Digital Democracy in Taiwan
An Initiative by
Digital Minister of Taiwan
COVID-19 has stress-tested democracies across the world, and the results have left something to be desired. Many democracies, including those in the Indo-Pacific, have been revealed as flawed and failing – either grasping for authority or gasping for relevance. Is this really surprising, though, given that we have done so little to modernise these institutions that stretch back to ancient Athens?
Taiwan, by contrast, has shown us how we can strengthen and deepen democracy across the Indo-Pacific with citizen engagement. To ensure that democracies continue to flourish, we need to re-empower our populations and make our institutions fit for the world in which we live. In an Indo-Pacific where democracy is often said to be in backslide, we have an opportunity to reverse the trend to create a more open and democratic region.
Taiwan’s transformation to a digital democracy took place within a generation. Since World War II, the country has remade itself from a relatively simple agricultural society, with power concentrated in the hands of the ruling party, to a state characterised by social, cultural and political pluralism. Our first direct presidential election was held in 1996, right after the popularisation of the World Wide Web. In Taiwan, the internet and democracy evolved and spread in tandem.
In 2014, there was a definitive moment in Taiwan’s democratic invigoration: the birth of the Sunflower Movement. Half a million people took to the streets to protest the Cross-Strait Service Trade Agreement, an opaque trade deal with Beijing; millions more supported them online as the movement fanned out across the country, and Taiwan’s parliament was occupied by citizens seeking to stop the progress of the legislation.
In the first few days, rumours and misinformation spread about what was occurring inside the besieged parliament. To ensure openness and transparency, I was there to help set up a system of communication, as were many from the decentralised g0v community (pronounced gov-zero), a group of civic hackers. The occupied area and the surrounding streets were connected in a local network, and a projector was set up outside parliament to show what was happening inside in real time.
The Sunflower Movement ended a little more than three weeks later, after the government promised greater legislative oversight of the trade pact. It was a successful public demonstration of a new version of governance, not only for Taiwan but also for the world, showing how a citizens’ assembly, assisted by professional facilitators and empowered by civic technologies, can lead to effective democratic action.
Today, citizens in Taiwan understand that democracy – like any social technology – is enriched when people work together to improve society.
How can a government facilitate this? 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.
Taiwan has several programs to encourage these partnerships. The country’s Presidential Hackathon, now in its fourth year, invites citizens from around the world to propose open-data solutions to global issues that will create a more sustainable world – including ways to reduce energy use, to empower smart citizens and to promote investment in circular agriculture. The event is an opportunity for the public, private and community sectors to address social problems by collaborating on digital innovations that link data across sectors. The winning teams are invited to participate in government initiatives, and the systems that they develop receive support from the public and/or private sectors, as appropriate.
Another democratic innovation, the one-stop participation platform join.gov.tw, enables members of the 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 launched 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.
Cross-sector partnerships also play an important role in Taiwan’s success against COVID-19. In early 2020, when Taiwan was short on face masks and individuals were panic buying, my government instituted a national rationing scheme. Anticipating that rationing would not stop runs on pharmacies, we also released an application programming interface to provide the public with real-time, location-specific data on mask availability. This led to the creation of the Mask Map, a series of interactive maps offering details about where masks are in stock and in what numbers, created by social entrepreneurs working with the g0v community.
Similarly, early measures to record the contact information of those entering or leaving public venues led to the quick development and implementation of the 1922 SMS contact tracing system. The intuitive, app-free design by g0v is an easy way to check in at public places while maintaining one’s privacy – anyone can register their phone number to see whether a contact tracer has accessed their data in the last twenty-eight days.
Since the early life of the internet, Taiwan has boasted a vibrant community of civic hackers and open-source programmers who engage with social issues – individuals who stand ready to further democratic endeavours and fight against authoritarian forces.
Taiwan shows that, by trusting the people and by lowering barriers to democratic participation, we can create innovations that stand the test of time. The solution for the Indo-Pacific is simple: stop the rhetoric and start designing spaces for people to participate.
When faced with challenges that transcend state and national borders, people from different sectors must work together, step by step, to tackle them. I see Taiwan’s digital democracy as a sunflower, with those who contribute as petals. It blooms in Taiwan and stands tall as a vision for an inclusive and resilient Indo-Pacific.