Voting is just “entry-level democracy”, says Audrey Tang. After that, open data and deliberation

We’ve blogged the remarkable Audrey Tang, Taiwan’s Minister for Digital Participation, before. But the 2016 video embedded above, only recently brought to our attention (thanks Richard Bartlett of Loomio and Enspiral), has so much relevant material for our current dilemmas, that we felt it warranted – indeed, demanded - renewed attention.

To refresh your memory, Tang was part of the Sunflower Movement that occupied the Taiwanese parliament in 2014. In a moment not unlike Brexit, the young digital engineers stepped in when Beijing refused to legislate a trade deal already agreed with Taiwan, because it considered Taiwan a domestic city of China. In other words, it deprived Taiwan of any power to regulate what was a bilateral deal. 

What happened next was a unilateral, peaceful revolution which has delivered a highly sophisticated form of democracy to Taiwan, well beyond anything on offer in Europe. Government data is open, policies are crowd-sourced and deliberation is the new norm for Taiwanese citizens. Parties still exist, but ideology has retreated into the background. 

In the 20 minutes it takes to watch this video, a new vista opens for the future of politics everywhere. Tang’s light and humorous style, effortlessly aligns democracy with the internet, observes the dysfunction of parties and the media and challenges the viruses of the mind that always threaten to diminish the benefits of open data. 

In this video, Tang takes the example of Uber’s very quick development from a friendly idea about sharing cars to an aggressive and poorly regulated force now dominating the market for taxi services.

She describes the distorted idea that ‘algorithms are better than regulation’ as a meme – a virus of the mind that quickly became an epidemic. You can’t negotiate with a virus, so it must be called out.

In Taiwan, they quickly brought all the parties to the growing conflict – old taxi firms, customers and Uber – together and took time to deliberate better outcomes, which were then offered to citizens. 

These new mechanisms, which constantly invite the people into both real-time and digital  deliberation of the data freely available, makes them resistant to manipulation and propaganda, says Tang.

Eventually people become used to the process and expect to set the agenda for their government. In the long term, it is like an immunisation against the risks of the singularity – that moment in the not too distant future when technology will be running most things without ever needing our intervention.

This is not to suggest that such a system could be easily adopted at national level in the UK: our history, context, diversity and consequent psyche would make it a very different journey from that experienced by the relatively homogenous Taiwan.

However, in this age of political breakdown at Westminster, it is a format that a city or region might like to experiment with and test the benefits and boundaries of. And while we are fans of Citizens Assemblies, this offers far more participation for people than sortition does.