Audrey Tang for The New York Times: A Strong Democracy Is a Digital Democracy

This article was written by Audrey Tang, the Digital Minister of Taiwan, and was originally published in The New York Times on October 15, 2019.

Hundreds of young activists occupied Taiwan’s legislature in 2014 to oppose a new trade pact with Beijing (Credit: WallySantana/Associated Press)

Democracy improves as more people participate. And digital technology remains one of the best ways to improve participation — as long as the focus is on finding common ground and creating consensus, not division.

These are lessons Taiwan has taken to heart in recent years, with the government and the tech community partnering to create online platforms and other digital initiatives that allow everyday citizens to propose and express their opinion on policy reforms. Today, Taiwan is crowdsourcing democracy to create a more responsive government.

Fittingly, this movement, which today aims to increase government transparency, was born in a moment of national outrage over a lack of openness and accountability in politics.

On March 18, 2014, hundreds of young activists, most of them college students, occupied Taiwan’s legislature to express their profound opposition to a new trade pact with Beijing then under consideration, as well as the secretive manner in which it was being pushed through Parliament by the Kuomintang, the ruling party.

Catalyzing what came to be known as the Sunflower Movement, the protesters demanded that the pact be scrapped and that the government institute a more transparent ratification process.

The occupation, which drew widespread public support, ended a little more than three weeks later, after the government promised greater legislative oversight of the trade pact. (To this day, the pact has yet to be approved by Taiwan’s legislature.) A poll released after the occupation, however, showed that 76 percent of the nation remained dissatisfied with the Kuomintang government, illustrating the crisis of trust caused by the trade deal dispute.

To heal this rift and communicate better with everyday citizens, the administration reached out to a group of civic-minded hackers and coders, known as g0v (pronounced “gov-zero”), who had been seeking to improve government transparency through the creation of open-source tools. The organization had come to the attention of the government during the Sunflower occupation, when g0v hackers had worked closely with the protesters.

In December 2014, Jaclyn Tsai, a government minister focused on digital technology, attended a g0v-sponsored hackathon and proposed the establishment of a neutral platform where various online communities could exchange policy ideas.

Several contributors from g0v responded by partnering with the government to start the vTaiwan platform in 2015. VTaiwan (which stands for “virtual Taiwan”) brings together representatives from the public, private and social sectors to debate policy solutions to problems primarily related to the digital economy. Since it began, vTaiwan has tackled 30 issues, relying on a mix of online debate and face-to-face discussions with stakeholders. Though the government is not obligated to follow vTaiwan’s recommendations (a policy that may soon change), the group’s work often leads to concrete action.