vTaiwan (Part 5) – Lessons for Government-Engaged Popular Deliberation

How could we generate vTaiwan-like citizen- and stakeholder-engaged government elsewhere? In this post I explore the nature of government engagement with participatory deliberation in collaboration with other civil society actors. First I describe the nature of vTaiwan’s connections between government and civil society and then I compare it with three other leading examples of government-sponsored civic deliberation.

As you know, I have been recently fascinated by vTaiwan’s innovative approach to public engagement in actual government. Since the vTaiwan approach has arisen from its unique cultural, historic, and geopolitical context, we can’t just transplant it into different places around the world. That said, vTaiwan offers many lessons that can guide us if we seek to manifest highly participatory and empowered forms of engagement in various democratic, quasi-democratic, or pseudo-democratic contexts.

vTaiwan is a civic sector community with deep ties to – and some shared personnel in – Taiwan’s government. A number of activists and hactivists from the 2014 Sunflower Movement now hold government posts while remaining active members of the vTaiwan and g0v (“gov-zero” civic hacker) communities. On the government side, every agency (or ministry) is mandated to have at least one full-time staff member working directly with civil society stakeholders and networks.

vTaiwan’s jurisdiction is limited to digital policy and regulation. However, this very porous category can embrace a vast range of issues, a factor symbolized by the digital minister’s position being “without portfolio”, meaning they can involve themselves with the digital matters of any other ministry. Given the extent to which our societies and economies operate increasingly through digital technologies, their potential realm of action is vast.

On the other hand, this surface limitation helps insulate them from battles over social issues like gay marriage and controversial historic monuments, while leaving them free to informally collaborate with fellow civic hackers who occupy other relevant government positions that do tackle those issues. They also participate in promoting general government reforms that enhance vTaiwan’s four “pillars of open government” – transparency, participation, accountability and inclusion – which set the stage for greater public engagement around all issues in the future.

vTaiwan has engaged primarily with government agencies rather than with parliament. They view “the citizenry” largely through the lens of “stakeholders”. In other words, while providing broad public access to their information and deliberations, vTaiwan focuses on engaging people who are interested in the specific issues at hand rather than on engaging “the general public” (the way public opinion polls, elections and juries do). Given vTaiwan’s mandate and primary partnerships with career public servants rather than elected officials, it is natural that they do not think in terms of “the electorate”.

While vTaiwan activities are largely funded by government, they are entirely self-organized. All organizing energy comes from interested individual stakeholders, individual officials and individual citizens. The government staff associated with vTaiwan – specifically the Digital Minister’s Office – provides support services for whatever initiatives garner enough interest and organizing energy within the the active vTaiwan community. The only conditions placed on access to vTaiwan’s deliberative resources are that an initiative get sponsors both from inside and outside the government and that they use facilitators known and trusted in the vTaiwan community. Within that community – and especially in their shared online spaces and periodic hackathons – the distinction between government and civic actors is often blurred: They are all working to realize the same enjoyable, productive participatory culture.

This differs significantly from so many other government programs for citizen engagement. I find it interesting to contemplate the roles played by mandate, sponsorship and engagement targets in official public or stakeholder deliberative initiatives. The following four examples show very different combinations of these factors.

Of course many approaches exist and are possible other than those presented below. I offer these four just to open our eyes to the potential significance of these different factors. In every case where government-sponsored civic engagement initiatives are being advocated or developed, I believe it may be wise to consider the strategic implications of various forms these factors may take in the specific social-political-governmental contexts within which the innovation is being developed. A particular variation may be more acceptable, inspiring, or potent in one context or developmental stage than another. Here is a quick inspection of my four examples:

1. Oregon’s Citizen Initiative Review

* Who participates in what: One or two dozen randomly selected voters in a week-long citizen jury-like process which anyone can witness in person. Their findings are usually covered by news media and read by thousands of voters.
* Power: The CIR reviews ballot initiatives and reports their findings to the voters in the official voter information booklet.
* Who initiates, funds and manages it: A CIR deliberative council’s activities – while authorized by the government – are initiated, organized and funded by an independent nonprofit foundation.
* Issue mandate: Any issue that is covered by a ballot initiative.

