Questions to minister Audrey Tang from Open State Foundation, Amsterdam

Questions to Audrey Tang for publication on benefits of open government

  1. Is it possible to realize a real open government?

  2. What are the most important steps to take to introduce open government?

  3. What are the benefits of an open government?

  4. You are fully open in your governance, but how can your way of working be extended to the whole of the governement organization?

  5. When confronted with the idea of open government, often people react it is not possible because of concerns of privacy, security or sustainability (data has to be arranged in such way it is also accessible in the future). How would you reply to these arguments?

  6. In the Netherlands a coalition governement is being formed right now. There is discussion whether there should be a minister for Digital Affairs for the first time. Some say it is important because digital developments are crucial in society, whereas others hold that digitalization is part of every governement issue so should be approached integrally and not as a separate dossier. Again some others say that a special minister adds weight to the issue of digitalization, whereas others hold that a minister without portfolio has no real power within the political system. What is your view on this discussion and what can you advise the Dutch people?

  7. What role do you see for an NGO such as the Open State Foundation?

  1. Is it possible to realize a real open government?

The open government emphasizes transparency, participation, accountability, and inclusion. That is, making sure the people know clearly what is going on, and when the people have any doubts, they can find the responsible government agency, and can express their opinions and discuss in the policy process.

During the process of making public policies, the four elements of the above mentioned are gradually fused. That is the way to implement an open government. Meanwhile, the four elements should always be linked together to achieve the vision of an open government.

In a pluralistic society, people’s needs are ever shifting, and regardless of whether governments are willing to address them, there will always be people willing to tackle new problems with social innovation. A smart governance policy should not be designed to dominate or prohibit these attempts, but to find ways to align with them. Through the diverse collaboration and co-creation among all stakeholders, we can collaborate on public policy and service improvements corresponding to societal needs. Open government creates the ideal of improving government efficiency and opens up opportunities for citizen participation.

In Taiwan, effective counter-pandemic measures, including the mask distribution system and SMS-based contact tracing system, began as civic technologies from the social sector. They were amplified by governments and businesses working hand in hand. This way of collaboration cannot happen without strong trust across public sectors and the people. This people-public-private partnership is a model we’re proud to share.

  1. What are the most important steps to take to introduce open government?

The most important steps to take open government is by harnessing the energy spread across sectors as a driving force for policy innovation, and by allowing the concept of “working with the people” to permeate public policymaking. In other words, by unleashing the power inherent in the “crowdsourcing” of democracy. When it comes to solving problems, a government should not look to formulate top-down policies, dictating paths to direct people to public services, but should instead build Public–Private–People partnerships that are guided directly by the needs of the people.

A democratic innovation, the one-stop participation platform, enables members of the Taiwanese public to lodge petitions. Ministries hold face-to-face meetings twice a month to explore ways to incorporate petitions with more than 5000 signatures into policymaking, ensuring that everyone can help to set the agenda and feed into government decision-making. In fact, more than a quarter of citizens’ initiatives have been started by those under the age of eighteen – for example, the petition to ban plastic straws in Taiwan was created by a seventeen-year-old girl.

Investing public infrastructure continually that will institutionalize the rapid deployment of social innovations, is also important. Taiwan’s Presidential Hackathon has been held for 4 consecutive years. The event encourages using civic technology to find solutions for public issues. There is no financial rewards for the winners but they will get trophy with the projection of President Tsai’s image. The real prize is that five winner teams will be given President’s promise and necessary resources to put their ideas into practice. Every year, thousands of civic technology experts and working-level civil servants participate with teams from dozens of countries. They all make contribution to sustainable development.

  1. What are the benefits of an open government?

In 2019, the United Nations Secretary-General’s High-level Panel on Digital Cooperation released a “Declaration of Digital Interdependence,” emphasizing the need to establish a decentralized and common governance framework (“COGOV”). Open government creates the ideal to rebuild the democratic ecosystem of the digital age, it is necessary to change the relationship of checks and balances between the government and the people into a people-public-private partnership, in which the people, the government and businesses work together and depend on one another.

The higher the trust base is between the public sector and the public, the better the chance for sound public policies. Vice versa: A lack of mutual trust can lead to a loss of focus of discussion and public policy wobbles, with huge social costs. Therefore, the mutual trust between the public sector and the public is the ultimate goal of an open government.

Now in 2021, the world is still in turmoil, and we are even faced with the challenge of virus mutations. After 253 days of zero local cases, Taiwan is also facing a new wave of the epidemic. In this long winter night with no end in sight, in addition to the government’s implementation of epidemic prevention measures and the community’s concerted efforts to prevent the epidemic, in my opinion, “trust” is the key to maintaining a normal life in Taiwan.

When Taiwan started a mask rationing plan last year, the National Health Insurance Administration of the Ministry of Health and Welfare collaborated with the g0v community to develop an open data application within 72 hours, allowing those in need to find pharmacy locations and mask stocks through a variety of channels, including visualized maps, chat bots, and voice assistants.

This is not a special case rising out of the epidemic. In fact, it has been very common for Taiwan’s public service to incorporate opinions from the public into policies and to collaborate with civil society.

Open government is a task that takes time, but from the above examples, in addition to organizational innovations within the government, creativity and contribution from the civil society is of paramount importance.

