vTaiwan is an open consultation process, consisting of online and in-person discussions, which brings together experts, government officials, stakeholders, and citizens to create consensus and recommendations for national legislation.
Problems and Purpose
A series of gaffes from President Ma Ying-Jeou and corruption scandals concerning graft in his inner circle wore down trust and satisfaction with Ma’s presidency. As public mistrust of the Taiwanese government grew, the government sought to restore public confidence by engaging protestors and activists. They brought them around the table with experts and government officials. By setting up a virtually based, open consultation platform, vTaiwan, the Taiwanese government engaged g0v activists (pronounced “gov-zero”), the civic technology community that had organized large-scale demonstrations against the Ma administration, which culminated in a month-long student takeover of the Taiwanese Parliament. vTaiwan brought together together various stakeholders to find consensus on often controversial issues which the government sought to address, such as UberX regulation. vTaiwan’s discussions sought to craft policies adopted by the government or to be passed through the Parliament as legislation.
Origins and Development
The Sunflower Movement sprouted in March and April 2014 to protest the Ma administration’s fast-tracking of the Cross-Strait Service Trade Agreement with China. This movement was organized by g0v and other student activists and enjoyed widespread public support .[i] To respond to protestors and rebuild legitimacy, the Ma’s Kuomintang government appealed directly to civil society and activists to devise a system of state-civil society cooperation. Their outreach efforts included engaging in dialogue with activists and attending g0v-organized hackathons, which were events in which attendees would work together to propose solutions to policy problems.
At a g0v Hackathon in December 2014, Minister without Portfolio Jaclyn Tsai asked for volunteers to “create a platform for rational discussion and deliberation of policy issues that the entire nation could participate in.”[ii] The digital activists built vTaiwan, an open consultation process which brought together experts, government officials, stakeholders, and citizens to create consensus and recommendations for national legislation.[iii] [iv] vTaiwan set a precedent of participation-oriented reforms in Taiwan brought about by the government and civil society. Subsequent reforms included the Join platform in 2015 and participatory budgeting processes in 2016.[v]
Since its inception, the government has used vTaiwan to address thirty issues, including online alcohol sales (2016), UberX regulation (2016), and policies encouraging a “sharing economy” (2018).[vi] While theoretically unlimited in scope, the incumbent Tsai administration has largely used vTaiwan to crowdsource legislation related to the digital economy.
Volunteers from g0v and the Science and Technology Law Institute, making up the “Coherent Blended Volition,” organize vTaiwan, forming one of the two key branches of support for this program. A task force of g0v members work together to administrate the program and are responsible for its upkeep. These g0v volunteers also update the content that g0v uses, for example on its website. Individuals from the Science and Technology Law Institute, which is a government-affiliated NGO, are responsible for making government and citizen proposals accessible to the public. These volunteers strip the proposals or jargon and ensure that citizens not familiar with these issues can understand the case and its arguments.[vii]
Support from the national government extends beyond the Science and Technology Law Institute’s responsibilities as vTaiwan receives its funding from the government. (More information about the budget for vTaiwan could not be found.) Government buy-in, usually in the form of issue sponsoring or general approval of action on a topic, is a pre-requisite for support for vTaiwan’s procession on a given issue.[viii] Despite this, many analysts consider vTaiwan to be independent of the government because volunteers and citizens ultimately shape the results of the system. These analysts argue that government buy-in is important for the success of the system.
Participant Recruitment and Selection
vTaiwan’s mailing list includes 200,000 individuals as of 2020.[ix] This mailing list is publicized and those who wish to enroll are free to do so. Additionally, as mentioned later, organizers also engage in targeted recruitment of stakeholders in their attempts to expand the mailing list. Not all who are enrolled, however, actively participate in the program, which is defined as those who “provid[e] comments, opinions, or ask questions to ministries.”[x] According to a 2017 NestaReport, discussions on vTaiwan’s Pol.is platform have included as few as 350 participants and as many as 2,300 participants.[xi] These participants are self-selected, and most participants likely receive notice about weekly hackathon meetings from the mailing list (though all Taiwanese are welcome to participate). Thus, participants are likely motivated to discuss and passionate about issues at hand. This recruitment and selection process, however, likely leaves behind less educated, less wealthy stakeholders or those who may belong to marginalized communities.