COMMENTS: The fact that the government does not provide funding means that only a few ballot initiatives can be reviewed in any given election cycle, undermining the moderating influence the institution could have on people generating ballot initiatives in the first place. But that same fact makes it easier for cash-strapped governments to approve it as an institution and, though its grassroots funding, it can get tied closer to the voting population.

2. Vorarlberg, Austria’s Civic Councils

* Who participates in what: One or two dozen randomly selected citizens explore an issue in a dynamically facilitated council and, upon completing their deliberations, report out to a public meeting featuring interactive conversations among all the attending citizens and officials. Both the Civic Council and the activities of a subsequent stakeholder-staffed Responder Group are often covered by news media.
* Power: Civic Councils deliberate, report to the public and provide guidance to the subsequent multi-sector Responder Group who are officially tasked with implementing the Civic Council’s recommendations.
* Who initiates, funds and manages it: The state governor’s Office of Future-Related Issues (which historically organizes many different forms of citizen engagement).
* Issue mandate: Any major issue being addressed by the Office of Future-Related Issues.

COMMENTS: In some instances publicized Civic Council findings have created a political context within which politicians feel freer to act more in the spirit of those findings, rather than being constrained by dysfunctional partisanship and heated political debates. The Dynamic Facilitation used in Civic Councils is a powerful process to evoke shared insights (quality consensus) from divergent perspectives. The empowered and answerable Responder Group ensures that there will be notable impact. To institute both innovations – the Civic Council and the Resp0nder Group – probably requires that public officials be notably receptive and relatively sophisticated, not unduly attached to old ways and structures. However, civil society players and/or multi-sector stakeholder networks could organize effective versions of these innovations even without government support.

3. Denmark’s Consensus Conferences

* Who participates in what: A demographically balanced volunteer citizen council (who may know little about their assigned issue) do most of their expert interviews in an interactive public conference setting followed by private deliberations to a consensus. When they are done, they report out – again in a conference setting. The conference settings are usually attended by media and issue stakeholders as well as the public.
* Power: Consensus Conferences deliberate and report their findings and recommendations to the public and Parliament, which may or may not abide by their recommendations.
* Who initiates, funds and manages it: Parliament convenes and finances each Consensus Conference, which is run by the parliament’s Board of Technology office.
* Issue mandate: Controversial technological issues selected by Parliament to augment parliamentary deliberations.

COMMENTS: Danish Consensus Conferences were pioneered in the 1980s prior to the emergence of the internet’s publicity potential. At that time the public nature of the conference format was a true innovation, along with the consensus outcome requirement. Few if any Consensus Conferences have been held in the last decade and none, as far as I can tell, in the officially convened advisory capacity for which they were originally designed. I think their primary relevance on this list is to note that the combination of interactive public visibility and advisory role may be attractive to public officials who want to engage the public but are wary of giving up too much power.

4. vTaiwan

* Who participates in what: Anyone interested in a given issue – notably including specifically targeted issue stakeholders – can join in various self-organized online and face-to-face interactions. Conscious transparency of every step of every process – combined with attractive, interactive media – serve to expand the range of engaged participants.
* Power: This is a collaborative consultative process designed to help government ministries (agencies) create effective regulations. At a minimum, ministers are required to publicly respond to expressions of consensus that emerge from deliberations, but such responses are often a minor subtext to the larger flow of recursive, interactive deliberations through which formal regulations take form.
* Who initiates, funds and manages it: Anyone can initiate a vTaiwan consultation process if they have a minimum measure of community organizing support. Funding is provided by the Digital Minister’s Office – aka “Public Digital Innovation Space” (PDIS) – for qualified efforts, largely through the provision of physical and virtual spaces and technologies that enable self-organization. Such self-organizing is done by the vTaiwan civil society community under the auspices of the Digital Minister’s Office (which facilitates but does not control what happens).
* Issue mandate: Officially, any issue related to digital technology and of concern to one or more ministries. Yet many vTaiwan community members engage with other issues unofficially using publicly available organizing and deliberation tools and/or get involved in deliberative initiatives being undertaken by other parts of the government on other topics.

