Giving Citizens Power through Digital Democracy

19th February 2020 - Carl Miller (Commissioner)

If you’re here, you are – I’ll bet – following the work of Newham’s Commission.

You might be angry about what politics today looks like, or furious about something you want politics to fix. Or maybe you’re just optimistic about what’s around the corner.

You might, also, be a little like the protestors who one fateful night in 2014, began to demand that democracy be remade. Half a world away from Newham, they were in Taiwan, but might be much closer to us all than it first looks.

It began in 2014 when Taiwan was split by a trade bill. Similar to Hong Kong today, many feared the law would bring their country closer to China. The Government promised to listen to the anger and fear that the bill had raised. But then they simply didn’t. No consensus, no listening, the ruling party simply began to rush the bill through Parliament. After all, they had the votes to get it through.

Protestors began to gather around Taiwan’s Parliament. Why hadn’t the government listened? Was there a different, better way of doing things? They scaled a fence, pushed the guards aside, kicked the doors of the Parliament open and physically occupied the building they felt so isolated from. It became known as the Sunflower Revolution.

“I was there the night before they burst in” Audrey Tang told me. She was part of Taiwan’s burgeoning scene of civic hackers who joined the protests. They stayed in Parliament for days, then weeks. Finally the Government backed down. But that was the beginning, not the end of the story.

In the wake of the occupation, the government came to Taiwan’s civic hackers to ask for their help. They wanted to listen better, and in exchange offered that most precious and elusive of resources: power. If new ways could be forged to listen to people, then what was heard would, they promised, be acted on.

Some civic hackers stepped into government and Tang – a leading member – became Taiwan’s Digital Minister. Their aim was to design a new process that people from across political divides could join and express their view within. But crucially, the process had to produce a consensus that the government could turn into new laws and regulations.

Their creation was called v, or virtual, Taiwan. And soon after its inception, it faced its first stern test: the regulation of Uber. It was expending quickly in Taiwan but was disrupting laws and regulations causing – again – a bitterly polarised dispute.

Consensus was what the civic hackers needed to find, but in Taiwan as everywhere else, the internet was widely seen to be part of the problem. “Social media mostly divides people” Tang told me. “But the same technology can also be designed in a way that allows people to converge and form a polity”.

To break the deadlock, vTaiwan invited groups from across the debate – drivers, riders, industry reps – to join a single online space; a platform called Pol.is. As with any social media platform, pol.is let all its users draft statements about how Uber should or shouldn’t be regulated and either agree or disagree with the statements drafted by others.

The first big difference however was that Polis lifted everyone out of their echo chambers. It churned through the many axes of agreements and disagreements that soon emerged and drew a map to show everyone exactly where they were in the debate.

The result was predictable. In this, as in almost every debate, a number of different groups, with different attitudes, emerged. Taxi drivers, Uber drivers, Uber passengers, and other passengers formed four poles in the corners of the map.

The second big difference was the messages that pol.is showed to people. There was no reply button, so people couldn’t troll each other’s posts. And rather than showing the messages that divided each of the four groups, pol.is simply made them invisible. It gave oxygen instead to statements that found support across different groups as well as within them. “Change the information structure,” Colin Megill, one of its founders, told me, “and you can tweak power.”

Technically, the tweak was small, but politically its effect was enormous. Rather than grandstanding or insults, it actually gamified the finding of consensus. “People compete to bring up the most nuanced statements that can win most people across,” Tang told me, “they spend far more time discovering their commonalities rather than going down a rabbit hole on a particular issue.”

The debate continued and as people drafted more nuanced statements pol.is showed that the four groups had become two. “Invariably, within three weeks or four,” Tang told me, “we always find a shape where most people agree on most of the statements, most of the time”. Then, after a month, ‘consensus items’ emerged, that enjoyed near-unanimous support. One, with 95 per cent support across all groups, read: “The government should leverage this opportunity to challenge the taxi industry to improve their management and quality control systems so that drivers and riders would enjoy the same quality service as Uber.”

The third big difference was that vTaiwan translated its consensus-finding online debate into empathy-promoting meetings face-to-face. In July this year, I saw it in action on another disruptive technology – e-vehicle regulation. Everywhere you could see the careful signs of the civic hackers’ ‘interaction design’ – the room was softly lit, everyone eating food together and the only issues on the table were those pol.is already had identified as those that most people agreed with.

This was completely different, I learned, from simply voting using an app. vTaiwan gave the participants an agenda-setting power not just to determine the answer, but also to define the question. And it didn’t aim to find a majority of one side over another, but achieved consensus across them.

As divisions were turned into consensuses, the government could act. New regulation was passed, allowing both Uber to operate with licensed drivers, and regular taxis to use apps. And after Uber, it has been used to set the agenda for 11 pieces of law and regulation, with eight more waiting to be voted on, on everything from the regulation of online alcohol sales, fin-tech regulation to new laws on revenge pornography.

vTaiwan might not be the answer to improving democracy in Newham. Online debate might not be the best way of reaching people. But Taiwan’s digital democrats have a lesson for us all, nonetheless. Democracy does not have to be fossilised or frozen in any particular form. The ones that evolve may be the ones that survive, even flourish, in a world where the pressures and challenges they face are surely changing just as quickly. And whether Newham or Taiwan, the idea that democracy can change, even should change, is a very powerful place to begin.

Carl Miller – Democracy and Civic Participation Commission