Challenges for Taiwan’s Civic Hackers in 2016

Crowdsourced laws and participatory budgets — what’s next?

Audrey Tang 唐鳳
8 min readJan 3, 2016
With the landslide victory of Ms. Tsai’s presidential campaign highlighting “civic participation and open-source maker spirit,” 2016 poses unique opportunities and challenges to Taiwanese civic hackers. We look back to the g0v (“gov-zero”) community’s numerous e-Democracy initiatives during the past three years, sharing what we have learned and what is yet to come.

The development of Taiwan’s government institutions (the public sector) as a top-down bureaucracy in the 20th century was the result of being under two authoritarian regimes. With limited resources, it was repeatedly stressed that business organizations (the private sector) should uphold the competitive spirit of enduring hardships and prospering despite setbacks. Old adages, such as “obedience is the foundation of responsibility” and “do not lose the race at the starting line”, were a product of those times.

In 2012, the infamous publicity campaign for the “Economic Power-Up Plan” highlighted the following idea: “Instead of wasting time talking about policies, let’s focus on doing the groundwork to improve the economy and just get things done!” This approach combined an appeal to authority and the attitude of working hard to prosper. However, people who saw the campaign on YouTube were already living in an Internet society based on swift trust and equal sharing.

“Isn’t the government for everyone?” In response, four hackers participating in the Yahoo! Hackathon — @clkao, @tkirby, @ca, and @opop — built a citizen auditing system for the central government budget, making the Accounting and Statistics Office data intuitively interactive so that the public could grade and comment on every budget item. The technology that behind this public display was provided by OpenSpending, a project jointly maintained by a 76-country open data community.

With the call to “fork the government,” they launched the gov-zero community to create Internet tools for civil society (the third sector). To date, there have been nearly 100,000 contributors.

At the same time, the still-unfolding Arab Spring and Occupy movements are combining the efforts of citizen hacker communities from all over the world to form a new kind of social movement.

All over the world, the Occupiers in hundreds of cities connect with each other through the Internet, rapidly exchanging correspondence about their experiences. Darker colors means more cities were occupied. (2012. Source: Wikipedia)

Yet, if there is an overarching theme, a pressing cry, a revolutionary dream, it is the call for new forms of political deliberation, representation and decision-making…

Because if citizens do not have the ways and means of their self-government, the best designed policies, the most sophisticated strategies, the more well-wishing programs may be ineffective or perverted in their implementation. The instrument determines the function…

And so, from the depth of despair, everywhere, a dream and a project have surged: to reinvent democracy, to find ways for humans to manage collectively their lives… reconstructing trust as a foundation for human interaction.

— Manuel Castells, Networks of Outrage and Hope: Social Movements in the Internet Age

Policy-making in the old days

If we look back at policy-making in the previous era, we can see that the popularly elected leaders appointed administrators to set their agenda, and officials from each administrative unit and their think tanks drafted policies after soliciting public opinion. The policies were then passed in legislative meetings.

However, what was called “public opinion” was usually limited to some representatives of trade unions, the mass media, and certain scholars and councilors. If the public were to directly participate, it was usually only in the form of street protests. In his book, Democratic Governance, Professor Chen Dong-Yuan wrote:

Listening to the voice of the people is like hearing the voices of the deities in that it must be communicated through special channels…

Like in folk religion, it is easy for these interpreters to manipulate the message for their own purposes.

Representatives from the private sector (P) dominates policy-making. The process includes only individual scholars and councillors (c) but excludes the civil society (C).

The speed at which the public can form bonds of mutual trust in cyberspace has now far outpaced the speed of the traditional method of policy-making. If governments cannot make room to include these voices, then there will be no way to convince the public to accept it.

Kuan Chung-ming, the former director of the National Development Council — the agency responsible for coordinating the Economic Power-Up Plan — stated in a speech to TEDxTaipei 2015 that the current model has a serious “principal-agent problem,” in addition to commonly being criticized as being like a black box in which information is cut off and monopolized: Individual legislators may be seeking their own interests instead of the public’s interests, and sometimes their interests are diametrically opposed to those of the public.

Kuan Chung-ming believes that the key to solving this problem is to establish a bottom-up platform for “open information and crowd wisdom” so that the ideal of “fixing our own policies” can be achieved. Is this something that is even possible?

Online Mediation Space

In Taiwan, when one speaks of an open public platform, many people think of something like Facebook. For the 16 million active users in Taiwan, it is an Internet space that can be joined for free without limitations of time, place, and identity, and it has already become a part of their everyday lives.

To promote participation in e-government, the administration started the “National Policy Think Tank Online” website in 2005, and a Facebook page was started in 2011. These platforms both present policy issues and solicit public opinions, but for years they have been lagging in terms of participation.

