What vTaiwan Teaches Us About Digital Democracy

Last week, I spent a good part of Monday and Tuesday at a training workshop on the vTaiwan public engagement process and Taiwan’s Public Digital Innovation Space (PDIS), the innovation lab inside the central Taiwanese government. It was organized by the New York City node of the g0v (pronounced “gov zero”) community of civic hackers that started in Taiwan. It was the first time that members of g0v and PDIS had done a training in English on this innovative approach to digital democracy, but hopefully there will be more opportunities to attend one soon. That’s because this scrappy open source community of coders, organizers and govies has figured out something really exciting: it’s possible to radically transform how government listens to the public and how members of the public listen to each other as they go about making their concerns known to government.

That means we don’t simply have to stick with the age-old process of voting once every few years, plus interest-group pressure campaigns and lobbying, in order to develop new laws or changes in public policy. We can use digital communications tools for more than collecting petition signatures and raising money. We can actually make a new kind of self-government flourish, one that blends old democratic forms like petitioning, voting and facilitated deliberation with new digital forms like dynamic surveys, real-time open question platforms, 360-degree virtual reality views of face-to-face public engagement encounters, and radical transparency to engender trust. In short, what g0v is showing us is that we can create something genuinely newer and better than just digitizing our grandparents’ version of democratic participation in government.

And for those of us who thought that in 2008, when Barack Obama was elected president promising, among many things, to make government more open, participatory and collaborative, the vTaiwan model may help us see more clearly why his administration’s early experiments in tech-enabled open government withered on the vine. Which is more than a little ironic, since, according to Audrey Tang, the Taiwanese digital minister who was one of the organizers of last week’s training workshop, the Obama administration’s early moves to make government more transparent and to open up platforms to take in and respond to public questions were a driving inspiration for their own efforts.

As Liz Barry has documented here in Civicist, vTaiwan and PDIS grew out of Taiwan’s grassroots Sunflower Movement of March-April 2014, when students led a three-week-long occupation of the country’s Parliament to protest a trade deal with China that was being rammed through the legislature. Many other civil society organizations and constituencies joined in, and the occupation birthed a whole new approach to public engagement. As Barry reported, vTaiwan is a deliberative process that the government has started to use to involve the public on issues of current concern, which blends online and offline processes and tools to gather input, search for points of agreement and ultimately, produce consensus that is then given to the legislature or executive to codify into law or policy. It’s been used successfully around more than two dozen thorny issues, ranging from how to regulate Uber’s entry into the marketplace to nonconsensual publication of intimate images to a revision of a law governing social enterprises.  

Here in New York, a group of about thirty of us got a first-hand taste of what this process is like, focusing on an issue that our facilitators conjured up with a little help from attendees, so we’d have something meaty to discuss: how cities can work to make public data about residents more useful and protect them in the process. As you can see from this Pol.is report, our little group had not trouble coming up with opinion statements on that topic. In less than 20 minutes, 63 statements were submitted and more than 1,100 votes were cast on them. It was very easy to then zero in on the statements that generated the most consensus: people agreed that we had little knowledge what data was being collected on us, and that all residents should have clear ways to find that out. (See below for the top four statements.)

We then role-played participating in a face-to-face forum where the different groups who would have a strong stake in the policy question—government agencies, civil society groups and individual citizens, private sector organizations and academic experts—discussed our differences. The next day, the group dug in on how vTaiwan facilitators work with such stakeholders on deriving more detailed points of consensus. And finally, we heard from several Participation Officers—government staffers who have been trained to carry this process out with each of the country’s thirty government ministries. Taiwan now has more than 60 such people inside government for a country of 23 million.

Interspersed throughout the training workshop were talks by a number of these Participation Officers, and a running commentary supplied by Audrey Tang. And it was from those sources that I glimpsed a few more pieces of the puzzle that explains how and why this process works.

First, there is the online petition platform launched in 2015 by the government’s National Development Council, Join.Gov.tw. While past experiments in e-government launched by earlier administrations have languished (a 2014 “National e-Forum on Trade and Economics” got just 29 comments over a two month period), this new effort caught hold fairly quickly because it was operating in a much more fertile environment. To be recognized for formal attention, a petition on Join needs to get at least 5,000 verified signatures—a number that Tang says was derived by looking at the thresholds set for the UK’s e-petition platform for 10 Downing Street and the White House’s We the People platform.