COMMENTS:

* vTaiwan embraces a level of self-organized, non-directed, cross-boundary deliberative collaboration that (as far as I know) exists nowhere else in the world and may be hard to comprehend for traditional advocates of deliberative democracy and public participation. Its grounding in a grassroots, open source, initiative-rich civic tech community – and its brilliance at crowdsourcing information and insight – evoke the trust of ordinary citizens and stakeholders.

* The fact that vTaiwan frames itself as “consultative” with the explicit intention of building trust and easing and improving the lives of public servants creates a spirit of mutuality that, if authentic, can greatly increase the chance for creative collaboration between government and civil society. This factor helps balance the previous point about crowd-sourced self-organization whose dynamic bottom-up energy may make control-oriented government officials uneasy.

* vTaiwan is seemingly limited to the realm of digital issues. This may inspire others to institute deliberative activity within other issue confines relevant to their contexts. Such limits could provide comfort to public officials while appealing to the public and certain stakeholders (depending on the issue constraints).

* Targeting “stakeholders” rather than “the public” may also open up possibilities, although complementary initiatives that include both engagement frames – “stakeholders” and “citizens” – may be most innovative of all. Note that a focus on stakeholders naturally aligns the deliberative effort with career public servants whereas the focus on “the public” naturally involves elected officials, especially the legislature.

* The principle that public officials must publicly respond to the recommendations of public deliberations – but not necessarily be bound by them – empowers civil society participants without directly challenging government power (although a government’s legitimacy can be weakened to the extent that it repeatedly ignores thoughtfully deliberated citizen recommendations).

* The presence of a vibrant civic hacker community greatly enhances the range of possibilities for public and stakeholder deliberations in the spirit of vTaiwan even in the absence of government sponsorship. Such possibilities are also supported by the existence of collaborative multi-sector, multi-stakeholder and/or multi-scale networks, for whom vTaiwan-style sophisticated forms of public and stakeholder deliberation provide powerful means for expanded engagement and wiser, more collaborative strategic action. (This item is not directly inspired by vTaiwan, but is an obvious complement to the existence of vibrant civic hacker communities.)

* The dynamism of the Sunflower Movement’s occupation of parliament is a clear example of nonviolent people-power in stimulating government receptiveness to public engagement. Note that that 2014 occupation was not only a protest but also modeled the public’s capacity to produce high quality policy decisions after well-organized and facilitated face-to-face and online deliberations. Note also their subsequent creation of parallel/shadow government structures and activities specifically to demonstrate how the government could be more thoughtful, trustworthy, participatory and effective. As a “street demonstration”, nothing beats demonstrating people-power, people-participation, and people-wisdom all at the same time!

* Radical transparency is an explicit fundamental principle of vTaiwan and a potent challenge and opportunity for anyone attempting to follow in their footsteps. It is a primary wellspring of the trust-building spirit of vTaiwan, but its practice requires a high level of integrity, inclusion and tolerance because any violation of those principles will be readily obvious to the transparent community.

* Finally, the fact that vTaiwan is creatively grounded in Taiwan’s culture and social patterns (both traditional and emerging) suggests that any attempt to emulate it will require grounding oneself in one’s very different local culture and dynamics, resulting in a different manifestation. This is the paradoxical challenge presented by vTaiwan. Inspired by its spirit and functions, we are called to generate new forms, designed to fit the ecosystems in which they are to flourish unlike any other, including vTaiwan!

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Tom Atlee, The Co-Intelligence Institute, POB 493, Eugene, OR 97440

Evoking and engaging the wisdom and resourcefulness of the whole on behalf of the whole

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