For example, for the 2014 “National e-Forum on Trade and Economics” only 29 comments were posted during the discussion from June to July, of which five proposals were countersigned by only three to five people. After the discussion period concluded, the government did not present any specific responses on this forum, and it eventually just faded away.

With a lack of trust from civil society organizations, traditional online forums were dominated by private sector groups. (Solid lines denote an institutionalized mode of communication; the dotted outline marks a non-empowered space with uncertain influence on policy making)

The Cornell e-Rulemaking Initiative’s RegulationRoom project summarized the three main obstacles in its report:

  1. Ignorance: Citizens know very little about agencies and next to nothing about the role, nature, or importance of rulemaking.
  2. Unawareness: Citizens often do not know how to make relevant contributions to a policy discussion.
  3. Information Overload: The sheer mass and technical complexity of the materials often overwhelm participants.

Therefore, e-Rulemaking needs mediators to actively communicate with the stakeholders, ensure a safe space for commenting, and effectively present background information. Only then can discussions be meaningful.

@ETBlue, a gov-zero community contributor, stated in her speech: “The later the public gets involved in the process of recognizing the problem, planning a policy, and getting it into the legislative agenda (such as the Cross-Strait Trade and Services Agreement), the less trust they will have in the policy-making.”

Mediators as Government Fellows

Because of this, Minister Jaclyn Tsai — who joined the administration in November 2013 from the high-tech world — appealed to fellow “civilian mediators” at the gov-zero hackathon to launch the vTaiwan project. The goal was to jointly establish a cross-sector deliberation space for a new “Closely-held Corporation” law.

In January 2015, hacker @TonyQ joined the administration from the open source community. With help from the “youth advisor council,” we collected 132 public suggestions from start-up workers, investors, attorneys, and local governments. Through a live-streamed broadcast of the multi-stakeholder panel discussion and the release of the transcript, a list of specific recommendations was created by a working group of stakeholders, which the Ministry of Economic Affairs incorporated into the bill.

When the Legislation then passed the law in June 2015, it was Taiwan’s first crowdsourced bill, with complete online record of negotiations and deliberations.

Through peer-to-peer connections, mediators (M) assist policy-making by publicly consulting stakeholders whenever interagency issues arise.

The key to the vTaiwan model lies in its “symmetry of attention.” As the policies are still in the stage of problem-identification, participants exert a greater influence. Not only have the ministries committed to give an official response within seven days to any question during discussion, but also the actual face-to-face meeting agenda itself was crowdsourced by online discussion. Through live streaming and remote participation, citizens can see how all stakeholders presented their views and how much effort they have invested in the process.

As vTaiwan went on to deliberate transnational issues such as Uber and Airbnb, this model was proven to be feasible. However, after the mediators left the government and returned to the private sector, the peer-to-peer connections between ministries began disappearing. Is there a way to institutionalize this model?

Mediation as an Independent Sector

In September 2015, the Taipei City Government and the gov-zero community worked together to introduce the platform, an early experiment for the institutionalization of public participation. Within seven days after it went online, there were 113 comments received, and they were compiled and publicly responded to by various city agencies, while the policy-related information was made available.

Taipei Mayor Ko Wen-je stated that only when the public gradually becomes familiar with open data — the same information that civil servants have access to — can citizens make meaningful proposals: “Participatory budgeting is part of my campaign. However, just making the city budget public is not enough. It also requires allowing city residents to fully understand the budget; only then can they participate.”

Soon after this, on October 14th, the proposal on the National Development Council’s e-petition platform for “making cancer immunotherapy available and speeding up the use of new cancer drugs” obtained 5,548 countersignatures to become the first accepted e-petition. Within a week, the Ministry of Health and Welfare met with the proposer to clarify the demands, and the record of the meeting was made public.

The related background information was released in November, and the specific responses to “establishing a regenerative medicine and cell therapy development council,” “drawing up a plan for relaxing the criteria for severe cancer patients to receive therapy,” and “speeding up new cancer drug approval” were released on December 14th. The right of initiative given to citizens by the Constitution has been put into practice in a new way in the Internet age.

As soon as 5000 people countersigned the e-petition, external and internal mediators collaborated to clarify the demands, publish background data, integrate interagency positions, and make specific responses.

As Taiwan continue to advance the institutionalization of civic participation in 2016, we will also jointly face the following challenges with the international community:

  1. How can the citizen participation processes of the national and local governments be linked up?
  2. How can the procedures of onsite public hearings be combined with online participation?
  3. How can there be early participation in long-term urban planning and environmental policies?
  4. How can we ensure sufficient discussion precedes each vote?
  5. How can we guarantee transparent, secure, and reliable technologies?

Taiwan’s efforts for open government and public participation are at frontiers of the world. An innovative democratic system — born among conflicts and oppositions — can become a gift that we share with all humanity. We must keep accelerating our efforts.

(Co-written with Chia-Liang Kao. Source: CC BY 4.0