Even before the pandemic struck, many government institutions were structurally mismatched to the challenges of the 21st century.
But Covid-19 has exposed the states that have stood still for the last ten years, even while the world around them has transformed.
While many Asian countries have fared well, Taiwan in particular stands out for its unique approach to public engagement to tackle the pandemic. Stagnating governments must follow its lead.
Challenges of today
States are falling short of meeting people’s needs in 2020 and this is only compounded by weakening trust in political institutions and politicians. It is clear that the state needs to be radically reconfigured for the modern era, especially in how it engages with citizens and delivers services.
Improving public engagement and trust is essential to deal with challenges both immediate and longer-term. During a pandemic, it’s important for two main reasons: first, the collective behaviour change required to deal with the virus is more effective when the public trusts the rules and actions of authorities. Second, given the stakes, the pandemic has sharpened the need to determine where policy is failing certain groups, how it is failing and how you fix this.
But the wider, 21st-century operating environment also forces the need for a closer, more engaged relationship between people and the state. The internet has democratised information and political participation on a scale never seen before, fragmenting any sense of a stable, public majority or a ‘single will’.
Social media enables constantly evolving multitudes of like-minded people to find each other and organise into networks. Rigid, 20th century institutions end up mismatched to respond to the changing needs and demands of this networked public.
The result is an endemic lack of empowerment for citizens. In many countries like the UK, analogue consultation processes are inadequate to capture people’s views. Novel feedback mechanisms – like e-petitions, social media and fundraising campaigns – are positive and give citizens a platform to express their views, but have little material impact on the policymaking process.
For countries to get back on the right path, they need a radically different approach in how they understand, and meet, the evolving needs of the public.
Lessons from Taiwan
Enter Taiwan, the poster child of digital democracy. Taiwan has demonstrated that civic engagement should no longer be constrained by needing to have all the participants in one room. It has shown that technology can decentralise these discussions and enable deliberation at scale.
From solving the thorny issue of Uber regulation to developing apps that can locate mask supplies in local pharmacies in rural areas, their digital democracy platform, vTaiwan, has numerous success stories.
Crucially, Taiwan demonstrates that with the right tools, government can be more competent and more trustworthy: it has registered only 7 deaths from Covid-19 and public trust, which is crucial to sustaining collective behaviour change, is at 91% during the pandemic.
At this difficult time, Taiwan shows that civic engagement shouldn’t just be ad hoc, but secured into policy from the beginning to make it more representative, personalised and effective.
There are three key features of this approach that other countries must learn from. First, there is little value in building innovative engagement tools if this is not complemented by the institutional landscape that allows these tools to have real impact. As well as being sponsored by senior government leaders, every ministry has a ‘participation officer’ that engages with vTaiwan.
Second, like the public it aims to serve, vTaiwan constantly evolves. They host weekly hackathons with civic ‘hacktivists’ and no policy issue follows exactly the same consultation process. vTaiwan meets its users (or citizens) where they are and adapts.
Third, it is radically transparent and open. All Taiwan meetings with Audrey Tang, the country’s pioneering digital minister, must be published online. Similarly, if vTaiwan deliberation cannot reach a consensus view, then the government commits to publish a point-by-point explanation as to why certain actions are not feasible. Reducing the information imbalance between policymakers and citizens in this way is essential in building trust.
It’s clear that many governments need to change. Covid-19 has exposed how the structural stasis of recent years constrains states’ ability to understand people’s needs and ensure that they are met.
But Taiwan proves that civic technology, while no silver bullet, is foundational for governments to improve how they engage, represent and deliver for people. Countries that have struggled through the last year would do well to follow its lead.
Crucially, this must be part of foundational reform to reconfigure the state for the internet era. Technology infrastructure, organisation and service delivery all require deep reform alongside a new model of citizen engagement.
In every case, governments must completely reconsider how best to meet their responsibilities in today’s world. At the Tony Blair Institute we have set out some suggestions of where to start, which you can read here. In the spirit of vTaiwan, if you share our vision on properly delivering for citizens in the internet era, and want to collaborate, do get in touch.