• Q&A
  • October 18, 2018
  • 16 minutes
  • 2

Reprogramming power: Audrey Tang is bringing hacker culture to the state

Taiwan's reforms show what happens when techies get their hands on government

Ask Audrey Tang for an interview and she’ll respond with a link to a document called the radical transparency protocol. To speak to her, you must be willing for the whole conversation to be transcribed and posted publicly online. Sure enough, when we begin our conversation, she hits record on her dictaphone as I do on mine.

Researching Tang — Taiwan’s digital minister — makes for many such unfamiliar encounters. Putting questions to g0v (pronounced “gov zero”), the community of tech radicals of which Tang is an active participant “(not a member, g0v doesn’t have “membership”)”, is done through an open online document: every g0v participant can respond to the questions. Reading through the replies is more akin to eavesdropping on a conversation than holding an interview. You provide the essay question, they discuss.

But Tang’s unconventional biography prepares you for nothing less. Tall and dressed head-to-toe in black, when we meet at London’s Grange Rochester Hotel it takes two attempts for the waiter to bring the drink she ordered, an improvised : cocoa with added ice cubes. She’s the world’s only transgender minister, a hacker, a protester, a “conservative anarchist” and a junior high school dropout. Since she first took on a government role in 2016, Tang has worked to bring radical reforms to Taiwan’s government — both the policies it enacts, and the way it makes them.

Tang and g0v’s work shows what happens when people who grew up on the internet get their hands on the building blocks of government. Public servants beyond Taiwan should watch closely: what they decide to build could be a sign of things to come.

From protester to policymaker

Tang’s entry to government in 2016 came after two tumultuous years in Taiwan, beginning with March 2014’s “Sunflower Movement” demonstrations. Activists occupied Taiwan’s legislature for 23 days in protest at the lack of public oversight for a controversial new trade deal with mainland China.

Tang took part in the protests, even helping to set up the occupation’s WiFi connection, but it was the period following which propelled her and g0v to government.

Later that year, then-digital minister Jaclyn Tsai decided to attend a g0v hackathon. These had been taking place since December 2012. The group meets to “fork’” government — to radically redesign and rebuild an existing government process or service — and from this create new tools to show citizens how the state operates.

The emphasis is on delivery: building a viable service quickly, and improving it over time. The first hack, budget.g0v.tw, made in 2012, shows Taiwan’s budget spending for the public with clear, interactive data visualisations. Everything g0v makes is open source, and can be picked up and used by anyone.

“Basically we experiment [with] what works,” wrote a g0v participant going by the username “ael” during Apolitical’s group interview with the collective. “Trial and error. No formal structure and designing process.”

Impressed by what she saw, Tsai invited g0v to participate directly with government. The immediate product of this was vTaiwan, a digital citizen participation platform designed to boost consensus rather than fuel disputes.

Citizens post comments online on what they want from new policies, but rather than respond to existing comments, they can only up or downvote them. This helps to stymie conflict and promote constructive participation.

At the next election in 2016, the incumbent government was voted out of office. The liberal Democratic Progressive Party, and with it Taiwan’s first female president, Tsai Ing-wen, was voted in. Tang, who had worked closely with Jaclyn Tsai on the development of vTaiwan, was invited by the new government to become a minister without portfolio.

It’s clear actually entering government was always part of Tang’s vision of what g0v could be. She showed me some coloured shapes on her tablet; a screenshot of join.gov.tw/acts, the latest budget visualisations site, now officially adopted by the authorities.

“Just by choosing this domain name [g0v.tw], basically it says we’re a standby solution for the government,” she said. “What we were offering, basically, is a demo theme, a theme for a demonstration for viable attendees. Because we relinquished copyright, naturally, the government just merged things right back in.”

The post-2014 years have been fertile ground for g0v’s ideas. “That’s when we started working for real,” Tang said. The 2016 election result, which saw opponents of the occupation voted out and reformers voted in, sent a “clear signal that anyone who is not for crowdsourcing and open government [will] lose the election.”

Political preparations

Similarly radical is Tang’s approach to her job. She describes herself as a “conservative anarchist”, there to tear down the barriers between people and government, but also to advance reform through give-and-take consensus, rather than conflict. For now, government still has a role to play, but it has to be completely responsive to society.

“I don’t give command nor take command, but I just act as a very reliable channel to contextualize policymaking, so that the civic society can know exactly what’s going on,” she said. It’s almost as if she has reimagined the role of a minister as that of a chatroom moderator.

