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To save democracy, we must disrupt it

Audrey Tang had all the hallmarks of a child prodigy. By the first grade she was reading classical literature in several languages and solving simultaneous equations. Aged eight, without a computer at home, she’d draw a keyboard on a piece of paper and, pressing the paper buttons, imagine what the computer would have produced.

By 12, Audrey had left school in order to learn more about technology, and by 15, she had founded her first company, a start-up that built a search engine for Mandarin-language song lyrics. She moved to Silicon Valley and worked as a consultant for Apple, reportedly earning one bitcoin, or by today’s prices about £5,000, an hour.

Then in her early thirties, she announced her ‘retirement’ and moved back to her native Taiwan. It was 2012, the world economy was gripped by recession, and the Taiwanese government announced a massive stimulus package aimed at reinvigorating the economy: the Economic Power-up Plan.

To promote the Economic Power-up Plan, the government produced an advert. “What exactly is the Economic Power-up Plan?” the advert asks. “We would very much like to explain it to you in simple words,” a voice continues, “but it is impossible due to the complexity . . . We might as well run until our legs break instead of just simply talking.”

“It was insulting,” said Audrey, when interviewed about it later. For most of her life, she had been involved in a culture that had formed on the internet called the Open Source Movement. It valued consensus, and especially consensus produced by having as many people as possible involved in the process. Applied to democracy, it meant that top-down decisions should not just be announced by the government; ideas should be cultivated and encouraged. The opposite, in fact, to the Economic Power-up plan.

The advert appeared online, but it was so unpopular that Taiwanese YouTubers began to flag it as fraudulent. So many, indeed, that YouTube removed the video, and suspended the government’s account.

In the wake of the advert, a group was formed, including Audrey, with a call to “fork the government”. It was a call for reform in the language of software developers: for government to take a different path, forking off from the current one. They called themselves Gov Zero – or just G0v – and with increasing volume and urgency demanded open politics as well as open source. The values of the Open Source Movement were morphing in to demands for mainstream political reform.

It wasn’t, however, for another two years until the call for civic engagement sparked serious reform. The trigger was the Cross-Strait Service Trade Agreement (CSSTA). Tabled in the Taiwanese parliament in 2014, it aimed to increase trade between China and Taiwan, but there had been simmering concerns about the bill among the public. Activists, academics and others feared it was laying the groundwork for the eventual unification of the two countries. In response the government promised that it would open the bill up to careful scrutiny through public hearings, line-by-line review and citizen assemblies.

But before that review had even begun, the ruling Kuomintang Party forced the agreement onto the floor of the parliament for a final vote. It was a unilateral, politically aggressive move and by the next evening thousands of protestors had gathered around the parliament. A few hundred of them, many students, climbed over the fence, broke a window, and burst onto the floor of the legislative chamber itself.

Rather than just protest, however, G0v and others began to guide participants towards making a new law. Online, outside on the streets, as well as on the floor of the parliament itself, they began to demonstrate another way that the CSSTA decision could have been made: by scalable listening, empathy-building, and consensus-making. The values, indeed, of the Open Source Movement.

Predictably, in the face of ongoing protest, the Government eventually capitulated, but by now the crisis had spread beyond the CSSTA. It, like the Economic Power-up Plan a few years before, was a sign of a deeper malaise: a democratically elected government uninterested in including its electorate in the decisions it was making. In the municipal elections that followed, the Kuomintang Party suffered heavy defeats and city-level elections brought many occupiers into local government. The premier, Jiang Yi-huah – the old foe of the occupiers – had resigned by the end of the year.

Then something extraordinary happened. Jaclyn Tsai, a minister in the new government, came to a G0v hackathon. “We need a platform to allow the entire society to engage in rational discussion”, she told them. The government never wanted to see another ‘Sunflower Revolution’ again. They didn’t want citizens to feel so shut out of parliament that they felt they needed to break in – and so they turned to the civic hackers for help.

Which brings us back to Audrey. In 2016 she was appointed minister without portfolio, and shortly after became the Digital Minister of Taiwan. She was the youngest minister in the cabinet, and the first transgender politician ever to hold office in Taiwan, but the thing that really set Audrey apart was that she was a completely new kind of politician. One who wanted to change not only what government did, but what government actually was.

Audrey brought G0v into government. They called their new organisation the Public Digital Innovation Service (PDIS) and saw the challenge of democracy as a problem of information. Voting is a single opportunity for a citizen to give a political signal, and an incredibly weak signal at that. Usually held years apart, elections don’t tell government enough about what citizens feel about any issue, and citizens don’t feel they are being involved enough in decisions being made on their behalf.

Around the time PDIS got going, Uber opened in Taiwan, providing the new organisation’s first real test. The usual chorus of conflict and division followed the taxi platform’s arrival. The government needed a way to collect the vast array of opinions held across Taiwanese society, and, beyond that, to learn what all these different groups had in common. They needed a way to build consensus on which a decision about Uber could be based. Their answer was ‘vTaiwan’, and the process was simple, but powerful.