In addition to citizen participants, vTaiwan organizers network to recruit and invite relevant experts, representatives from organized stakeholder groups, and government officials. More practically, this takes the form of ministerial networks from the government, g0v’s activist circle, vTaiwan’s mailing list, and paid advertising, especially on social media. Organizers may target certain individuals and ask them to invite others from their own social network.[xii]
How it Works: Process, Interaction, and Decision-Making
vTaiwan uses deliberation and open consultation as a means to reach consensus and make recommendations for the government. g0v reached this method by centering “multistakeholderism,” which refers to the varied positions that stakeholders took on issues, which in turn would divide society. g0v believed that direct democratic reforms like referendums had only further divided Taiwanese society. Instead, they proposed that vTaiwan should allow facilitators to have more control over deliberative forums and questioning in expert sessions.
g0v has also identified consensus as the goal of all action.[xiii] They believe that this fostered healthy political dialogue and incentivized nuanced thought which would gain greater approval. vTaiwan’s methods and tools encourage and “gamify” consensus, as discussed in the next section. This rough consensus, as identified by the computer system Pol.is through audience voting, then goes on to shape the focus of following discussions and eventual drafted policy or legislation. While there is no requirement that vTaiwan deliberations end in consensus, consensus is crucial for vTaiwan’s latter stages.
To encourage self-scrutiny, greater understanding, and consensus, facilitators employ the Focused Conversation Methods. This method is also known as the ORID Method, where “O” stands for the “objective stage” where participants share facts and data, “R” stands for the “reflective stage” where participants share feelings and emotions, “I” stands for the “interpretive stage” where participants share opinions and values, and “D” stands for the “decisional stage” where participants reach consensus and finalize decisions.[xiv] As following sections describe, facilitators are expected to shepherd discussion, collect and provide resources for participants to make informed choices, invite stakeholders to the discussion, and encourage consensus-building.
The vTaiwan process involves four stages: (1) Proposal, (2) Opinion, (3) Reflection, and (4) Legislation. Organizers emphasize that this process is flexible, and that deliberation and consultation may lead to reversals to previous stages.
The Proposal Stage. vTaiwan begins discussion of topics with their weekly Wednesday mini-Hackathon, which is held in both virtually and in-person. Because of vTaiwan’s relatively wide reach, “programmers, developers, public servants, journalists, scholars, legal specialists and students” have all regularly attended these mini-Hackathons. These participants may submit an issue for discussion to relevant government bodies, who decide whether they wish to continue discussion of the issue, and vTaiwan facilitators, who can choose to “adopt” the issue. Without support from these two groups, the vTaiwan process will not go forward. If the process does go forward, participants discuss these issues and jot down notes on HackPad (a real-time collaborative tool), research information and present on SlideShare, and identify stakeholders to invite to future meetings.
The Opinion Stage. In the next – month-long – stage, organizers publish documents, research, and presentations relevant to the issue at hand on the vTaiwan website, providing a glossary to aide comprehension as well.[xv] They then kick off deliberation with “rolling questionnaires,” which ask stakeholders about experiences of and knowledge about the topic, as well as any other stakeholders they would invite to fill out the questionnaire. Organizers then create an online forum where participants can ask questions using Discourse to receive government input within a week. They can also post statements and mark “agree”, “disagree,” “pass,” and whether they believe another statement is important. Pol.is, the other software used in this stage, tries to build consensus by visually mapping these opinions. This map, called an opinion landscape, uses machine learning to highlight main camps of opinion, points of consensus, and non-mainstream opinions. These visuals incentivize participants to create statements that are nuanced, consensus-driven, and likely to be featured. At the end of this stage, organizers produce raw and analyzed reports of forum interactions to be published publicly and sent to relevant governmental bodies. Statements around which there is a rough consensus and polarizing statements are highlighted in these reports and go on to shape discussion topics in the following stages.[xvi]