In practice, this channel runs through the Public Digital Innovation Space (PDIS), Taiwan’s innovation lab, and the Participation Officers’ Network it facilitates. Both set up under Tang’s watch, public servants from across Taiwan’s departments meet each other and the public to hash out solutions to public service challenges. Tang also holds weekly office hours where citizens or public servants can come to meet her and share their opinions.

“Civil society is held at an equal place as the government,” she said. The spaces Tang and g0v have created for Taiwanese society to interact with government don’t reinforce government’s power, but are designed to make sure that power is used to achieve what people really want, not what government thinks they want.

“I don’t give command nor take command”

And being truly open means bridging the gap between those with technical skills and those without them. It’s a knotty problem that all public servants working in digital have to contend with. Though moving services online is meant to make them more efficient and user-friendly, many, in particular older people, find the shift difficult to adjust to.

For Tang this makes empathy essential: her experience as a trans woman is useful here, she says. “Having gone through two puberties, I’m more able to empathise with people, I guess,” she said. “There’s a whole notion of intersectionality, like having a organisational advantage or even privilege in one hand, but having a really vulnerable lifting experience, on the other hand, and using the former to help people in the latter.”

She cites Taiwan’s new school curriculum as good practice. Since 2014 its has reduced its emphasis on exams and the hard technical skills which are prioritised in many Asian countries’ school systems, and opened access to arts subjects. In addition, Taiwan uses digital opportunity centres in provincial areas, to help people in rural places develop tech skills.

Everything must be see-through. Transparency is a tenet which reformists in governments worldwide subscribe to; it’s the guiding principle of the Open Government Partnership and the reason so many developers publish their code online and open source. It’s g0v and Tang’s core principle. In a world where information is power, transparency helps prevent the monopolisation of information. This applies to g0v itself.

“If we look at g0vernance of g0v, since g0v has many “centers”, they theoretically check and balance each other,” wrote “chihao”, a g0v participant. “This mechanism is very tolerant, dependent on the individual judgement of what is right and wrong — to me, to argue that g0v should “limit its own power” is weird because it is not a single entity.”

g0verning

Has the experience of government moderated this radicalism? For the g0v participants I spoke to, the answer is no.

“It is interesting that some think g0v now has Audrey as ‘the bridge’ to government” wrote ael. “Audrey personally doesn’t push any policy agenda at all, not even open data. Her attitude is: if you want to change any policy, talk to the department in charge, not to her — I don’t think whether Audrey is in the office would change how g0v works, but [it] can change the government[‘s] attitudes towards digital policies and digital bureaucracy to be more open.”

Participation in government hasn’t required pragmatism or a change in direction for Tang, she says, but more of the same. It’s because, even when coding, g0v was always doing politics.

“If you look at the first few requests for comments in the Internet Society [a tech community organisation set up in the 1990s to promote open standards for the internet], it’s all politics,” she said. “They were very clear that what they’re doing is [a] new kind of policymaking — we’re very cognisant of the inherent political nature of code, and have been doing so for the past 20 years or so.”

“Having gone through two puberties, I’m more able to empathize with people, I guess”

More and more, code dictates what public servants are able to do. It processes and distributes welfare and benefit payments, and, with AI, it can help to make decisions. For Tang, it’s “physical law”, and the coder/policymaker needs to pay close attention to the way they use language: that goes for programming language as much as everyday words.

Because of this, Tang argues that policymakers should consider themselves poets. Where it’s a poet’s job to attempt to express the truth of experience through writing, the policymaker should use language or code to enact the public will, as they see it, and attempt to turn a mass of ideas and wishes into reality.

“The poetic part of it is where the radical trust and transparency really comes in.” said Tang. Public servants should be completely open, to show they’re acting in good faith. Here, withholding information, building black boxes, failing to be open about the way government’s digital systems are made or how they operate, is dishonest. And a policymaker who doesn’t work transparently or who withholds information is just a bad poet.

Participants, not members

Things have changed quickly in Taiwan, so, as my last question, I asked g0v if they’ve experienced any setbacks along the way over the last few years.

The answer, in the main is no, though “pm5” worries that “the public’s seemingly unchanged fixation towards ‘au’ [Tang’s username] and the tendencies to interpret g0v through a single person’s words” detracts from the wider work of the group.

chihao agrees. “Seriously people. g0v is not a person. g0v is not an organization with a CEO. There are so much more in g0v than au.”

The final comment comes from Audrey, or au, herself.

“Echoing chihao, like, totally.” — Anoush Darabi

(Picture credit: Flickr/Audrey Tang/Camille McOuat)

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