On the 20th of November 2019 Netwerk Democratie organized a public conversation with one of the most influential innovators of digital democracy today: Audrey Tang. Having started as a programmer, Tang worked for the private sector, before becoming a civic hacker and eventually the first ever Digital Minister of Taiwan. Under her guidance, the Taiwanese government has implemented an array of groundbreaking innovations and practices that inspire local and national governments around the world.
1) The “why” of Digital Democracy
Perhaps for good reason, innovation (and particularly digital innovation) in the political realm is often seen with scepticism and suspicion. The current democratic system in the West, typically based on the principle of deliberation, has been in place for decades, both at the municipal and the governmental level. The question may therefore naturally arise: why change anything?
The answer for Tang is simple: “Change is not a necessity; it can be done like it has been done so far, but providing five bits of information every four years is actually not sufficient for people to feel like their voice is being heard in the policy-making process”.
According to her, this is the reason why we are seeing the rise of the social sector as well as populism. “People mobilise in the social sector to create movements because the government only changes direction at a rate that is not fast enough to address emerging issues”.
“Eventually, people take things into their own hands, but if a government feels like it makes sense to also be psychologically closer to people, then maybe it makes sense to look at the social innovation and civic technology and employ some of the principles in our governance as well, so that it stays relevant to people”.
2) Key principle: ‘In Citizens We Trust’
When asked what principles of civic technology should be incorporated into governance, Tang’s answer was again, surprisingly simple: “The number one principle, by far, is trust your citizens – and that ’s it, actually! Everything else follows from that. We know that if we make our mistakes public, if we talk to people and tell them how we fail and how we pivot, we gain credibility, especially online.”
“Similarly” she adds “when we feel confused, when we are faced with new issues, we turn to the public to explore and discover these issues together”. “As we keep doing this, the people feel that if they complain, it also makes sense to take some of that energy into creation”
If the first step is to trust the citizens, she adds, the second step is to use technology, she continues. “Previously, you would conduct surveys or hold town-hall meetings, in either case that’s very expensive – the public service can maybe do five of those every year in a medium size municipality and it takes a lot of political will and political capital, because it ’s so expensive and time-consuming”.
Online participation tools, on the other hand, are free. “This method dramatically lowers the political cost and so what used to take a mayor or a minister to launch, now any section chief can launch these conversations.”
3) Consensus building in a polarised digital world
One of the participation tools that has been used in Taiwan to crowdsource opinions is an open-source platform called pol.is. “You can just throw the conversation in there and a couple of months later you have the consensus of people”.
There is the misconception that polarisation is cultivated in digital spaces, but actually these technologies have the potential to do precisely the opposite: “social media focus too much on divisiveness because they want to sell attention-capturing addiction cycles” but public participation tools are designed to bring people closer together. “Every time we run this we are able to let the people see that the citizens are actually a polity, that they all feel more or less the same about an emerging issue”.
“We start with statistics, raw data and facts; then we ask the people who they feel. Gradually, ideas emerge – the best ideas are those that address the people’s feelings. Finally we absorb those ideas into the agenda of policy-making.”
4) The Domino Effect of Digital Democracy in Government
Perhaps the most important point, however, is how to put theory into practice – how to get people on board.
“Nobody in the government would argue for more risk, for longer work hours, or for less credibility – that ’s unheard of”. By working only by Pareto improvement (that is to say, as progress is made non of the aforementioned parameters are compromised) we move forward only if all conditions are being met. So it is impossible for the administration to feel any more fear or uncertainty or doubt about this way of working; the least they can say is that it’s harmless.”
“To join the digital innovation space, one must learn the art of working out loud, meaning that one should not be afraid of letting other ministries or other sections of local government learn about your work.” Initially, few ministries were interested, the “usual suspects”: the ministry of communication, of finance, of interior, of culture. As time went by, however, more and more ministries became interested.
“So it works by voluntary association, if they find synergy in the existing delegates, then they‘re more willing to send people; if they see very little synergy then they don’t send people. But there is nothing for them to criticise.”