vTaiwan shows how democracy can be helped by technology. But awakened humans are even more essential


"Deliberation — listening to each other deeply, thinking together and working out something that we can all live with — is magical."

That's a quote from Audrey Tang,  Digital Minister without Portfolio of Taiwan. It comes at the end of a piece from Shuyang Lin, co-founder of the Taiwanese government's Public Digital Innovation Space, which "works to prototype future democracy."

We have profiled vTaiwan, that country's platform for digital citizen involvement with government legislation, before in this blog. But it's worth attending to their latest account of themselves. From Lin's Sydney Morning Herald article:

vTaiwan has been experimenting with bringing citizens and public servants together in a civic deliberation process utilising state of the art technologies for crafting digital legislation.

The adoption of these technologies brings a more transparent, responsive, and participatory deliberation process, which is the core of public participation and the open government movement.

By openly aggregating shared wisdom from the society on a regular basis, the experiments created a recursive public. [That means] an open and interactive community environment that kept track of updated rough consensus, for crafting legislation and regulation.

It brings people directly into governance and helps lawmakers implement decisions with a greater degree of legitimacy. To date, more than twenty-six topics have been discussed through vTaiwan, with 20 of them contributing to decisive government action.

The vTaiwan project is an adaptable, and reproducible, prototype for future democracy.

It's an extremely flexible space formation that connects the physical room with digital interfaces according to group size for each discussion; and an interactive environment crafted by vTaiwan contributors - which could mean anyone. It creates an open space with open format. It invites all actors to participate in discussion and to decide the agenda.

The vTaiwan process has also been formed by the community participants iteratively. Therefore its space, environment, process, experience and the environment has been developed in several varieties over the past three years. The power of the web and AI is utilised to provide full remote participation for large groups of participants.

The problem of deciding how we want our nation to live together — democracy — has not been about not being able to make decisions, because we already have laws, regulations, norms and culture pretty much documented, even with pen and paper.

The real problem has been that we are not able to follow those shared standards because many of them are quite outdated. The speed our society evolves has passed the speed of how we update our shared collective intelligence.

Decision-making is not an easy task, especially when it has to do with a larger group of people. Group decision-making could take several protocols, such as

  • mandate, to decide and take questions;
  • advise, to listen before decisions;
  • consent, to decide if no one objects;
  • and consensus, to decide if everyone agrees.

So there is a pressing need for us to be able to collaborate together in a large scale decision-making process to update outdated standards and regulations.

Taiwan is not a small nation - 23 million people. Yet only tens of thousands are signed up to the vTaiwan process.

Our continuing question at The Alternative UK is the need to devise processes of empowerment that are real and credible at a much lower, more community-oriented level. How can vTaiwan so easily leap across what we might regard as a huge divide between everyday citizen and representative/administrative government? Is technology really such a solution here?

What is interesting about vTaiwan is that it seems to be a space that digital activists, and government officials, have co-created in response to a crisis. That was represented by the 2014 Sunflower Movement, where the Parliament building was occupied for ten days, in protest against untransparent government decisions. So what has been built has a driver of social protest and unrest behind it - it's not simply a top-down "reform", being slowly delivered to waiting citizens. 

Who knows what crisis may compel change in this country? Nesta's 2017 report, on various forms of Digital Democracy around the world,  has tried to draw some hard-bitten lessons about where and when it might work (or not): 

Think twice: don’t engage for engagement’s sake

Be honest: what’s involved and what are you going to do with the input?

Digital isn’t the only answer: traditional outreach and engagement still matter

Don’t waste time: get buy-in from decision-makers before you invest too much

Don’t cut corners: digital democracy is not a quick or cheap fix

It’s not about you: choose tools designed for the users you want, and try to design out destructive participation

Yet it must be remembered that this is advice to governments and municipalities/mayoralities thinking of embarking on this - not necessarily to citizens. Ed Whitelaw's recent blog here on social anarchism is fascinating in this respect. He looks to that political philosophy, as a means whereby we can properly identify what bigger structures an "awakened" citizenry might begin to trust again. 

We focus on bottom-up, community and horizontal power for its own sake. As George Monbiot says in Out of The Wreckage, this level of localized action brings its own enlivening and improving benefits. But we also think citizen power should be ready to meet any top-down reforms that pop out of the government machine, with its own rich culture of practices and visions.