So far, more than 300 petitions have hit that threshold, and after entries pertaining to fictional entities and topics pertaining to national security or foreign relations are set aside, 131 have been taken up for public engagement. In addition, the Participation Officers are all in regular conversation with each other about rising topics, and frequently they will bring issues up for attention even before they hit the 5,000 signature threshold. A response is more than just a written answer generated by the relevant government ministry—often a successful petition on the Join platform leads to that issue being taken through an inter-agency collaboration process, involving visits to the local communities affected, the organization of a three-week period of formal deliberation, the airing of stakeholder meetings, plus the recruitment of active participants through the use of online tools as well as offline events. So far, about 5 million people have participated in the Join platform; that would be the equivalent of 71 million Americans going to the White House’s “We the People” e-petition platform. (After its first year, about 5.4 million Americans signed a petition there, which is why Civicist contributor Dave Karpf called it a “virtual ghost town.“)

Hearing all of this last week, many of us jaded New Yorkers in the workshop were frankly astonished, and several asked some version of this question: isn’t there resistance from inside government to giving up this much power? Tang and her compatriots had two answers for us. First, yes, there is of course resistance, but they have always been happy to let government officials take all the credit for the good outcomes of the process. Equally important, said Tang, “They know we can always go back to occupying.”

That threat of exit, and the ability of the g0v community to play an outside as well as an inside game, appears to have given Taiwan’s democracy movement a big edge over other past civic tech efforts to make government more participatory and collaborative. As Tiago Peixoto and Jonathan Fox point out in their review of 24 examples of ICT-enabled citizen engagement projects across the developing world, merely increasing the ability of the public to express their concerns (“voice”) to government actors hasn’t produced much meaningful change, because most incumbent politicians and bureaucrats feel little need to listen. Peixoto and Fox argue for “voice with teeth” to insure that there  is a cost to the establishment for not listening. Here it is the risk of triggering of another occupation.

The g0v community appears to have also built this voice with teeth by applying its slogan of “fork the government” to many existing government websites and services. The idea, as our Taiwanese friends explained, is to take any .gov website, change the “o” to a “0”, and make a better version to demonstrate what is possible.

A third big reason for vTaiwan’s success is its culture of radical transparency from the very start. The mandate of the Public Digital Information Space is “to open the government from within the government,” Shu Yang Lin, whose job title is “re:architect,” told us during the workshop. When Tang was first appointed digital minister, she refused to do private interviews with journalists, establishing from the start that her work would be fully accessible to the public.

Indeed, all PDIS activities are made available in text, audio and/or video (and live-streamed if all participants agreed to that). Tang demonstrated this by sharing with us a photo of her talking with then Uber-lobbyist David Plouffe, who had come to Taiwan to engage the government during the vTaiwan discussion on how to regulate it. Here’s the complete record (transcribed) of her 40-minute meeting with him on YouTube—that’s more time on the record for Plouffe than he probably ever gave American journalists while he was working for Obama.

Compare what is happening with the nexus of efforts represented by PDIS, Join.gov.tw, the network of Participation Officers, and vTaiwan with the Obama’s administration’s early experiments with participatory governance in 2009. As with Taiwan, a new administration of self-styled reformers had entered government promising real changes. Indeed, on the first full day of the Obama administration, he issued a directive promising to make government more open, collaborative and participatory. Even before his term started, he had asked the public for input on a short-lived transition site called Change.gov, and in the early months of the Obama White House his communications team ran several rounds of “Open for Questions” events where the public was invited to submit questions and vote up their favorites using the Google Moderator questions platform.

But unlike in Taiwan, the Obama team signaled early on that it wasn’t all that serious about listening to unfettered public input. When the top issue on Open for Questions turned out to be legalizing marijuana, Obama and his team sneered. “I don’t know what this says about the online audience,” he sniffed, in swatting down a question about legalizing pot to help create jobs. Now elites like him have belatedly recognized that this was a serious, and neglected, issue, and one with deep ties to the failed war on drugs, no less. When the White House launched “We the People” e-petition website, it didn’t involve the public in creating it, nor did it set up any kind of sustained system for engaging the issues that arose. Instead, it often took months—if ever—to get a response from the White House to a successful petition, and many successful petitions were simply ignored because to address them was seen as politically inconvenient.

It’s amusing to me today to see people like former Obama White House communications director Dan Pfeiffer and his colleagues like former Obama speechwriters Jon Favreau and Jon Lovett position themselves now as righteous leaders of the grassroots resistance to Trump when just a few years earlier they were helping guard the ramparts of the White House from scruffy potheads with their silly insistence on reforming the drug laws. But that brings me to the last lesson I learned from our friends in Taiwan. The political reform movement of the first Obama years lacked an outside game. Obama himself had abandoned his “Organizing for America” base by bottling it up inside the DNC—but he was only able to do that because not enough of the leaders of that base pushed back. Many others accepted access over influence, or as Rashad Robinson puts it so well, they mistook presence for power. And the same is true of the transparency movement of the Obama years. We made many demands on the establishment, but only rarely did we manage to organize any real pressure on incumbents. Thus when the White House offered the theater but not the substance of real public engagement, the transparency movement had little recourse.

The student movement and civic hackers of Taiwan appear to know better. And, judging by everything from Occupy to the current outside-the-beltway political resistance, it looks like a lot of us now do too.

The author would like to thank Audrey Tang and Darshana Narayanan for their comments on an early draft of this piece.