Written by Sam Robbins
What’s the how-to guide for g0v? One question that often lies in the subtext of English-language discussion of g0v (pronounced gov-zero), a Taiwanese decentralised civic hacking community in its 10th year, is whether such a structure could be replicated abroad. Other times, this line of inquiry is made explicit, whether in articles on lessons from gov-zero and gov-zero projects, discussions of Taiwan’s democratic innovations, or discussions about pandemic tech. At many points in professional and casual contexts, I have been asked to provide a road map for how g0v could be done abroad or explain what Taiwan is doing right. In reality, I am increasingly convinced that we are asking the wrong question.
The easy answer is that g0v can be replicated abroad, because it already has been. The presence of g0v communities in the US and Hong Kong already attests to this. This said, it is increasingly clear to me that most of those who ask the question are not interested in setting up a g0v but in hearing a feel-good story of the power of activism. It is thus important to ask what people mean when they ask whether g0v can be replicated abroad or what it would even mean to do so.
g0v began when a team competing in Yahoo’s Open Hack Day 2012 made a last-minute switch in their project from an online shopping project to a website that visualised how the government budget was being spent. This was in response to a failed attempt to collaborate with the government on housing data visualisation, which ended somewhat acrimoniously, and to a Ma Ying-jeou advertisement claiming that economic policy was too complicated for citizens to understand. After winning prize money, the team purchased the g0v.tw domain. Then, it used its money to host its own hackathon dedicated to more politically oriented projects, in contrast to commercial projects more common at the time. This was the “0th” g0v hackathon, and the 53rd is being held in October 2022.
The origin of the 0th hackathon, in addition to the boon the community received following the anti-government Sunflower movement protests in 2014, reveals the first crucial lesson for those interested in replicating g0v abroad: g0v has been borne out of a sense that the public lacked ways to participate in the political process. This sentiment was most acute during the Ma years, which saw a range of popular movements emerge in response to an increasingly opaque political system. Still, it also has deeper roots in Taiwan’s still-recent transition to democracy. I have argued elsewhere that the central grievance that motivates g0v as a movement is the sense that opportunities for participation and oversight are low, as g0v has very few other central principles or values other than openness, sharing and open source. Professor Mei-Chun Lee has referred to this as g0v’s attempt to “hack governance” by creating alternative forms of collaboration, solidarity, and ways of working together. In this respect, the g0v community remains unique in both its refusal of any attempt to formalise its structure and its focus on hosting hackathons and project work as the central form of political action.
A central question for me is, therefore, whether a movement organised around a need to create new channels for participation is feasible abroad without Taiwan’s specific historical context. Another question is whether such a move would decide on hackathons and project work as their central technique. G0v functions the way it does because people are more interested in the goal of working on projects than in building successful projects. Indeed, g0v is a place where projects fail. Successful projects only emerge because people are committed to the form of engagement and the broader goal of participation, but this commitment is not easy to replicate.
The question then becomes: what do we want from replicating g0v abroad? In reality, the answer is likely to have a community that produces successful technological tools that the government can appropriate. Most g0v coverage focuses on specific projects, such as budget visualisation, Cofacts, the fact-checking system, or pandemic technology. All this technology is impressive, but if all people want is successful tools, then the question is not one of replicating g0v abroad. All these tools are open source, and open source is the most central value within g0v. If we want to borrow the successful technology that g0v has created, all can be “forked” and repurposed for different contexts.
If instead, we want to replicate the context in which, in response to a pandemic, hundreds of people would gather online to create new tools to help the government, the task is much more difficult. This is not because collective action is a phenomenon unique to g0v: people worldwide responded to the pandemic by creating community support projects and new networks to buy groceries in response to sudden lockdowns. Indeed, it is difficult because people are already mobilising in ways that respond to local contexts and thus do not feel the need to join a slack to build technology, as happened in Taiwan.
