A Strong Democracy Is a Digital Democracy
Democracy improves as more people participate. And digital technology remains one of the best ways to improve participation — as long as the focus is on finding common ground and creating consensus, not division.
These are lessons Taiwan has taken to heart in recent years, with the government and the tech community partnering to create online platforms and other digital initiatives that allow everyday citizens to propose and express their opinion on policy reforms. Today, Taiwan is crowdsourcing democracy to create a more responsive government.
Fittingly, this movement, which today aims to increase government transparency, was born in a moment of national outrage over a lack of openness and accountability in politics.
🙋 On March 18, 2014, hundreds of young activists, most of them college students, occupied Taiwan’s legislature to express their profound opposition to a new trade pact with Beijing then under consideration, as well as the secretive manner in which it was being pushed through Parliament by the Kuomintang, the ruling party.
Catalyzing what came to be known as the Sunflower Movement, the protesters demanded that the pact be scraped and that the government institute a more transparent ratification process.
The occupation, which drew widespread public support, ended a little more than three weeks later, after the government promised greater legislative oversight of the trade pact. (To this day, the pact has yet to be approved by Taiwan’s legislature.) A poll released after the occupation, however, showed that 76 percent of the nation remained dissatisfied with the Kuomintang government, illustrating the crisis of trust caused by the trade deal dispute.
To heal this rift and communicate better with everyday citizens, the administration reached out to a group of civic-minded hackers and coders, known as g0v (pronounced “gov-zero”), who had been seeking to improve government transparency through the creation of open-source tools. The organization had come to the attention of the government during the Sunflower occupation, when g0v hackers had worked closely with the protesters.
In December 2014, Jaclyn Tsai, a government minister focused on digital technology, attended a g0v-sponsored hackathon and proposed the establishment of a neutral platform where various online communities could exchange policy ideas.
Several contributors from g0v responded by partnering with the government to start the vTaiwan platform in 2015. VTaiwan (which stands for “virtual Taiwan”) brings together representatives from the public, private and social sectors to debate policy solutions to problems primarily related to the digital economy. Since it began, vTaiwan has tackled 30 issues, relying on a mix of online debate and face-to-face discussions with stakeholders. Though the government is not obligated to follow vTaiwan’s recommendations (a policy that may soon change), the group’s work often leads to concrete action.
VTaiwan partly relies on a unique digital tool known as Pol.is to ensure its crowdsourced policy debates remain civil and reach consensus. Using Pol.is, any vTaiwan participant can post a comment about the topic or policy being discussed. Crucially, other users cannot directly reply to these statements, which reduces the likelihood of trolling and abuse. Instead, they can click “agree,” “disagree” or “pass/unsure” on each comment.
Using real-time machine learning, Pol.is analyzes all the votes on the comments to produce an interactive map that groups like-minded participants together in relation to other, differently minded users. The map lays bare the gaps between various groups — as well as any areas of agreement. Ideally, this incentivizes people to post comments that attract more supporters, creating a path toward consensus.
VTaiwan has been used to solve a number of particularly thorny digital policy problems. In 2015, it helped break an impasse over how best to regulate Uber, which had arrived in Taiwan two years earlier prompting opposition from taxi drivers.
In 2016, hundreds of ordinary citizens using the platform managed within a few weeks to come up with new regulations for online liquor sales, after multiyear discussions among business and social groups had broken down. And in 2018, vTaiwan helped to create new regulations for the platform economy.
Taiwan also relies on another civic engagement platform called Join, this one maintained entirely by the government. Though similar to vTaiwan in that it uses Pol.is to create consensus, Join tackles matters beyond the digital economy, such as vacancy taxes and drug prescriptions for animals. Compared to the hundreds of thousands who have debated issues on vTaiwan, Join’s website has hosted 10.6 million unique visitors — almost half of Taiwan’s population — since it began in 2015.
Together, vTaiwan and Join are opening up more direct lines of communication between Taiwan’s government and its citizens, producing tremendous benefits for the former. Officials are exposed to new ideas and ways of thinking, while identifying core public service demands.
The Presidential Hackathon is yet another tech initiative bringing Taiwan’s public, private and social sectors together to solve urgent problems. At the event, the first of which was held last year, 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.
One of the top teams in this year’s hackathon included officials from the Judicial Yuan, the judicial branch of the Taiwanese government. The team developed two digital tools to make the nation’s judicial system more legible and transparent for everyday Taiwanese.
Drunken driving is an issue of broad public concern in Taiwan. And in recent years, the differing sentences handed out to drivers involved in high-profile accidents have led to public confusion about why some punishments can be so light compared with others.
One of the digital tools developed by the Judicial Yuan team addresses this confusion by giving the public a better sense of why punishments can differ for the same crime. Any user can simply enter in the relevant data for a hypothetical drunken-driving offense, such as blood alcohol concentration and the type of vehicle involved. The application then lists the appropriate penalties for the case, while also showing sentences from real-world drunken-driving cases that are similar to the one described. (The team analyzed over 50,000 verdicts from previous drunken-driving offenses to create the tool.) In this way, users get a better understanding of how slight changes in, for example, blood alcohol concentration can lead to radically different penalties.
In the closing speech of this year’s Presidential Hackathon, President Tsai Ing-wen encouraged government officials to embrace a hacker spirit as they work to meet the public’s needs. “Do it bravely; dare to make mistakes,” she said. In Taiwan, digital technology is boosting civic dialogue and infusing government with the spirit of social innovation. By giving everyone a voice, Taiwan is strengthening its democracy for the future.