Taiwan’s civic tech hackers have a vision: to reform the country’s democratic process to be more citizen-centric.
“The citizens in Taiwan believe we should have a say where we go in society,” said Shuyang Lin, co-founder of the Taiwan Government’s Public Digital Innovation Space (PDIS) at the recent Innovation Labs World global summit. It is important to “work out our future democracy, really think about how we can reiterate our democracy better,” she added.
And the country’s civic tech community – g0v (read as ‘gov zero’) – is using data and tech tools to make that happen. “One of the mottos of g0v is really about ‘to be nobody’,” Lin said. “Instead of asking why nobody’s doing this, we should be that ‘nobody’ and start doing this already.”
One task the g0v team has taken up is the redesigning of government websites, to help make public services more accessible for citizens. “We look at all the government websites that we don’t like, and then we try to make a new website or new service that ends with g0v.tw,” she shared. The team creates another version of an available public service that they find wanting, and then hosts this version on a separate domain.
For instance, the team found the annual national budget report unwieldy and difficult for citizens to read. “The annual budget report is often hundred pages long and is often a video file. So it’s difficult to read for humans and for computers,” Lin said. As a result, g0v created a website to visualise the annual national budget so citizens can easily understand budget allocations, be it at the city level or for specific sectors like education.
On the newly-designed budget website, citizens can simply click on a circle representing one sector to discover the exact amount allocated to that specific sector. “[In] the visualisation, you can really drill down to each block and find out which budget is spent by which ministries,” she shared.
The website translates the annual budget into yardsticks that citizens can relate to. “For example, one ministry is spending $7.8 billion. That will mean 300,000 iPhones. So you get an idea of how much it is,” said Lin.
Another function of the newly-designed budget website is as a “direct conversation platform” for citizens and civil servants, Lin noted. “As a citizen in a city, you can simply go on a map, find the type of city budget you care about and ask many questions. The civil servants actually come to the website and answer those questions,” she added. The budget visualisation project has since been adopted by over seven city governments, including Taipei.
While these tools allow citizens to better understand government budgets, they are not yet able to have a say in how funds are used by the central government level. However, local governments are ahead on participatory budgeting schemes. In 2015, the capital Taipei set up an online voting platform – called i-Voting – and information desks in district offices, so citizens can propose policies for neighbourhood improvement projects, both online and offline. Since its launch, Taipei’s local councils have approved over 100 policies proposed by citizens.
Prototyping future democracy
Meanwhile, the PDIS team, which is based in the central government, has set up vTaiwan, a set of public deliberation tools to crowdsource citizens’ opinions on public policies. “It is a way to prototype how we can generate consensus from a large amount of people,” shared Lin.
Civic hackers built vTaiwan in the aftermath of the Sunflower Movement in 2014, when Taiwan’s ministers and citizens “shared a sense of need” for a platform where people could gather to deliberate over public policies. “Some civic hackers in g0v took the challenge and built vTaiwan,” Lin noted.
Conversations on vTaiwan are powered by Artificial Intelligence (AI) to ensure that discussions are “rational” and unbiased, according to Lin. “The facilitator is actually a robot, so there’s nowhere to be biased,” she said.
vTaiwan’s online platform is built to help thousands of people to reach consensus, rather than argue with one another. For instance, it does not let people reply to others’ comments to create a more “peaceful” conversation. “Because people couldn’t reply to each other, they’re trying to rewrite each other’s comments to be more constructive to the conversation,” said Lin. “You actually see a migration from one end, which has more divisive statements, to the other end, which has more consensus statements,” she added.
According to Lin, this same approach of co-creating policies can be used across different countries. “vTaiwan could look like an experiment for Taiwanese government to co-create meaningful policies with citizens, but I think this experiment is not limited to Taiwan, or any government,” Lin added. “This adaptable and reproducible prototype of future democracy has started its new lives in different places like in New York, Toronto or Tokyo.”
“This experiment is not limited to Taiwan, or any government.”
The emergence of social innovation has allowed private businesses to play a greater part in the democratic process, according to Lin. “In conventional thinking, social benefits and business profits are two opposing values and are forcing the government to make trade offs in this paradox,” she said. This could lead to new kinds of public-private partnerships to promote citizens’ participation in government. “For people working on social innovation, their goals might be achieved by developing business models to address social issues or environmental issues.” she added.
The next step for Taiwan’s central government is to continue facilitating co-creation with civic hackers, citizens and the private sector, Lin said. “The key message here for us in experimenting is that even though we might be the most passionate person in our positions, there’s still always someone who can do a good portion of our job better than us,” she noted.
In just four years after the Sunflower movement, Taiwan has made great strides in its digital democracy movement. But more work remains to be done for its civic hackers to fulfill their vision.