The Reflection Stage. Two in-person meetings determine whether another month of opinion should be held or whether they can proceed with the reflection stage. This stage invites key active stakeholders and experts to an in-person consultation, which is also streamed online on Livehouse.in and YouTube where participants can ask questions using a chat feature. The consultation is carefully planned with specific attention paid to finding a facilitator, defining the issue and its scope, holding a pre-meeting between the facilitator and the government body, and creating a specific meeting agenda.[xvii] [xviii]At the meeting, the facilitator first summarizes the progress made so far, and then allows stakeholders to present and field questions. To help the public, the facilitator takes notes and projects them live and posts the livestream on Facebook where public discussion continues.[xix]
The Legislative Stage. After the reflection stage, participants and government representatives discuss the results of the previous stages and where a “rough consensus” may lie. Organizers take this rough consensus and turn it into a policy which then is presented as a guideline or policy for a government agency or legislation in Parliament. These two options force the government to either accept the results of the process or to explain why it is not accepting the suggestions.[xx]
Influence, Outcomes, and Effects
The vTaiwan process offers an example of a successful and structured deliberation. The government has executed over 80 percent of vTaiwan’s proposals. While vTaiwan’s use has not been particularly broad reaching, it leads to deep consultation and higher likelihood of action. It also has allowed the public to ask their government questions, which are answered swiftly. The public has also broadened realms of conversation. For example, deliberations on digital technology led organizers to initiate a separate conversation about nonconsensual pornography, which generated widespread discussion and action to address this problem.[xxi] Analysts, participants, and local media have also praised vTaiwan for its ability to bridge online and offline formats,[xxii] as well as its ability to recreate the consensus-driven social interacts not normally found on social networking sites,[xxiii] both important considerations for the contemporary, post-COVID world.
Originally designed to increase the government’s legitimacy, vTaiwan’s limited scope might limit any conclusions we may draw about a legitimizing effect.[xxiv] Seven years on, however, activists and media still see vTaiwan as a way for the people to have a say in government decisions and a way for the government to seek legitimacy, such as in a 2020 controversy on electronic ID cards.[xxv] vTaiwan successfully provided a medium for the government, civil society, and the people to communicate.
Analysis and Lessons Learned
At the core of vTaiwan and its successes is the cooperation between government and civil society. Because of the government’s role in vTaiwan’s developing and funding, vTaiwan has enjoyed credibility among the general public for being effective. Additionally, the government has required all ministries to have “participation officers” who engage with vTaiwan and who answer participant questions within a week, [xxvi] which creates a channel of listening and understanding between the government and its constituents. vTaiwan can also draw on government networks to invite important stakeholders to the table, who may not engage otherwise.
Despite the government’s role, vTaiwan also enjoys a reputation of neutrality because g0v volunteers handle its facilitation. This encourages people of all political backgrounds to join vTaiwan and allows vTaiwan to be flexible in its implementation as well.[xxvii] Some, however, have voiced concerns that the government’s ability to decline issues does present problems with how independent the process is. More recently, they point to the Tsai government’s limited use of vTaiwan and withdrawal of vTaiwan’s legislation as an example of this.[xxviii]
Those learning from this process should pay attention to accessibility and participant selection. Since 85 percent of Taiwanese people use the Internet and 90 percent are on Facebook, vTaiwan’s online components appear accessible.[xxix] But, because of its online nature and participant self-selection, participants likely have higher socioeconomic statuses. Moreover, vTaiwan’s dependence on networking means that participants and invited stakeholders may not be representative of the whole population. All this might harm vTaiwan’s legitimacy in the eyes of the public.
All in all, vTaiwan can be considered a successful example of an open consultation democratic innovation that has been cited internationally by media outlets such as Wired,[xxx] the MIT Technology Review,[xxxi] and Slate.[xxxii] To adjust this to other contexts, however, requires understanding of internet access, and new implementations of similar programs should consider the limits of participant self-selection and over-reliance on political networks. This being said, if one values voices that are invested in a given issue rather than a representative set of participants, inviting known stakeholders and self-selected participants is helpful.
[i] “VTaiwan: Using Digital Technology to Write Digital Laws,” GovLab (New York University, October 14, 2020), https://congress.crowd.law/files/vtaiwan-case-study.pdf.
[iii] Yu-Tang Hsiao et al., “VTaiwan: An Empirical Study of Open Consultation Process in Taiwan,” Center for Open Science (Center for Open Science (Public Digital Innovation Space/Polis/Composites Collective), July 4, 2018), https://osf.io/jnq8u/#!. 1.