The other aspect of answering this question is being honest about why some g0v projects do indeed succeed. The crucial ingredient is often outside funding or other forms of outside support, which speak more of the success of project managers within g0v to market their projects to funders than of how g0v operate. The other aspect, the fact that the Taiwanese government has been receptive to g0v and its projects, again perhaps speaks more to the nature of the Taiwanese government than to the structure of g0v. Indeed, although it is notable that Audrey Tang, a g0v participant, entered the government in 2016, even before her, Jaclyn Tsai, minister without portfolio under Ma Ying-Jeou, reached out to g0v following the sunflower movement to investigate ways to collaborate.
It is also important to return to whether people want to replicate g0v abroad or just be told they could. We should be careful of bracketing off Taiwan’s successes as a story of some weird ”East-Asian Exotic Innovation hub“ and the expense of focusing on what people do in g0v, which is often working on projects that will later fail. I am always excited when people want to learn about g0v and from g0v. Still, I worry that those who ask me are often more interested in either a simplistic how-to model or the key to why g0v is uniquely Taiwanese (uniquely Eastern) and somehow irrelevant to the discussion of activism in the West. This is a sentiment I have also heard from many who have spent time trying to explain g0v abroad. Often, but not always, the goal is to feel good that something cool is happening in Taiwan, not learn how to do something locally.
The best answer is thus that g0v could be replicated abroad, but perhaps it should not be. g0v is unique in the specific ways it approaches problems but thoroughly un-unique in being a group of activists dedicated to solving local problems with all tools available. We cannot forget the second part of this when we reflect on the first part. How activists come together to work towards a common goal depends deeply on political contexts. Tech and civil society can collide in a range of different forms. A look at the Association for Progressive Communication (APC) members, a global network of civil society groups promoting equality through information and communications technology, also reveals that many groups are already engaging with digital technology as a liberating tool.
Still, few groups globally focus solely on hackathons, projects and such a horizontal structure. Different movements emerge in response to other local struggles. And, as APC shows us, many movements are innovating and creating new forms of engagements, even if they lack the attention the g0v community has received. Similarly, global movements are pushing for greater democratisation, political participation, and enfranchisement. The central values of g0v, supporting greater political participation, are not unique to the organisation; they just manifest themselves in a unique arrangement in g0v. Our time is perhaps best spent supporting local groups and allowing them to be inspired by g0v, rather than trying to remake local activism in g0v’s image.
So what can activists abroad learn from g0v? I think one crucial lesson is how participants in g0v consciously cultivate fun to help tackle burnout and make people interested in participating. In the g0v community, fun is not tangential to politics but is part of how political action can continue. Indeed, the honesty and clarity with which g0v participants can describe how fun can be political is perhaps g0v’s greatest lesson for other groups. Hackathons are designed not just as places for work but as places for socialisation and community. I, along with many others in g0v, participate partly because I have made friends in g0v and enjoy working with them. Even though not all social movements can be propelled by positive emotions, creating activist spaces that people want to go to just for the sake of being there and not just as a way to mobilise is likely a lesson that other movements could learn from as a way to prevent movements getting demobilised when progress seems slow.
G0v is without borders. Those interested in g0v, regardless of where they are, should join the g0v slack and participate in g0v. Those interested in taking the benefits of g0v and replicating them in another political and social context would be better served by learning from g0v and then reflecting on what existing movements are already taking place in their home country. g0v’s success is not because g0v has cracked any secret activist code, but because the community has created a model and form of engagement that has appealed to people locally and been able to slowly grow and expand. Other models work, and other models are working. Other movements would perhaps be better served by reflecting on how g0v responds to specific challenges, such as governance, creating an open environment for all to join, and fostering connections with traditionally disconnected communities with technologists in Taipei. Such specific forms of exchanging ideas and learning from other activists are a much more enriching experience than trying to recreate g0v abroad. If you still want to recreate g0v, I recommend you first carry out a truncated democratisation and then elect Ma Ying-jeou as president of your country. This approach has thus far had an 100% rate of creating a g0v community. I will let you figure out the specifics of that arrangement.
Sam Robbins is a researcher and writer on the intersections of tech and politics in Taiwan. He is an editor and translator for Taiwan Insight and a participant in Taiwan’s g0v community.
This article was published as part of a special issue on “The g0v decade”