The MJ Data and Digital: Digitising democracy

By Heather Jameson | 18 September 2019

Like many people today working on advancing democracy, I am an optimist,’ says Audrey Tang at the start of her impressive Tedx talk.

Ms Tang is the digital minister of Taiwan, with an impressive back-story. With a reported IQ of 180, she began computer programming at the age of 12, dropping out of school two years later to self-educate.

Learning on the internet, she found an ‘open stakeholder political system’ that powered the web.

By the age of 19, she worked as an entrepreneur in California’s Silicon Valley, having already held senior positions in several software firms.

She was at the forefront of open source software, and was part of hacker group g0v (pronounced gov dot zero) which aimed to ‘fork’ the government. In open source terms, to fork is to create an alternative version of the software.

She took part in Taiwan’s ‘Sunflower Movement’ in 2014, when activists occupied the legislature for 23 days, setting up Wi-Fi for the protestors. Afterwards, she and her g0v colleagues were invited to build a platform to discuss public matters and virtual Taiwan – or vTaiwan – was created.

In 2016, she was appointed minister without portfolio and, at the age of 35, was both the youngest and the only transgender minister.

So what has all this got to do with local government in the UK? Well, inspired by the lessons she learned from the internet, of ‘radical transparency, civic participation and rough consensus’, she is pioneering online participatory governance. In effect, Audrey Tang is crowdsourcing policy.

She describes the current democratic system as a rope, being pulled between opposing views. Instead of asking what is the best arbitration, Ms Tang asks two new questions: Is there some common values that everyone can live with? And given the common values, can we come up with innovations that everyone can live with.

Under the basic principles of the vTaiwan system, an AI moderated conversation is used to hear the views and reactions of citizens. It uses existing open-source tools including Pol.is – a system created in Seattle after Occupy Wall Street and the Arab Spring.

Anyone can create an account and post comments, and you can up-vote or down-vote other people’s views but crucially there is no reply button. Unlike social media, this is not a forum for

 criticism or shouting down those with opposing views. It creates a map of opinions, and points of consensus start to emerge.

In its first instance, the system was brought in to moderate debate over plans to legalize online alcohol sales. Four years into discussions, talks were at an impasse between merchants and those concerned it would give children access to alcohol.

Within weeks the deadlock was broken. There were a set of recommendations; limiting the purchase of online booze to a few platforms, done through credit card transactions and collected at convenience stores.

Thus far, vTaiwan has been used on just a few bills and the government is not required to follow the recommendations. It has been used to come up with plans for regulating Uber.  It has been gaining traction and some examples have begun in local government too.

According to Theo Bass, a researcher at Nesta who has studied digital democracy, Ms Tang is a ‘global pioneer for culture change in government’. But he warns that she is unusual – crowdsourcing efforts rarely get support from the existing political establishment.

‘If you want to do something like this, you want a pioneer that can support it at the top of government,’ he tells The MJ. ‘I don’t think there has been anyone in national government committed to a participatory system.’

Taiwan is not the only example where digital democracy is starting. In Finland, there has been experiments with Open Ministry, in Estonia a Citizens Assembly. In France, an online platform – Parlement & Citoyens discusses policy and draft legislation, while Paris has an online participatory budget programme.

However, there may be a long way to go on political culture before there are radical shifts to online participation in the UK – not least, the very open nature of the system.

As a minister, Ms Tang teleworks from anywhere in the world, and speaks to anyone who wants to talk to her – on the condition that they agree to the conversation going online. She says: ‘In Taiwan, when we talk about open data, we don’t just mean open government data, we mean open citizen data too.’  

You can see more examples of crowdsourced policy here

For Audrey Tang’s Tedx talk see here: 

Nesta discusses vTaiwan and examples of digital democracy here

Box:

vTaiwan

The process goes through four stages, all as transparent as possible:

  • Proposal: Online and offline discussion, with the government publishing raw data
  • Opinion: Collecting and visualising views. Participants can agree, disagree or pass on each other’s statements. An algorithm sorts participants into opinion groups and presents a visualised ‘opinion landscape’
  • Reflection: two in-person stakeholder meetings take place, live streamed and with a chatroom
  • Decision: recommendations are put forward to government which in turn decides what it will do

If you're going to engage you've got to mean it

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