Can g0v International Affairs Really be Open?

Written by chihao

Image credit: photo by, license: CC BY-SA 2.0

What are g0v international affairs? 

g0v (pronounced “gov-zero”) is a Taiwanese civic hacking community. Ten years ago, a group of nerds, taking offence at a government ad, made the first g0v project: a public, interactive website visualising and breaking down the annual budget of Taiwan’s central government. Since then, this open, hands-on, and public-spirited community has empowered many projects and people, making governments and other institutions in Taiwan more accessible and accountable to the people.

g0v first came into view of the mainstream media during the 318 (Sunflower) movement in 2014. Public attention and newcomers flocking into community chatrooms sparked lively discussions on group identity (what are we), individual identity (what am I), and representation (on whose behalf do I speak publicly) among contributors at the time, setting up principles and guidelines of public communications that deliberately avoided the role of spokesperson and maintained the decentralised nature of the community.

International interests on g0v grew with the political development in Taiwan, as well as the first g0v Summit in 2014. g0v, a grassroots movement, is now connected to a seemingly global civic tech movement. However, among these connected movements worldwide, g0v is perhaps a unique existence. Rather than a well-defined organisation, a decentralised community with no representative is driving change and strengthening democracy in Taiwan. 

For the years that followed, a small number of individuals were engaged with various foreign NGOs, foundations, researchers, and journalists, attending meetings, and conferences, giving interviews and producing content, and cultivating new relationships between cathedrals elsewhere and people from this bazaar at home.

Why should it be open?

Contributors of g0v started various discussions on international community affairs in late 2018, after the g0v Summit that year and other governance-related conversations some months before that. Like many things in g0v, these efforts to engage with international organisations and people were largely self-initiated. No permission was required since none could be given. However, unlike many things in g0v, there are little to no public records of these activities, such as correspondence, meetings notes, or slide decks. Open collaboration becomes very difficult, if not impossible, without shared documentation of these activities. Also, unlike many things in g0v, some were paid for their role in these international activities. Discrepancies between a paid full-time job and part-time volunteering work further exacerbate the difficulties.

International affairs of the g0v community create a representation of the community to a global audience. This representation must be made in ways that reflect the values and practices of g0v.

There were also discussions around incidents of misconduct related to international affairs. The first concerns whether achievement of the community is being appropriated for personal gain. The second is whether individual contributors are being mistreated for not providing special treatment for those working on international engagement. In 2019, following these discussions, there was employment termination and organisational reform. Community governance was further clarified, and a new community task force was founded, self-tasked to propose new mechanisms for international engagements that are by and for the community.

When ideas like open-source, freedom of information, open collaboration, and public accountability are essential to so many g0v projects and contributors, international affairs for the g0v community should be open and accountable equally, if not more.

Are there working prototypes?

Representations of a decentralised community such as g0v can be created through governance models and participatory processes built into and aligned with community values. Contributors of g0v have come together at hackathons to set up and modify such models and processes. Interviews of g0v with researchers and journalists are done via open-sourced public shared documents, where g0v contributors could share their thoughts with the interviewer and converse with each other. Posts published by g0v’s Twitter account and Facebook page are drafted on a Google doc (anyone with the link can edit), reviewed by individual contributors drawn from a pool of volunteers, and posted by page admins whose ids are clearly listed on the g0v governance directory.

In 2019, an invitation from the Friedrich Naumann Foundation invited g0v to attend a Berlin conference with sponsorships for travel and accommodation. After receiving this invitation, the newly established task force g0v international started an open call to form a delegation of g0v contributors to attend this conference after reaching an agreement with the host. The call listed benefits and equal responsibilities for anyone signing up for this trip. In November, a group of 5 g0v contributors attended the Berlin conference and met with democracy activists from other countries, public officials from the city government, and parliamentarians of the Bundestag. In 2020, in preparation for the g0v Summit, the Friedrich Naumann Foundation became a major event sponsor.

Coordinating with civic hackers in Japan, Korea, and Hong Kong, Facing the Ocean was created in 2019 to host events so that civic hackers from the region can work together instead of giving presentations. Taking inspiration from g0v hackathons, the Facing the Ocean network has hosted open spaces in Okinawa and Tainan, exchanging ideas, translating documents, and creating new projects addressing common issues facing our respective democracies. In addition, as public health and border control measures for COVID-19 are being lifted, another Facing the Ocean event in Jeju is on the horizon.

Equitable community governance models make international affairs more accountable to the community. Open spaces move these engagements away from representations and towards co-creation. These prototypes have demonstrated that these ideals can be achieved.

Incentivized misrepresentation

Participants at a g0v hackathon usually represent themselves. On the stage of the hackathon, people often present their achievements as well as shortcomings. This shows they are capable, committed, and open to working with others with different ideas. This effectively convinces others to join this project and improve it. While presentations at a g0v hackathon are often live-streamed, there would usually be no reporters. There is very little prestige in being a g0v hackathon participant. Therefore, there is little incentive to misrepresent.

In other situations, misrepresentation can be a convenient and attractive option. For a meeting with only one seat available, there might not be a mechanism from which one contributor out of thousands would be given that privilege and responsibility. When a deadline is near, there might not be enough time or energy to coordinate a consensus. When presenting at a fundraising meeting, it is much easier to use “we” than to give credit where credit is due. When speaking at a conference, there could be very little room for audience accountability towards the speaker.

Wherever facts and feasibility are not the primary concern, misrepresentation can make great presentations, providing aspiration for the audience, traction for the media, and authority for the speaker. In some cases, the environment can be reconfigured so that equitable representation becomes more desirable. In others where incentives cannot be removed, the personal choice of representation or misrepresentation becomes a display of their character.

Towards open collaboration and accountable representation

Community international affairs cannot exist outside of the community. It exists and works for the community as infrastructure and mechanisms facilitating understanding and collaboration between community contributors and people elsewhere. It respects and promotes diversity in the community. It creates new connections and brings additional resources to the community. These resources should and can be managed accountable to the community and allocated in ways that make the community stronger and more resilient to those who abuse its openness.

“Tear down the government and rebuild it from the ground.” (拆政府原地重建) That was one of the very first slogans of g0v. It called for contributors to disassemble government functions and build alternative prototypes that are more accessible and accountable. Perhaps contributors to g0v international affairs are also tearing down and rebuilding a government of sorts. If it is a Foreign Ministry, it is not that of the antiquated bureaucracy from Taiwan’s authoritarian past but a ministry of the community itself. With openness and accountability in mind, this rebuilding of the community ministry of international affairs remains a work in progress.

chihao is a g0v contributor. He is @chihao on g0v Slack and @chihhhhhao on Twitter. This article presents the author’s personal views regarding g0v and g0v international affairs.

This article was published as part of a special issue on “The g0v decade”

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