vTaiwan (Part 2) – Notes on Aspects of the vTaiwan Phenomenon

To expand on my introduction to vTaiwan in Part 1, I offer here some descriptions of its roots, its dynamics, and some inquiries about its relationship to the wise democracy vision.

vTaiwan’s Roots in the g0v (“gov-zero”) Community

g0v (see its manifesto) is a creative Taiwanese civic hacktivist community founded in 2012.  Switching the “o” in gov (for “government”) to a “0” (zero) not only enabled g0v to symbolize their bottom-up approach to governance but enabled them to create easy-to-remember websites that imitated government agency sites to show how those sites could work to engage stakeholders and the public in generating high quality policies.

g0v hacktivists were key to organizing the 2014 Sunflower Movement’s three week occupation of Taiwan’s parliament building, which they live streamed and projected onto the building’s walls.  As part of that event, g0v helped realizing massive online and face-to-face public deliberations about the secretive, unpopular trade agreement that had triggered the occupation — the results of which profoundly shaped the subsequent political landscape.  g0v was also key to creating vTaiwan out of that watershed occupation and many of its contributors continue to play major roles in vTaiwan to this day.

Among the values g0v brings to vTaiwan are trusting people and building trust across sectors as well as empowering civil society, so that they can be well-informed and take delight participating in public affairs.

g0v’s Audrey Tang quips that when people are now invited to a political demonstration, they are not being invited to amass on the streets with signs, but to participate in a “demonstration” of how participatory government can actually work.

Open Space and Open Source

Perhaps the most remarkable feature of vTaiwan – given its role in government – is that no one is in charge.  At a very fundamental level, it is fully self-organizing and transparent. Anyone can propose anything and it develops according to whomever else wants to contribute to it.

vTaiwan provides physical and online spaces and tools for people to work on their initiatives.  However, no authority approves, manages or stops any particular activity. Order is achieved through the shared standards people follow in order to be fully seen and heard using vTaiwan’s community spaces and resources – and the community collectively polices itself.  One of those standards is that all activities and products must be fully and publicly available to all interested parties. Nothing is hidden or proprietary and all activity is voluntary — and almost all is done by volunteers (vTaiwan’s few federal paid staff operate not under orders, but as free members of the peer-to-peer vTaiwan community).

The sequence and timing of any particular vTaiwan process depends on the emergent collective judgment by those involved, following the principle of “rough consensus” whereby participants’ concerns are addressed to the extent that the whole working group deems them worth the effort involved.  In place of majority-rule voting, with its generation and marginalization of minorities, rough consensus takes people’s concerns seriously. However, instead of the full resolution sought by full consensus, rough consensus has a bias towards letting people try things out, unless there are clear reasons for greater caution.

Stakeholders, government, and the citizenry

80% of vTaiwan’s current operations address the creation and modification of regulations, working with stakeholders and government ministries (agencies).  The remaining 20% deal with legislation and laws, working with elected officials and the general public.

This at first confused me, but I learned interesting things studying it.  In one sense, everyone is a citizen, as well as a stakeholder (at least to some extent) in virtually every issue.  However, elected officials depend on the votes of citizens in their (place-based) constituency and are therefore oriented more to general public opinion (as well as to power players with the capacity to influence public opinion and voting).  In contrast, each ministry or agency deals with a distinct realm of governance specifically involving experts and stakeholders with particular interests in that realm, and is usually not as focused on broad public opinion.

A major motivation within vTaiwan has been to build trust between the civil society and civil service and to make it possible for public servants to do their jobs with less stress and greater productivity.  vTaiwan found that this goal could be most readily served at the level of the ministries. So they have focused on engaging stakeholders and ministries on specific issues. (In this context a stakeholder can be defined as someone who will be impacted by or has the power to influence decisions on the issue in question.)

For each issue being considered for deliberation, vTaiwan activists research who the most relevant stakeholders are, leaving lots of room — as usual! — for any interested person to get involved.

Following a regulation signed into effect late 2017, every ministry must assign at least one “participation officer” (PO) to be involved in engagements with the civil society and to acquaint themselves with multi-stakeholder collaborative settings, as to shape regulations appropriate to their ministry.