[iv] “VTaiwan: Using Digital Technology to Write Digital Laws.”
[v] Yu-Tang Hsiao et al., “VTaiwan: An Empirical Study of Open Consultation Process in Taiwan.” 1.
[vi] “VTaiwan.tw - 數位經濟法規線上諮詢,” vTaiwan.tw (vTaiwan), accessed March 7, 2021, https://vtaiwan.tw/.
[vii] “VTaiwan: Using Digital Technology to Write Digital Laws.”
[viii] Yu-Tang Hsiao et al., “VTaiwan: An Empirical Study of Open Consultation Process in Taiwan.” 4.
[ix] Chand Rajendra-Nicolucci and Ethan Zuckerman, “Civic Logic: Social Media with Opinion and Purpose,” Knight First Amendment Institute (Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University, November 20, 2020), https://knightcolumbia.org/content/civic-logic-social-media-with-opinion-and-purpose.
[x] Julie Simon et al., “Digital Democracy: The Tools Transforming Political Engagement,” Nesta.org.uk (Nesta, February 2017), https://s3.amazonaws.com/participedia.prod/89a7a89d-cf6b-488f-ad5c-2623795d6e68-Nesta%20Digital%20Democracy%20Case%20Studies. 30.
[xiii] Carl Miller, “Taiwan Is Making Democracy Work Again. It's Time We Paid Attention,” November 26, 2019, https://www.wired.co.uk/article/taiwan-democracy-social-media.
[xiv] Yu-Tang Hsiao et al., “VTaiwan: An Empirical Study of Open Consultation Process in Taiwan.” 4.
[xv] Julie Simon et al., “Digital Democracy: The Tools Transforming Political Engagement.” 30.
[xvi] “VTaiwan: Using Digital Technology to Write Digital Laws.”
[xvii] Claudina Sarahe and Darshana Narayanan, “In Search of 21st Century Democracy: Two Weeks in Taipei: Civicist,” Civic Hall (Civic Hall, December 15, 2017), https://civichall.org/civicist/two-weeks-in-taipei/.
[xviii] “VTaiwan: Using Digital Technology to Write Digital Laws.”
[xxiii] Jia-hong Kuo, “打破 Facebook 同溫層，VTaiwan 用「演算法」讓台灣人找出爭議中的共識 (Escaping Facebook's Echo Chamber, VTaiwan Uses an Algorithm to Allow Taiwanese People to Find Consensus in Conflict) ,” TechOrange (TechOrange, November 29, 2019), https://buzzorange.com/techorange/2019/11/29/vtaiwan-democracy-tech/.
[xxiv] Legitimacy concerns also come in the form of participant selection, which I will get later on in this case study.
[xxv] Wei (Azim) Hung and Brian Hioe, “VTaiwan Should Be Used to Address the Electronic ID Card Controversy,” New Bloom Magazine (New Bloom Magazine, June 17, 2020), https://newbloommag.net/2020/06/17/vtaiwan-eid-discussion/.
[xxvi] “VTaiwan: Using Digital Technology to Write Digital Laws.”
[xxvii] Julie Simon et al., “Digital Democracy: The Tools Transforming Political Engagement.” 31.
[xxviii] Chris Horton, “The Simple but Ingenious System Taiwan Uses to Crowdsource Its Laws,” MIT Technology Review (MIT Technology Review, April 2, 2020), https://www.technologyreview.com/2018/08/21/240284/the-simple-but-ingenious-system-taiwan-uses-to-crowdsource-its-laws/.
[xxix] “VTaiwan: Using Digital Technology to Write Digital Laws.”
[xxx] Carl Miller, “Taiwan Is Making Democracy Work Again. It's Time We Paid Attention.”
[xxxi] Chris Horton, “The Simple but Ingenious System Taiwan Uses to Crowdsource Its Laws.”
[xxxii] Jordan Sandman and Ben Gregori, “How Tech Tools Helped Taiwanese Activists Turn a Social Movement into Real Policy Change,” Slate Magazine (Slate, September 21, 2020), https://slate.com/technology/2020/09/black-lives-matter-taiwan-sunrise-movement-civic-participation.html.