Digital Governance or Digital Democracy? What Can We Learn from Taiwan’s Counter-COVID-19 Measures?

Written by Boyu Chen.

Image credit: Kal.So by Louis S/Flickr, license CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Taiwan has won accolades internationally for its success in combating the COVID-19 pandemic, which is still wreaking havoc worldwide. The IT minister, Audrey Tan, has gained recognition due to the successful application of information technology to control the pandemic. This includes the digital mask map that efficiently delivers masks to citizens, along with smartphone applications for contact tracing by GPS data. The young and innovative Audrey Tan has become very popular in Japan, where many people envy Taiwan’s excellent use of information technology to counter the virus. The media here have used the term ‘digital democracy’ to describe Taiwan’s success in combating COVID-19.

With the spread of digital devices such as smartphones, along with social media becoming the main tools of communication, information and communication technology is changing how democratic politics and governance work. However, what people in Japan long for is closer to ‘digital governance’ rather than ‘digital democracy.’ Digital governance is not directly associated with democracy. In other words, good digital governance might be a double-edged sword. While people in Japan envy the efficiency of the counter pandemic measures by the Taiwanese government, they have overlooked the trade-off between digital governance and privacy protection. Unlike in Taiwan, there is no citizen ID number for the government to aggregate and centralise personal information relating to tax, social security, passports, etc. While the Japanese government has been promoting the ‘My number card’ (kojin bango), similar to an ID number, there has been strong resistance to the policy. Japanese citizens do not fully trust the government’s ability to safeguard their personal data. In contrast, Taiwanese citizens have been used to the idea that the public sector possesses their personal data for a long time. This is not unique to Taiwan; in many other countries, data collection by the government has been justified in the name of emergency measures to counter the pandemic, including using GPS data to track people’s movement.

Digital governance, especially when it comes to privacy protection, is always controversial. The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) has called for action to ensure data privacy is retained during the battle against COVID-19. It is the government’s responsibility to assure that personal data is well managed. Many questions have arisen by countermeasures used in Taiwan and deserve further consideration. For examples, is there a sunset clause for pandemic prevention measures? Should the public sector cease processing or using the personal data when the pandemic is under control, which is stipulated by the Personal Data Protection Act (PDPA)? When the specific purpose of personal data collection disappears or the time limit expires, then personal data should be deleted, stop being processed, or stop being used automatically or at the request of the party concerned. Does it comply with the PDPA to implement proper security maintenance for the retained personal data files to prevent personal data from being stolen, altered, damaged, lost or leaked?

Many experts have already pointed out that digital democracy and digital governance are sometimes conflictual. Some argue that digital governance is a ‘supplement’ to digital democracy, not the other way around. The tendency to overemphasise technology-centric governance and prioritise policy enforcement efficiency over democracy may hinder democracy itself. Some digital politics experts, like Andrew Chadwick, have suggested that the gap between digital governance and digital democracy could be narrowed by the participation of citizens in the policy process. In this regard, Taiwan might be a good model of public-private collaboration in digital governance, regardless of the previously mentioned controversies during the pandemic.

Indeed, countries like Japan, where the government just established a digital agency for digital governance, have much to learn from Taiwan. Although Taiwan has a short history of democratisation, it has been ranked number one in the world from 2015 to the present in the digital democracy ranking. In Taiwan, online election campaigns have already been active since the mid-1990s, and the government has begun to take on open data since 2011, not to mention electronic services by the public sector, aiming for open government. During the 2014 Sunflower Movement, the community g0v — organised by enthusiastic IT engineers who engaged with the open data movement — became famous for its digital skills in coordinating the movement. They distributed resources and mobilised people and were later invited by the government to take part in open government projects. As a result, Taiwan’s digital governance has been transformed, and a new model of public-private collaboration has kicked off. Audrey Tang was once a central figure in the g0v community.

The development of digital democracy in Taiwan was, therefore, not a top-down installation, but rather a bottom-up civil society initiation to promote political transparency realised through open data. With the political participation of IT engineers, government data has become more visible, easier to access and more comprehensible. The public-private collaboration has been quite successful and has created public goods for Taiwanese society. Many online platforms have been established to encourage political participation, including policy recommendations, petitions, and platforms to monitor politicians and hold them accountable. The Mask Map is a good example that showcases the achievements of the collaboration.

Digital governance with citizen engagement also allows a close watch over any possible misuse or abuse of personal information. A robust civil society is the key for digital governance to function democratically. Likely, digitalisation will only speed up in the near future, and the counter-pandemic measures serve as a stepping-stone in our journey towards efficient and democratic digital governance.

Boyu Chen is Associate Professor of University of Niigata Prefecture, Japan.

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