Taiwan has brought thousands of citizens into the legislative decision-making process through vTaiwan, an online engagement system. Through social media, users can comment and rate suggestions on policy issues, with the government agreeing to use consensus to shape legislation. vTaiwan helped the government break a six-year stalemate on online alcohol sales in a few months.
Results & Impact
vTaiwan has helped set rules on Uber’s introduction to Taiwan and pass legislation regulating online alcohol sales. About 1,000 people are engaged on each issue.
Taiwan government, gOv.tw, pol.is, Slido
Following the Sunflower Movement protests of April 2014, launched by student and civic groups over the government's passage of a trade agreement with China, the Taiwanese government developed vTaiwan in conjunction with the gOv.tw tech community. vTaiwan uses digital questionnaires and a closed comment rating mechanism to gauge citizens’ views on policy issues. Threads are created and distributed via Facebook to stakeholder groups, with users invited to post comments on how government policies should be shaped in relation to specific issues. Rather than replying to existing posts, users rate them by clicking "agree," "disagree" or "pass/unsure." Each user’s ratings are then tallied in real time, creating clusters around every suggestion and allowing areas of consensus to emerge. Meetings between ministers and experts are held to review the outcomes and the results published. The government then either drafts legislation based on the consensus, or explains why it is has rejected it.
Cost & Value
Running since 2015
Scaling an online forum into an accessible, effective consultation tool proved difficult. After an early engagement mechanism modelled on traditional internet forums proved ineffective, vTaiwan adopted a closed comment rating system called pol.is. In this system, users responded to previous comments by rating them, providing information that could easily map levels of support for specific policy principles.
Efforts are underway by regional authorities to adopt the system locally. There has also been interest from other Asian countries in replicating it.
Taiwan is crowdsourcing legislation with a civic engagement system, vTaiwan, through which citizens use social media to suggest and rate proposed policies.
Since its rollout in 2015, vTaiwan has had a significant impact on policy. The platform helped shape a bill to regulate Uber and broke a six-year stalemate on online alcohol sales in a few months.
Its development and implementation reflect the Taiwanese government’s commitment to improving transparency in the wake of the Sunflower Movement protests, which took place in April 2014. Demonstrators protested the passage of a trade agreement with China and stormed the National Assembly. At the heart of the movement was the gOv.tw community. This was a group of tech activists that came together in 2012 with the rise of social media to promote the use of technology and transparency in government. They became increasingly prominent in the wake of the protests, prompting government officials to reach out to them to further public involvement in law-making.
“After the movement, the government realised people had a lot of opinions about public policy and were willing to open up the doors, that was how everything started,” said Shu-Yang Lin, a Public Service System Architect for the Public Digital Innovation Space in Taiwan. “From that moment, government and civil society came together.”
It was from this engagement process that vTaiwan was born. In December 2014, Minister Jaclyn Tsai challenged participants at a government hackathon to create a system that would allow citizens to be more involved in the policy development process, adding that the government would agree to consultations if a workable framework could be developed.
First launched in 2015, the system initially struggled to overcome the difficulties of scaling online discussion forums into an effective policy engagement platform. vTaiwan relied on a forum that connected citizens to profiles linked to government departments, with moderators overseeing all posts and coordinating responses. However, the system struggled to engage a wide audience (less than a hundred people were generally consulted on any topic) and the platform made it difficult to gain useable insights into policy issues.
vTaiwan’s success came when the forum model was replaced with the pol.is system. Unlike standard message boards, it does not allow users to reply to comments. Threads are created to debate specific policy issues and members of the public then respond with statements about principles they believe should shape legislation. Instead of commenting on others’ statements, users rate them. This is done by clicking “agree,” “disagree” or “pass/unsure.” Each user’s ratings are then tallied in real-time. Pol.is visually groups respondents around statements, displaying areas of greatest agreement.
There are two key advantages to this mechanism. The first is its promotion of consensus. By preventing comments from degenerating into debates, and keeping them to simple statements about policy principles, echo chambers don’t emerge. Instead, different groupings form around core principles that achieve broad consensus and cut across the positions held by different sections of the populace, creating an effective basis for policy.
The other major advantage in its design is the ability to equally weigh views. Internet forums often disproportionately represent those who comment the most, reflecting the loudest rather than most widely held opinions. By integrating a rating system, it allows those who prefer to engage with policy in a different way to have an equal say. This is particularly significant as only around one in 10 of the users on the system post anything. Its ability to accommodate the other 90% of users equally reflects part of the reason pol.is has been able to garner a much broader audience than the previous forum-based system.
The vTaiwan process begins with weekly hackathons, which bring together members of the government and tech community, giving citizens an opportunity to request consultation on a policy issue. If the government agrees, the vTaiwan process is launched.
“Every case on vTaiwan starts from the commitment of the government and the commitment of the community,” said Lin. “That is the only requirement to start a case.”
Threads are initiated by the government and disseminated across Facebook groups thought to contain key stakeholders. The opinion gathering phase typically lasts between one month and six weeks, after which key findings are debated through a public meeting of government figures and members of the tech community, which is broadcast live. After this, face-to-face consultations are held with stakeholders and experts, with the results posted online. Legislation is then drafted based on key consensus principles that emerge from the process. If this does not happen, the government explains why it has rejected them.
As well as pol.is, vTaiwan also uses Slido, a questionnaire tool that lets the government generate answers to specific, detailed questions. The two don’t operate together – pol.is or Slido are chosen depending on how much consensus exists around a particular topic.
“When things are more concrete we don’t actually need to use pol.is,” said Lin. “Pol.is is more powerful when things are not clear yet and people can freely comment with their ideas. With pol.is, it is really easy to gather consensus and understand the types of opinions people have.”
vTaiwan’s success at the national level has prompted regional governments and other Asian countries to consider adopting similar systems. Training camps have also been set up to expand understanding of the system among public servants. They boast a satisfaction rate over 97%. Pol.is is also open source, enabling government agencies across the world to make use of the software. Efforts are also underway to expand vTaiwan to include groups lacking internet access.
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