislative Yuan has not made vTaiwan facilitated issues into priority bills. The DPP caucus decides which issues will receive priority for three readings in order for the bill to pass. Unfortunately, vTaiwan facilitated issues like online liquor sales do not appear to have made the docket.
What’s Next for vTaiwan?
Back at the “Re-inventing Democracy” panel discussion at PDF17, Tang acknowledged that the vTaiwan process is “very careful about choosing topics where primarily all the stakeholders are online.” But postulates that issues like truth and reconciliation, and indigenous issues could be discussed by “bringing the technologies to the people,” and listening to them in their local villages.
“Good assistive civic technology should disappear, and people should use the most natural modality to reach listeners,” Tang said.
Certainly vTaiwan has provided unparalleled mass participation opportunities on a number of internet-related issues, but the scale of said participation remains in the thousands, not millions. Nor has the scope of the platform been widened to include true, nation-wide issues outside of the digital economy.
However, Tang and the vTaiwan process have been very successful at bringing seemingly “niche” digital economy issues into the Taiwanese mainstream. Issues like social enterprise company law have recently received greater media coverage thanks to Tang shining the spotlight on them.
Despite Tang’s high-profile appointment, the Tsai-Lin government appears to be rather tepid about adopting the spirit of open government, and civic tech platforms like vTaiwan have not been allowed to realize their full potential.
This had led an influential Taiwanese publication to ask: “Is Audrey Tang doing enough? Or is the problem that one Audrey Tang is not enough to change the Taiwanese government?”
It appears that Americans aren’t the only ones pondering “where do we go from here?”