The wisdom of crowds: an interview with Taiwan’s unorthodox digital minister

By on 18/12/2019
Audrey Tang. (Image courtesy: Medialab Prado/flickr).

In an increasingly fractious world, governments must connect directly with citizens in order to retain public trust. Audrey Tang’s radical approach to driving innovation through consensus and collaborative governance is showing the way – and by embracing open source, Taiwan is making it easy for other governments to follow. Mia Hunt reports

Taiwan’s digital minister, Audrey Tang, isn’t what you might consider a typical minister. In fact, the citizen hacker, demonstrator and self-described “conservative anarchist” is about as far removed from the stereotypical image of a minister as you can imagine.

Combining lessons learnt during her long involvement in the online and coding communities with her highly empathetic nature – boosted by her experience as a transgender woman – Tang puts citizens front and centre in everything she does.

Her radical approach, advocacy for absolute transparency, and razor-sharp focus on serving citizens is helping Taiwan use technology to, in her own words, “crowdsource democracy and create a more responsive government, healing rifts and creating consensus along the way”. 

Tang is bright and ambitious. But she cannot have imagined, when she took the decision at the age of 15 to leave school and “continue her education on the world wide web”, that within four years she’d have moved to the US to work as an entrepreneur in Silicon Valley, or that in 2016 she’d be appointed as a government minister.

Yet it is precisely her unusual background – her “indigenous culture” is one of “non-coercive, collaborative internet governance”, she says – that enables her to tackle the job from a unique perspective and deliver real change.

It was Tang’s involvement in g0v – pronounced ‘gov zero’ – that first got her noticed by Taiwan’s then minister for digital affairs, Jaclyn Tsai. The g0v collaborative online community promotes transparency of government information, independently redesigning existing government processes and services and enabling citizens to see how the state operates. For example, the group’s first project, completed in 2012, shows Taiwan’s budget spending with clear, interactive data visualisations. The group’s output – all of which is open source, enabling it to be copied, modified and used by anyone – is available to view simply by changing ‘gov’ in Taiwan government website URLs to ‘g0v’.

In 2014, Tsai attended a g0v hackathon. Impressed by what she saw, she invited g0v to work directly with government. The result was digital citizen participation platform vTaiwan, and its deliberation tool Pol.is. 

Consensus between diverse opinion groups

Through the platform, government ministries, elected representatives, scholars, experts, business leaders, civil society organisations and members of the public participate in large-scale discussions on relevant topics and proposed policies. The vTaiwan website describes it as an “open consultation process for the entire society to engage in rational discussion on national issues”, and the focus is on constructive conversation and consensus-building between diverse groups.

“Mostly when governments try to listen at scale, they hear a lot of noise and there’s a lot of repetition,” says Tang. “I think Taiwan’s main contribution is that we’ve figured out that with the right amount of human intelligence and the right amount of artificial intelligence, we can have the crowd moderate each other.”

Tang: “People have much more in common than we originally thought – actually, most people agree on most things most of the time.” (Image courtesy: Medialab Prado/flickr).

Two key facets of the vTaiwan software have proved effective in bridging disagreements, she says. One is not including a reply button, so trolls have “no way to play” – instead, contributors upvote or downvote ideas – and the second is enabling rolling agenda-setting, so that people are not constrained by the initial seed questions put to them on the platform.

“Any space that is designed with those two criteria in mind, and which rewards people for their contribution, ends up showing that people have much more in common than we originally thought – actually, most people agree on most things most of the time,” says Tang.

“This kind of incremental governance – instead of a pure referendum, that leaves half of people feeling like they have lost; or, in certain referenda, everybody feeling like they have lost – may be a much better alternative.”

Reaching agreement via vTaiwan is done in several stages. There is an initial stage for crowdsourcing facts and evidence, and a reflective stage using Pol.is which encourages the formation of rough consensus. Finally, key stakeholders are invited to a live-streamed, face-to-face meeting to draw up specific recommendations. And those recommendations are taken seriously: in one example of the platform’s success, vTaiwan users came up with a set of seven rules for Uber that have since been written into regulation.   

