Audrey Tang, Digital Minister, Taiwan

By Medha Basu

Women in GovTech Special Report 2017.

How do you use technology to improve citizens’ lives? Tell us about your role or organisation.

My role in the cabinet is the Digital Minister. I am in charge of the Public Digital Innovation Space, a digital service at the national level. We are automating away a lot of those chores that the public servants are doing in order to make large-scale participation possible.

I’m a radically transparent digital minister. By that I mean that journalists, lobbyists, and everybody else gets to ask me questions, but only publicly. If I get questions from a private email, I will ask if it’s OK to give my answers publicly. If not, I just give them links to what my previous statements are.

This applies not just to the lobbyists and journalists, but also internal meetings. For all of the hundreds of internal meetings that I have had since I became digital minister, everything was transcribed. There are written records for everything everybody said during meetings, which are published.

The effect of this is very surprising. The bureaucrats actually become very innovative and risk-taking, and propose some very good ideas under this condition. That’s because previously, before I introduced this kind of radical transparency, they would get the blame if things go wrong, and the minister would get the credit if things go right. Now, with this completely accountable record, if things go right, they get the credit, because their name is on the transcript.

What has been the most exciting thing that you worked on in 2017?

Every Wednesday I work outside of the administration in a local Social Innovation Lab here in Taipei. My office hours are 10 am to 10 pm. Anyone can come to me and say, "We're solving a local SDG issue. We're running into this regulation problem." Within a week, because everything is transcribed, they will receive a written response from any ministry that is related to their cause to try to solve the problem.

It's easier for the ministers to work with social enterprises and NGOs because their missions are aligned with the government in order to solve social issues. It's much harder for any purely for-profit company to get treatment like this.
I also tour every other Tuesday to all the four different regional offices in Taiwan to have a high bandwidth connection to the Taipei Social Innovation Lab. We're also setting up 360 and VR livestreaming. All the eight ministres related to social enterprise are sitting like this in a Taipei office while it's connected to the four different regional cities.

The different regional cities' social enterprises, the innovators, gather around me. It's just me that travels. Everybody else remains in Taipei, but we still have good video conference and transcription that makes it very easy to see the local problems being surfaced and being resolved in a very quick fashion, because all the related eight or nine ministries are there.
Once the people solve it, the other unrelated ministries also understand, "OK, so this problem is to be resolved in this kind of way.”

What tool or technique particularly interests you for 2018?

We are now actively experimenting using AI as co-facilitators in collaborative meetings. It is our priority to support all people in participating fully and freely.

In 2017, we have utilised AI to provide full remote participation for large groups of participants, and we are now taking the platform to the next level by bringing participants into a shared reality environment, complete with real-time captioning and an immersive environment.

In 2018, we look forward to welcome people with different learning inclinations to participate and contribute freely in the ways they are most comfortable. We believe that by using technology creatively, humanity can facilitate deep and fair conversations, form collective consensus, and deliver solutions we can all live with.

If you were to share one piece of advice that you learned in 2017, what would it be?

On rebuilding trust among people, there is every reason for citizens to mistrust the government. I think it’s mostly not because the government has done anything wrong, but because of social media and a new generation of digital technologies that makes the civil society much closer to each other.

Because trust is bidirectional, if the public service is willing to trust people first, then eventually they will trust back, because that’s just how human nature works. It doesn’t work the other way around. We cannot say, "We should do nothing and have the citizens trust us." That would be fascism. I think what we really need is to trust the public conditionlessly.

To do so, civil servants can also use the same kind of social technologies to build solidarity across ministries, in the administration itself, and basically cultivate a digitised solidarity, to demand the national government to offer working conditions that doesn’t treat them as machines or paper-pushers, but actually improve the workforce.

Once civil servants adopt this attitude, they will be seen as authentic allies in this project to make everybody trust each other more, not as faceless people serving in the civil service.

What was the greatest challenge that you overcame in 2017?

We had a e-petition platform as a way for people to participate. It was like the “We the People” platform in the US. It did not receive much attention, because for cross-ministry issues, people would get those very blank, very bureaucratic answers that don’t really solve their problems, but just explains why they can’t do much about it.

After I became the digital minister, we asked each ministry to send a team, at least one person, to serve as a participation officer. We assembled this virtual team of 50 people online using Rocket.Chat and other tools for online engagement.
Now, in Taiwan, when people start a petition, they know that instead of receiving just a dutiful response, they will actually get to meet with all the relevant ministries in Taipei. Or we will travel to those rural areas and islands if they are petitioning for local development.

We solved a lot of very interesting problems like this, such as re-designing our tax-filing experience together with petitioners without exposing any public servant to risk. We relieved their fear, uncertainty, and doubt around civic participation.

What book did you read in 2017 that most interested or inspired you?

Philosopher Martha Nussbaum’s book, “Anger and Forgiveness”, was instrumental in shaping my understanding of the ongoing transitional justice process that people in Taiwan are going through.

Who inspired you in 2017, and why?

I’m inspired by the participants at Personal Democracy Forum in New York City, as they converged on this inspirational consensus statement on the AI-faciliated online conversation in real time during my talk: “We need to listen to people with opposing views — to find the values we share.”