“The profit in what is, is in the use of what isn’t.” This passage by philosopher Laozi speaks to how we can find opportunities even where it seems there is none.

This ethos guides Taiwan Digital Minister Audrey Tang, she says, “making sure that everybody has plenty of space to experiment and share the best practices that they have experimented with, without imposing any top-down order”. This is her philosophy of being a “conservative anarchist” running a ministry without giving any orders.

Speaking at GovInsider’s digital seminar on Innovation Futures for a Post-Covid World, Tang set out three ways that Taiwan is adapting to the new normal by adapting its government structures.

Reverse mentorships

The pandemic is an opportunity for radical transformation, and more ideas must come from young people, Tang believes. “The younger generation needs to point out the direction, especially around digital transformation, and the elderly generation of course supports them with the resources. And this is where we get intergenerational solidarity,” Tang said.

Taiwan recruits entrepreneurs and social innovators under 35 to serve as reverse mentors to ministers and propose new directions. Tang herself was recruited to the government as a reverse mentor. “This kind of reverse mentorship, I think, is badly needed in many of the existing entrenched, analogue style, large organisations, and I think the younger people are the perfect leaders in this regard,” she added.

And leadership from young people has made real change in Taiwan. A reverse mentor to the Labour Minister proposed that citizens who have excelled globally be recruited to work with teachers to improve schools and serve as role models to students. “That just changed the Minister of Labour’s direction, and the Premier actually signed that into existence,” Tang said.

New structures

Taiwan has built structures and roles to encourage officials to work across departments and with people outside of government. Tang is one of eight “horizontal ministers” who work with multiple ministries to build common values. “The point of horizontal leadership is not to give orders or take orders, but rather to find common ground from everybody involved,” she said.

The digital minister takes a “radical transparency” approach to her work, opening up her office to anyone for 40 minutes at a time. “When you open up your work like that, you make sure that the innovation comes from the social sector, it empowers the social sector by amplifying all the best ideas from there,” she noted.

For instance, a citizen developed a tool to track the availability of medical masks in pharmacies nearby, using distributed ledger technology. “It’s not my idea; it’s someone from Tainan’s idea, and they never need to travel to Taipei, because we have this way of working remotely,” Tang said.

Greater international collaboration

The pandemic has fundamentally changed the way we communicate. Video conferences, telepresence, robotics and virtual reality are becoming the new standards, Tang said, challenging the way governments speak with each other and their citizens.

These tools breakdown the barriers for international collaboration, in particular. The last few months have shown that officials don’t need to be in the same room to thrash out issues and make international agreements. “The pandemic makes sure that even very high level officials from international audiences, they’re now also willing to participate,” she added. “That is a norm that I think is very exciting because it also makes international solidarity much more possible.”

Video conferencing enabled Taiwan to host its own international summit of top healthcare officials, three days before the World Health Assembly (WHA). “Previously, it’s hard to convince them to join video conferences. But now, the WHA itself is through video conference,” she said. “This breaks a lot of barriers towards collaborative decision making.”

The pandemic unwittingly marks a moment for change. And if we all follow Laozi’s advice, adversity and differences could become the opportunities to build on.

Image by Audrey Tang – CC BY 2.0