Building trust by looking eye to eye

Tang was a supporter of 2014’s Sunflower Movement against a controversial trade deal between Taiwan and China

Tang has adopted the live-streamed face-to-face meetings spearheaded by vTaiwan as a way to engage people in rural areas – and to enable discussion between them and civil servants. 

“One of the best ways [of shaping the digital agenda around people’s needs] that I’ve encountered so far is to tour around all the rural, indigenous and remote places, because these are the places where people look at emerging technologies – for example, self-driving vehicles – and apply them in a way that the designers in the lab would never think of,” Tang says.  

To understand local sentiment about an idea or technology and to allow citizens to ask any questions they choose, Tang travels around the country, setting up cameras and a broadband interface in a town hall – all she requires is a blank wall for projection – and inviting people in for a meeting, at which they are connected via a live stream to senior officials in five municipalities and 12 ministries.

“For each seemingly random question from a rural place, 12 different ministries are listening intently: it shows the public how much the government trusts them,” Tang says. “And the people see that the public service are people too. We build 20% of trust just by looking eye to eye.”

Initiatives such as these are helping to break down barriers between the government and citizens, but it isn’t always easy.

“A lot of people, especially senior people, still have this tendency of trusting the authority to set the agenda, define the problem and make all the decisions,” Tang says. “It is the norm in our part of the world: people care a lot more about social harmony than individualised expression.”

One of her main observations, she says, is that even when the public service wants to innovate, “it is burdened by the social expectation for them to act essentially as arbiters and not as facilitators. That is an extra burden on them that is very difficult to shake off”. 

However, she says that the increasing need to understand cross-border issues and work towards solving global issues – such as disinformation, social media abuse, public health and climate change – is resulting in a welcome push towards collaborative governance. “Those things can’t be tackled by taking an arbiter’s role,” she says.  

Taiwan is in the midst of a cultural shift towards collaborative governance, and working hard to find solutions to major problems. And Tang’s ethos involves making the solutions and associated tools open source, so that they can be shared with entities around the world facing similar challenges.

It is Taiwan’s dedication to open source, and its desire to solve urgent problems through collaboration, that led to the creation of its Presidential Hackathon. At the event, first held in 2018, teams of hackers — composed of either private citizens or government workers — compete to design the most innovative improvements to the nation’s public services. Instead of prize money, the best teams receive a promise from the government that it will apply their ideas. The concept was inspired by g0v’s work, and is an achievement of which Tang is immensely proud.  

Encouraging risk-taking in the civil service

Another of the ways Tang drives innovation is through encouraging risk-taking in the civil service by taking full responsibility for experiments that go awry.  

It’s often the case that “if public servants endorse innovation and it fails, they absorb all the blame from their ministers; and if they embrace it and it works, all the credit goes to the ministers. It’s a no-win,” she says. “The way I do it, people can always say: ‘Audrey made me do it’ if their idea fails. But if it’s successful, they get the credit: not their minister, not me.”

Tang takes the blame if civil servants’ ideas fail

In line with this, Tang has created a platform where civil servants can express their ideas using pseudonyms, with their identities only revealed if their idea is adopted and successful. Under this approach, she says, junior officers are “encouraged to start driving the innovation agenda”.

But Tang is not dismissive of more traditional approaches to governance, believing that a range of styles are required. In Taiwan, she says, “we enjoy very good cross-generational solidarity because we realise that I [as a young minister] am really good at horizontal power, and the ministers who are my father’s age or older are really good at vertical power. Without a combination of those two, no work actually gets done”.

Having been given ample freedom, and with the support of her colleagues, Tang is helping to transform Taiwan’s approach to citizen engagement, consensus-building and social innovation. But, asked to sum up, she doesn’t talk about technology, governance or public collaboration; she quotes Canadian singer Leonard Cohen, who sang: “There’s a crack in everything, and that’s how the light gets in.”

