Taiwan’s first digital minister discusses role of tech in government transparency

Media Credit: Dean Whitelaw | Staff Photographer

Audrey Tang, Taiwan's first digital minister, speaks about her use of technology to increase citizen engagement with Taiwan's government at an event Tuesday.

Updated: April 24, 2019 at 1:30 a.m.

Taiwan’s inaugural digital minister discussed her use of technology to increase government transparency and public participation at the Elliott School of International Affairs Tuesday.

Audrey Tang, who was appointed to the post of digital minister in October 2016, presented the work she has done to practice “radical transparency” and encourage citizens to participate in the governing process. Tang, Taiwan’s first transgender cabinet official, said her efforts to push the government to include citizens in the decision-making process led to the establishment of an office that allows citizens to propose solutions to the government, preempting civil unrest from people who feel like their voices are not being heard.

“We meet with the protesters before they actually go to the street because maybe they just want an invitation to the kitchen, so to speak,” she said.

Tang said she has made herself accessible to the Taiwanese people by allowing anyone to apply to chat with her for 40-minute periods, provided they allow her to publish the conversation online in the interest of transparency.

She said one measure Taiwanese officials have implemented to encourage citizens to participate in government is a system called the Regulatory Sandbox, in which unregulated businesses provide information about themselves to the public to avoid fines or punishment for up to a year and citizens help determine whether that business should be regulated.

Tang added that these policy innovations encouraging participation in Taiwan’s democracy have sparked a hostile reaction from China. She said Chinese actions, like sending jets into Taiwanese air space, are not “power projections,” but “projections of insecurity.”

“This creates a contrast to the legitimacy or lack thereof in the People’s Republic of China, which is partly why the PRC has been aggressing lately,” she said.

Susan Aaronson, a research professor of international affairs, said Tang’s approach in Taiwan could improve trust in government because people can more clearly see that the government is responsive to their voice.

But she said that because governments and large corporations collect and store so much data from citizens, society must reevaluate whether openness and transparency is a goal worthy of pursuing.

“So much of our data are going to reside in companies,” she said. “That will have huge effects on democracy.”

Scott White, the director of the cybersecurity program in the College of Professional Studies, said American politicians might not be able to emulate Taiwan’s model of transparency without angering China’s leaders, who are doubling down on security and “social repression.”

“The model that our friends in Taiwan have expressed, one of openness and accountability is a utopian state for us,” he said. “But how do we get there?”

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