(PS:  There are kindred participatory governance initiatives that focus more on parliament and on the judicial branch.)

Wednesday hackathons and office hours

Every Wednesday evening in the large Social Innovation Lab space in Taipei (donated by the national government), vTaiwan hosts a gathering open to anyone, where people seek to engage with others in initiatives that have something to do with the Taiwanese government, public engagement, or civic technology.  During each hackathon attendees promote their ideas or work together on actual projects.

vTaiwan projects proceed largely through the work done or planned at these self-organized Wednesday hackathons.  There is no overall roadmap, leader, department or activity shaping what happens. There is usually good food — especially since the Social Innovation Lab has its own kitchen and resident chef!

And on Wednesday morning and afternoons, Digital Minister without Portfolio Audrey Tang holds open office hours where anyone can come to her and talk about anything, on the condition that all conversations must be published online after 10 days of review.

e-Petitions

On the national e-Petition platform, anyone can post a petition requesting government response to a proposal.  If 5,000 people sign the petition, the government – usually coordinated by the relevant participation officer(s) – must reply to it point-by-point.

However, even if fewer people sign — e.g., from a dozen to a few hundred — other vTaiwan activists can decide the e-petition is worthy of broader deliberation and take it up in the activities described below.

“Rolling Surveys” and Crowdsourced Educational Materials

As a vTaiwan group coalesces around an issue they could submit to vTaiwan’s deliberative processes — triggered by e-petitions, or by the initiative of an individual or interest group — their first step is usually to create a “rolling survey” which asks responders what they know and have experienced regarding the issue and, significantly, who else the survey should be sent to.

This survey is sent to people and groups obviously involved with the issue — often through ads in Facebook groups — and then to more and more people as respondents recommend new people to send it to.  In this way the survey keeps “rolling” through the stakeholder population.

Incoming responses provide considerable information about the dynamics of the issue, the facts of the matter, what is at stake, and who is involved.  vTaiwan community activists process this and other crowdsourced information into accessible educational materials for the public and for reference during subsequent deliberations.  These briefing materials usually include an online dictionary of issue-related jargon in which specialized terms get defined in language readily understandable to lay citizens. All this happens through self-organized volunteer activity and crowdsourcing dynamics reminiscent of those that sustain Wikipedia.

Pol.is and Stakeholder Dialogues

The next stage usually involves getting diverse stakeholders together to reflect on the implications of all this information.

If the issue seems to need the engagement of a few dozen stakeholders, vTaiwan prefers to hold facilitated face-to-face conversations.  However, for issues where it seems wise to engage hundreds or thousands of people — for which face-to-face interactions and facilitation would be difficult — pol.is software is used.

In its “suggestion box” function, pol.is has participants submit tweet-sized statements expressing their views on the issue.  Then it has them indicate Agree, Disagree, or Pass on statements submitted by other participants.  The pol.is algorithm continually sorts participants into clusters of like-minded responders and then — most remarkably — it identifies “consensus statements” that have a high level of agreement across diverse clusters.

The nature of these different clusters and the statements about which they agreed and disagreed can then be explored in subsequent face-to-face dialogues.  Often these dialogues engage selected stakeholders, relevant ministry participation officers, and members of the public whose opinions typify the diverse clusters that emerged in pol.is.

If these dialogues use vTaiwan facilitators and agree to open-source transparency, they are live streamed (with live participatory chat opportunities), recorded, transcribed, and posted on vTaiwan’s website.  Sometimes diverse dialogues are initiated by different people at different stages regarding the same issue, and all of them are treated similarly.

The Rule-Drafting Process

The results of all this are not only publicly available, but are taken up by ministry participation officers who draft regulations guided by those results, often in liaison with their agency peers and key vTaiwan players.  The draft is then returned to vTaiwan for public and stakeholder responses and duly revised. This rule-drafting may go through several rounds before something that feels adequate to all players emerges, which then becomes established policy.

Whatever emerges can, of course, be revised over time through the processes outlined above, providing an ongoing system for responsive reflection – an iterative learning process I would call “collective intelligence”.