“The cracks – gaps in communication, for example – are what motivate our social innovation work,” she says. “As long as there are still cracks, the public sector should innovate with the people: not for the people, with the people. That’s how the light gets in.”

Global Government Forum: five thoughts for better government

Audrey Tang on learning from overseas

To help our readers get the best out of Global Government Forum, we ask interviewees five standard questions – four seeking practical advice and opinions, and one to reveal something a little more personal. This is an edited version of Audrey Tang’s answers.

Can you name one lesson or idea from abroad that’s helped you or your colleagues?

Yes, in the Presidential Hackathon we used a new voting method called ‘quadratic voting’. Instead of one person having one vote, one person has 99 points, which they can ‘spend’ on various projects – one vote equals one point; two votes, four points; three votes, nine points and so on. This drastically changes the dynamics, so people are more willing to reveal their true preferences.

Are there any projects or innovations from Taiwan that might be valuable to your peers overseas?

The idea of the Presidential Hackathon, which is like a prototype fund where we expect people to fail loudly and publicly.

Every year, five teams behind small-scale pilots that worked over three months get a trophy from Tsai Ing-wen, our president [a projection shows the president handing over the trophy].  

This symbolises the presidential promise to make those ideas a national reality within the next 12 months. Once you’re given the trophy, the director general allocates a budget, the relevant ministries enact the needed regulatory changes and so on.

How could the ways in which senior public servants work with and learn from their colleagues overseas be improved?

First of all, I would suggest that people share food together. Even if it’s overseas, you can figure out what people like in common, and because there are so many chain stores now, you can procure exactly the same food and the same drink and have real gatherings. Theoretically, it can be done through small Skype screens.

What I have discovered that works really well, is to have projections on large walls or screens so that people can look at one wall and see people in another city and look at another wall and see people in another country. You feel like you’re in the same room and you all enjoy work and enjoy food together – sometimes we dance together too.

What are the biggest global challenges in digital government in the next few years?

One of the challenges is making sure that when state actors want to further their state agenda, instead of ‘Balkanising’ the internet or making the internet fragmented under various corporate governances, the core internet infrastructure, the core idea of ‘permissionless’ innovation is kept.

I’m a conservative when it comes to internet culture. We shouldn’t forget about why the internet starts with an ‘inter’ – it’s because it allows different policies, different philosophies and different cultures to interconnect.

Finally, what is your favourite book or book you’ve read recently that you’ve particularly enjoyed?

My favourite book is Finnegan’s Wake. I’ve translated parts of it. I’m nowhere near done with the translation yet and I doubt I can do that within a lifetime, but fortunately that could be crowdsourced. If you’re interested in the book, there are various Wikipedia pages on Finnegan’s Wake culture – but be aware that it’s very time consuming!

About Mia Hunt

Mia is a journalist and editor with a background in covering commercial property, having been market reports and supplements editor at trade title Property Week and deputy editor of Shopping Centre magazine, now known as Retail Destination. She has also undertaken freelance work for several publications including the preview magazine of international trade show, MAPIC, and TES Global (formerly the Times Educational Supplement) and has produced a white paper on energy efficiency in business for E.ON. Between 2014 and 2016, she was a member of the Revo Customer Experience Committee and an ACE Awards judge. Mia graduated from Kingston University with a first-class degree in journalism and was part of the team that produced The River newspaper, which won Publication of the Year at the Guardian Student Media Awards in 2010.

One Comment

  1. Normand Donaldson

    20/12/2019 at

    It is a great pity this type of idea was not available in the UK for Brexit. Instead the UK didn’t even search out advice from countries like Ireland and Australia, or even Canada, that have run national referenda on divisive issues. So the whole Brexit thing has been an embarrassment of incompetence and nastiness.

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