Can radical transparency increase trust between government and citizens?

“Radical transparency has led to a radical transformation of social expectations of the government by citizens”

Melissa Tsungai Zisengwe
Mar 6 · 3 min read
Audrey Tang. Picture: Supplied

Audrey Tang is the first Digital Minister in Taiwan. She runs the Public Digital Innovation Space, a digital service at the national level which helps with the development and facilitation of public digital innovations and services. Before joining the government Audrey was a civic tech activist in Taiwan’s g0v movement and participated in the Sunflower Movement.

Although an experienced software developer (she worked on the development of the Perl programming language), her role as an innovator in government is less about technology and much more about introducing new — and radical — changes to how government works.

So what is Radical Transparency?

Audrey explains that radical transparency commits her as a government official to be transparent in her work. This means that when journalists, lobbyists, and anybody else engages with her, she responds publicly. This includes publishing transcriptions of any internal meetings she conducts with the officials in her team.

Audrey believes that radical transparency helps to build trust between the government and citizens. “Through radical transparency where we make information openly available to citizens, we encourage society to engage with government officials. If the government trusts civil society then the citizens will eventually trust back, but the government has to make the first moves,” says Audrey.

She admits that civic servants were initially sceptical about her approach but that over time they have seen that by being more visible they can also be acknowledged for their contributions. “Through radical transparency, we create a space where the civil servants can be seen.”

Audrey’s radical transparency goes along with other innovations she has introduced in government. These include new online services, the introduction of a free software database for citizens, and the adoption of artificial intelligence tools so that public servants can be freed from routine tasks to focus on “real” issues that affect citizens. She also has reframed the way her role as a Minister is defined, from being a representative of the people to a collaborator with the people. “I don’t think I’m working for Taiwan. I’m working with it.” This, she argues, enables innovation in the relationships between civil society and the state. “Working with the Taiwanese people enables social innovation which brings a new way of thinking. It also allows opposite sides to ask each other about their common goals and values this leads to people finding common solutions.”

Audrey entered the Taiwanese cabinet in 2016, so it’s still early days but she argues that bringing people and ideas from the civic tech community is already shifting relationships. “Radical transparency … is gradually changing society… This had led to a radical transformation of social expectations of the government by citizens.”

For the field of ‘civic tech’, she also provides a people centred approach to the use of technology. “When we see ‘internet of things’, let’s make it an internet of beings. When we see ‘virtual reality’, let’s make it a shared reality. When we see ‘machine learning’, let’s make it collaborative learning. When we see ‘user experience’, let’s make it about the human experience. When we hear ‘the singularity is near’, let us remember: the plurality is here.”

Audrey Tang was a keynote speaker at the Civic Tech Innovation Forum in November 2018.


Civic Tech Innovation Network

The CivicTech Innovation Network newsletter and online magazine is produced by the journalism and media lab, university of the witwatersrand, johannesburg

Melissa Tsungai Zisengwe

Written by

Journalist at Jamlab &Civic tech-enthusiast at Civic Tech Innovation Network- Wits Journalism School.

Civic Tech Innovation Network

The CivicTech Innovation Network newsletter and online magazine is produced by the journalism and media lab, university of the witwatersrand, johannesburg

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