The first stage was to lay out the basic facts about Uber, which were put onto a Wikipedia timeline, and independently validated. The next stage, the most difficult, was to bring people together from all sides to share their feelings. To do this vTaiwan used a platform called Taipei taxi drivers, representatives of Uber, members of the government, business leaders, trade unions and taxi users were all asked to log on. People were asked to draft statements beginning with “My feeling is . . .” and everyone else was asked to abstain, agree, or disagree with them.

As they did so, each person’s little avatar bounced around the map, staying close to the people they kept agreeing with, and moving away from others when disagreements emerged. The software created and analysed a matrix comprising what each person thought about every comment. “The aim,” Colin told me, one of the inventors of, “was to give the agenda-setting power to the people. In voting, the cake is baked. The goal is to engage citizens far earlier, when everyone is arguing over the ingredients.”

Over the first few days, kept visualising how opinions emerged, clustered, responded, divided and recombined. Eventually two groups emerged. Group One clustered around a statement in support of banning Uber. Group Two clustered around a statement expressing a preference for using Uber.

This, of course, is the opposite of a consensus – it is polarisation. And if we were talking about Twitter or Facebook, we’d see echo chambers, spats, competing online petitions and massively contradictory information flowing to politicians. But produced something more useful than just feedback: “we found that it became a consensus-generating mechanism”, said Colin. People were asked to continue to draft statements, but the ones that were given visibility were those that garnered support from both sides.

The process itself encouraged people to start posting more nuanced statements, and by the fourth week a consensus statement had emerged: “The government should leverage this opportunity to challenge the taxi industry to improve their management and quality control systems so that drivers and riders would enjoy the same quality service as Uber” (95% of participants agreed).

On 23 May 2016, the Taiwanese government pledged to ratify all the consensus items: taxis no longer needed to be painted yellow, app-based taxis were free to operate as long as they didn’t undercut existing meters, and so on. vTaiwan had succeeded in putting the people at the heart of decision-making.

Just two months later, Taiwan’s new premier declared that “all substantial national issues should go through a vTaiwan-like process”. It was used to break a six-year deadlock over the sale of alcohol online, and has now been applied to problems as diverse as cyber-bullying, telemedicine, tax and information security. In all, 19 topics have gone through the process, largely relating to online and digital regulation, and 16 have resulted in decisive Government action.

It was hardly the storming of the Winter Palace. No king has lost his head. But this is nonetheless a revolutionary moment. For centuries, democracy has pretty much meant one thing: elected representatives sitting in sovereign Parliaments. But vTaiwan challenged that basic vision of how democracy should work.

Audrey, herself, is a completely new kind of politician. She doesn’t see her job as making decisions at all. Instead, she sees herself as a “channel for collective intelligence” – a convenor, moderator or chairperson within a much wider discussion. “I bring what we do in the open source communities . . . I don’t take commands. I don’t give commands”, she told me. Every meeting that she has is recorded, transcribed and published for anyone to see. I communicated with Audrey – a minister – on an open website, accessible to anyone with internet access.

vTaiwan is the first digital democracy, but the idea is spreading. Sometimes triggered by crisis, sometimes by generalised democratic discontent, groups of people around the world have begun to experiment with new systems. The philosophy of open source, joined with the technology that can make it happen, has begun to slowly shift government.

It’s happening in South Korea, where every day 25,000 digital complaints flow into the City Hall’s servers in Seoul. It’s happening in Iceland, where a platform called ‘Better Reykjavik’ crowd sources ideas for public spending priorities. ‘Parlement et Citoyens’ in France is a website which brings together representatives and citizens to discuss policy issues and collaboratively draft legislation. In Finland, a new Citizens’ Initiative Act enshrined the right of Finnish citizens to submit proposals for new legislation.

Across all these cases, there have been failures and problems. Some have struggled to get busy citizens interested enough to plunge into the onerous task of policy-making. Others are little more than check-box exercises. And all schemes that rely on the internet are open to the charge that the poorest, most vulnerable people in their society are least likely to use technology to become politically engaged.

However, this is also a moment when people feel democracy, as it exists today, isn’t working. Within the UK, for the last 50 years, there has been a growing gap between political institutions and the people that they represent and serve. Voter turnout in elections continues to decline; mass membership of political parties (albeit with some recent upswings), once the most important bridge between the people and the political elite, continues to fall; and trust in and contact with politicians is at a historic all-time low

The pressure  on governments to radically transform how democracy works will, I think, quickly grow. The message of radically opening up politics and doing democracy differently – at a time when so many feel so distant from it – will only become louder. And amid the discontentment and anger with mainstream politics, there are people like Audrey who have an answer. Democracy has been one of the least disrupted things of the digital age so far, but it will be one of the most in the years to come.

Carl Miller’s The Death of the Gods: The New Global Power Grab is out now. 

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