An Interview with Audrey Tang, Digital Minister, Taiwan Government
Once shackled by one-party rule, Taiwan today proudly sits among Asia's most progressive and principled democracies. Despite its precarious political status – sandwiched between the great powers of China and Japan – the island-state not only boasts one of region’s most transparent public administrations, but also ranks among the world's Top 10 digital governments, using newfangled technologies to inspire greater public engagement with government. Yet, for a country that in the 1990s remained trammelled by martial law, such radical transformation has not happened by accident.
One of the more recent players in the Taiwan Government's spectacular emergence as an eGov leader and trailblazer was once its most ardent critic. Audrey Tang, appointed as Taiwan’s Digital Minister in 2016, has been the Tsai administration’s most vocal proponent of transparent, citizen-centric governance.
An unabashed young anarchist with roots in the Occupy and Sunflower Movement of the early 2010s, Tang’s guiding principle of ‘radical transparency’ seeks to inspire greater democratic participation and empowerment of citizens through digital infrastructure – to inform, collaborate, and humanise interactions between the government and its people.
We speak with Audrey Tang on her mission to drive 'radical transparency' into the heart of Taiwan’s public administrations, and the lessons that can be drawn from the government's experiments in open, technologically driven governance.
FST Gov: During your presentations at the FST Government Victoria & South Australia conferences last year, you spoke of the DPP government’s mission to deliver transparent, accountable and citizen-engaged governance, empowered by today’s digital infrastructure. How far has Taiwan come to realising this goal?
Tang: As President Tsai Ing-wen said in her inauguration speech: “Before, democracy was a showdown between two opposing values. Now, democracy is a conversation between many diverse values.”
Realising this conversation and reaching common values from opposing sides is precisely the reason why we at the Public Digital Innovation Space (PDIS) – Taiwan’s dedicated digital innovation incubator for public works – engaged diverse stakeholders to identify and define core problems, generate meaningful challenge statements, and co-create possible solutions for real-life issues.
For example, an e-petition circulated in May 2017 said that the tax filing system is “explosively difficult to use” for Mac and Linux users. We responded by saying “Everybody who complains automatically gets an invitation to our collaboration meeting in the financial information centre.”
After five such workshops, we co-created the tax exporting system of 2018 with a satisfaction rate of 96 per cent. We have summarised this experience in the Government Digital Service Guidelines, to guide all ministries and municipalities to redesign services across the board.
FST Gov: What has been the biggest challenge along the way?
Tang: Our main challenge is that we are a new democracy. Although we have perhaps the most open and innovative society in all of Asia, our first presidential election was only 30 years ago. We’ve had to figure out democracy after three decades of military law and dictatorship. Democracy in Taiwan is only as old as the World Wide Web.
People younger than me don’t remember the period of martial law – they think of things naturally in the collaborative way of open access. But people who are my age or older – those who are ‘digital migrants’ – have to reshape our thinking.
In order to withstand the influence of authoritarian regimes, we are committed to reconciling the previously highly hierarchical culture and language with a new norm – namely, a peer-to-peer, continuous democracy.
FST Gov: How successful have you been in inspiring other government leaders or ministers to embrace the 'radical transparency' philosophy?
Tang: Pretty successful, especially for processes around co-creation.
For example, we helped organise the annual Presidential Hackathon with President Tsai’s office; it’s three months of intense collaboration across sectors.
Many of the 100+ proposals were initiated by public servants. Some found an NPO or a social sector partner to submit the formal admission, so they can say, “We’re happy to collaborate”. Thanks to our commitment to radical transparency, partners collaborate on already-published data, as well as on integrating data across silos.
We have journalists asking for better data from the government, so they can do evidence-based analysis on flood control; we have the Taiwan Water Corporation saying, “We are willing to share our data, so machine learning experts can help save us time in detecting leakage.”
Instead of monetary prizes, our award to guarantee the implementation of the proposal of the five winning teams within the public service. The impact extends beyond Taiwan – for example, the “Water Saviour” team continued their work in New Zealand.
FST Gov: What emerging innovation do you predict will be the most significant disruptor of digital government within the next 18 months?
Tang: Approaches to measuring progress beyond purely economic metrics. Governments around the world are beginning to recognise that averages and correlations often miss the essential truth: we will see beyond the gross domestic product (GDP) index and holistically measure societal prosperity through enlightened indicators.
These new indicators, as envisioned by the council on extended intelligence, acknowledged the need to measure progress at different levels – the individual, the community, and society – and the importance of better understanding the relationship between each of these levels.
FST Gov: How can public institutions best leverage these innovative social indices to benefit their citizenry?
Tang: Regarding emerging challenges, our main strategy is regulatory co-creation with the civic sector.
This is important because, as a government, we can only really change our direction once every year due to our budget cycles. We know that the people in the field are actually the best people to bring about innovative solutions.
In 2019, we are committed to expanding the regulatory sandbox model — whenever an innovator sees any regulations that could be amended to further the 17 Global Goals, they can ask for an ‘experiment’ for one year to amend that rule or regulation, to prove that the new rules work better for everyone involved.
FST Media: As governments around the world expand their digital resources, they also inevitably become bigger and more lucrative targets for malicious cyber actors – including both state and non-state entities. How can honest governments stay ahead of ‘the bad guys’ and preserve public trust?
Tang: We make sure that all major government projects allocate at least five per cent of their total budget to cybersecurity; when we do any new project, we ask the ‘white hat’ hackers to attack and report before the ‘black hats’ do.
As for the malicious actors perpetrating disinformation campaigns, personally, I think a lack of transparency is the seed of distrust. Therefore, we now offer our policymaking context in an easy-to-access fashion (short videoclips of a minute or two), so that facts spread wider than disinformation.
Currently, when a disinformation campaign is about to start, each ministry is committed within a few hours to publish real-time clarification of those rumours, sometimes directly in the IM channels where they’re spreading, thanks to technologies created by the civic sector, such as the cofacts project and the Taiwan FactCheck Center.
FST Gov: Being an emerging leader in digital government, what lessons can Australian governments take from Taiwan’s pioneering innovations in eGovernment?
Tang: When we see “internet of things”, let’s make it an internet of beings.
When we see “virtual reality”, let’s make it a shared reality.
When we see “machine learning”, let’s make it collaborative learning.
When we see “user experience”, let’s make it about the human experience.
When we hear “the singularity is near”, let us remember: the Plurality is here. ⚫