  1. You are fully open in your governance, but how can your way of working be extended to the whole of the government organization?

We need to invest in public infrastructures that serves as the online equivalent of public parks, libraries, and university campuses, as spaces for the purpose of digital democracy.

On the digital public infrastructures: Just like how reliable infrastructure makes our lives safer and more convenient, public infrastructure in the digital realm does the same for democracy.

As an example, in 2015, civic technologists invented Airbox, a low-cost air quality tracker. Airbox is now in a variety of places, from schools to household balconies. Citizen science supplemented the government’s limited capacity and exemplified data stewardship and environmental education. The following year, the government initiated the Civil IoT Taiwan program, the first time we classified infrastructure budget into the digital realm. Originally, there were 2,000 Airbox devices islandwide; now there are tens of thousands.

Another scheme, the Rescue Action by Youth (RAY) project, offers opportunities to students. Since 2017 my office has gathered RAY students every summer to review government digital services. The students are divided into groups to focus on upgrading various digital services.

Through design and usability studies, they create prototypes that showcase suggested improvements. This approach has been used to upgrade the websites of the Hike Smart Taiwan service, which is used by mountaineers and hikers, and the Youth Development Administration, among others.

We are committed to strengthening and encouraging public opinion regarding governmental affairs—by establishing an open government system and developing digital channels for citizens to participate in policymaking.

By developing an Open Government National Action Plan, a transparent and accountable public governance system will be established to strengthen information disclosure, increase public participation, implement clean governance, and promote dialogue that is inclusive of all ethnicities and genders.

In addition, we continue to deepen the Participation Officer Network and the “Join” Platform, which provides a direct communication channel between the government and its citizens. Civic participation allows government agencies to connect with new ideas and thinking patterns, and to discern and truly comprehend the public’s service needs.

  1. When confronted with the idea of open government, often people react it is not possible because of concerns of privacy, security or sustainability (data has to be arranged in such way it is also accessible in the future). How would you reply to these arguments?

When developing digital policies, cybersecurity and personal data protection consistently receive a great deal of attention. The meaning of “e-Democracy” is not just the use of tools such as social media, online petition, and electronic voting to reflect public opinion and exercise civil rights; it also lies in the premise of making democracy the prerequisite of government’s digital services from development to deployment. In other words, the government’s digital services must be “citizen-centric,” which means “building a car behind an open door,” and engaging the people in the design.

For instance, to eliminate community transmission, contact tracing must be done rapidly and effectively. Inaccurate information will put us in the dilemma of having to choose between protecting privacy and preventing the pandemic; rolling out a mandatory government app would only backfire. So instead of centralizing contact-tracing data or yielding control to multinational corporations, we sought social-sector solutions “with” the people.

Earlier this year, civic technologists in the g0v community invented a mechanism of contact tracing based on text messages; we worked across sectors with telecom carriers to deploy the “1922 SMS” contact tracing system in a week.

By scanning a QR code with your phone’s built-in camera and sending a toll-free text message, people can keep track of their itineraries. This allows contact tracers to confirm the footprints of infected people and their contacts, without revealing any private information to venue owners.

This collaboration cannot happen without strong trust across sectors. Of course, we need to bridge the digital gap for the elderly and visually impaired — so contact tracing can still be done through measures such as handwriting and stamping.

When contact tracers apply for information about certain phone numbers, they submit requests through this platform to browse them. The phone number holder can then reverse-audit contact tracers’ requests and activities. All records are deleted after 28 days.

Because this civic tech originated from a community that has always valued personal data sovereignty, we can respond to new challenges with timely improvements. For instance, text messages sent to 1922 were discovered by a judge assessing a police search warrant. Fortunately, the multiparty design prevented the police from accessing the mapping between the random codes and specific venues.

The judge denied the warrant and publicly questioned the legality of wiretapping texts sent to 1922. Following discussions, the Ministry of Justice concluded that the 1922 SMS does not constitute communication under the Communication Security and Surveillance Act and, therefore, should not be repurposed for law enforcement, keeping the original civic intent intact.

“Rule by the people” is the original intent of democracy. In the face of global threats such as the pandemic and disinformation, our Taiwan Model shows to the world this “people-public-private partnership” — with the people — can shape a digital democracy.

  1. What role do you see for an NGO such as the Open State Foundation?

British economist Dr. Geoff Mulgan once said that with the popularization of information technology, a civil society in a free and open environment, as well as the resources and wisdom brought together by energetic citizens, are the best opportunities to overturn the future.

I wholeheartedly agree with and commend this message. In Taiwan, through collaboration between the NGO and public sectors, ideas and innovations have been sourced and implemented with concrete results. These include the SMS-based contact tracing system, 1922 vaccination appointment system, and the 5000 Quintuple Stimulus Vouchers, all of which are social innovations resulting from collaboration with key stakeholders.

Taiwan’s NGO are implementing the concept of citizen participation in various policies, public issues, counties, cities, and communities, gradually strengthening the transparency and openness of information, and thinking about more inclusive discussions, with mechanism design toward better accountability

We understand Open State Foundation works on digital transparency by opening up public information as open data and making it accessible for re-users. We believe NGOs like OSF could act as change the interaction between various groups in society through technology and to use innovative methods, find new ways to tackle societal challenges.