You have a background in the private sector. Do you believe only governments have the responsibility to digitalize democracies, or do other actors also have a role to play?
For me, digital social innovation means a norm-first approach, where the society, through open experimentation, like sandboxes, Presidential Hackathon, and so on, show the various different configurations that the society have in demand of technologists.
Then the technologists can then, through market mechanisms, conform to the societal expectations. Finally, the law or regulation may change, but only after the regulators and lawmakers already have a taste of firsthand experience of how this kind of norm-first technology adoption works.
I think this is a much more inclusive vision toward the digital. It is about smart citizens, not smart cities.
How can governments best stimulate, utilize and collaborate with civic hackers?
Speaking personally as a civic hacker, the most important principle is broadband as human right, so that we are not restricted to the large municipalities. For example, I can work literally in the highest point in Taiwan, the Yushan Mountain, which is almost 4,000 meters, and still enjoy 10-megabits per second at €16 per month, unlimited bandwidth.
The food is, of course, excellent in Taiwan, so I can take a trip to Tainan and enjoy literally the best food I have ever tasted, but still enjoy the same broadband access, the safety of the environment, and so on. As a transgender, that’s also important to me.
Moreover, it is important to foster an environment for civic hackers who are often producing things that are threatening to existing institutional structures. The Taiwan institutions always take a “we can’t beat them, we must join them” attitude when it comes to civil society movements. I think you can’t say that in many Asian jurisdictions. That’s, ultimately, why I remain in Taiwan.
What do you perceive as the main challenges for governments who are developing a digital democracy? What would be your advice to them?
The main challenge is to foster a habit of collaborative governance, by asking more open-ended questions. For example, given the stakeholders’ positions, are there nevertheless some common values that we can discover through those feeling finding? Then, given the common values, can anyone deliver the innovations that are pareto improvements, that are good for everyone without sacrificing any other people?
For the innovations that emerge, my advice would be to establish a “sandbox” system, i.e. promising not to fine the innovator for breaking old law or regulations. Innovators are encouraged to break regulations, but they have to do two things.
First, they have to propose your own alternate regulation to run during the one-year trial. The second, the entire data and everything, must be open. It must be open innovation during the one year, for everybody to see.
After one year, maybe the society thinks it’s a bad idea. We thank the innovator and their investors for paying the tuition. If the people think it’s a good idea, then we can just adopt the entire regulation.
Many governments struggle with innovating the internal processes necessary for the successful implementation of digital citizen participation. Based on your experience, what learnings could you share with them in this regard?
Saving time, reducing risk, and improving trust — these three are the main tenet of my office. We never trade one for the other two. We always say, first, do no harm. Then we improve on one of the three in a piecemeal fashion.
In my office, innovations were proposed and implemented by career public servants across many ministries. They will not propose something for me to do that will put their minister at risk. It’s risk-free innovation. That’s the most important point. The second, equally important point is that this career public servant then get the credit. This is important for their job satisfaction.
Finally, they will also discover that there is many tools, mechanisms, and so on that has been tried and already work in another ministry. It’s just there’s no horizontal transfer of knowledge. By participating, they also learn something that save their time.
What developments in digital democracy are you looking forward to seeing further evolve in the coming years? What do you perceive as your priorities as Digital Minister Taiwan?
A few years ago, when people were talking about digital transformation in the language of linear economy, like the “Internet of things,” I wrote a poem that says we should think about Internet of beings — connecting rivers, mountains, animals, people who do not have a vote and so are largely suffering from externalities of the democratic process by humans.
Now, with the Internet of beings, we can actually bring in to a common picture what the air quality is, what the mountains are feeling, what the rivers are feeling into our political discussions.
As a poetician, this vision is not owned by me or my team. It just arrived to us, and it is our work to share those visions as poets do.