The Quality of Conversation

The face-to-face stakeholder conversations are intentionally diverse, professionally facilitated and, when preceded by a pol.is process, grounded in the differences and consensus statements that arose from that process, usually requiring point-by-point responses.  And an interesting leading edge of vTaiwan development is the use of 3D cameras in live-streamed stakeholder dialogues to allow observers with appropriate apps to immerse themselves in virtual reality representations of those conversations.

Also, two interesting points raise the quality of personal pol.is engagements into the realm of conversation.  First, pol.is was designed to eliminate the tendency of online comment forums to degrade into mutual trolling, while allowing full expression of creative ideas and rational discussion.  Second, research shows that in many cases when a participant registers a “disagreement” with someone’s statement, they shortly thereafter submit a statement of their own that provides a solution to their underlying concern.  Thus, even without the direct interactivity of conversations and comment forums, pol.is nevertheless evokes dialogic and deliberative “communication acts” among its participants in which they are influenced by each other’s perspectives.

The Wisdom Factor

Wise democracy theory posits the following workable definition for “collective wisdom” as it applies to public policy and the impacts of collective behavior: “taking into account what needs to be taken into account for longterm broad benefit”.  Key factors in this include
(a) welcoming and productively considering a full spectrum of diverse information and perspectives in contexts where they can influence each other and evolve together and
(b) considering, in particular, holistic and systemic approaches (e.g., ecology, living systems theory, near-universal ethical principles, potential synergies, etc.).

vTaiwan practices are strong in (a), thanks to its conscious inclusion of diverse stakeholder perspectives, full-spectrum educational materials, and facilitated dialogues (including pol.is) that can help make common sense of the diversity.

Greater wisdom may be possible by explicitly inviting holistic and systems thinkers from (b) to participate in pol.is, for example.  Their statements would be subject to the same crowdsourced judgment as everyone else’s statements but might have a better chance of fitting into the “consensus” category if — since they are grounded in holistic perspectives — they tap into dynamics and insights that lie under or transcend all the diverse clusters of perspective on an issue.

From Quantity to Quality:  “Digesting Deep Diversity” transcends “Bigger Factions Winning”

A profoundly transformative democratic dynamic in vTaiwan which has not been much commented on is its shift from competing quantities to integrating qualities.

Traditional democracy is grounded in majoritarian rule and in competition for the votes, money, partisan activists, and other resources to empower it.  Thus, traditional democracy is fundamentally quantitative. It matters tremendously if your group has more members and more money and more media than “the other side”.

Public opinion polls reveal which opinion or option has the most support.  Public demonstrations organize “the masses” under the assumption that the more people who show up on the streets, the more impact the demonstration will have.  Partisans debate to convince observers to support their side of the argument.

This kind of system leans heavily towards oversimplification, manipulation and battles as players struggle to have the most power and influence.  It is not designed to generate wisdom. Although in their best forms, adversarial systems can generate compromises which can prevent the worst forms of collective folly, they are still transactional and depend on a quantitative sense of fair trade rather than on qualitatively discovering unforeseen approaches that tap the best of both worlds beyond all positions.

For wisdom, we need to treat our differences as a resource that can help us “consider more of what needs to be considered”.  In the wise democracy paradigm, defeating an opponent rather than tapping and integrating their “piece of the truth” is a tragic waste.

vTaiwan, in its focus on diversity (as noted previously), moves beyond win/lose democratic forms where “part-isans” (parts of the whole) compete for which piece of the truth will dominate.  Perhaps most fascinating, the pol.is algorithm reduces a hundred identical responses to one dot in its cluster map, meaning that uniqueness is favored over mobilized masses in determining which differences and consensuses will be highlighted for further reflection.  This reduces the importance of vast or “fairly representative” groups of participants in favor of getting clear on where diversity and consensus exist. In pol.is even one person can easily have an impact if their statement has considerable wisdom-value.

In future efforts to enhance its wisdom-generating capacities, pol.is could delve deeper into its complexity of responses, identifying where proposals – especially those with already broad support – could be strengthened even further if dissenters’ concerns get explicitly addressed through another layer of pol.is crowdsourced deliberation.  The positive use of dissent – through addressing dissenters’ concerns – is one of the most direct approaches to what I call “digesting deep diversity” and one of the key bridges from competitive-majoritarian-quantitative democracy that generates winners to collaborative-holistic-qualitative democracy that generates wisdom.

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