Hopes and Concerns for Taiwan’s New Ministry of Digital Affairs

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Hopes and Concerns for Taiwan’s New Ministry of Digital Affairs

Audrey Tang finally has an official ministry to work with. Now it’s time to see if the government can achieve its lofty digital democracy goals.

Hopes and Concerns for Taiwan’s New Ministry of Digital Affairs

Taiwan’s Digital Minister Audrey Tang speaks during an interview with The Associated Press in Taipei, Taiwan, Thursday, Dec. 10, 2020.

Credit: AP Photo/Chiang Ying-ying

Taiwan’s new Ministry of Digital Affairs will begin operation on August 27. Its establishment reflects a trend in East Asia in recent years of creating new, or redesigning existing, consolidated government agencies in charge of directing “digital” policy broadly defined, often having policy domain over areas stretching from economic development to public service digitalization  and regulation. This tide of digital governance is largely driven by East Asian governments’ recognition that a robust national data infrastructure and the ability to utilize technological tools are key to help their countries stay competitive in the post-pandemic world.

In South Korea, a “Digital New Deal” was launched by the minister of Science and ICT in 2021. The goal is to leverage digital development to lead the South Korean economy out of the pandemic crisis. Japan also established its new Digital Agency mainly to address digital gaps in the government exposed by COVID-19, such as a lack of interoperability among information systems and low digitization rate of public service delivery.

It seems by establishing MoDA, Taiwan also has begun a new chapter in its journey toward digital governance. In Taiwan there’s no concrete policy framework from the MoDA yet, but the announcement of its first minister suggests that Taiwan is trying to chart a path somewhat different to its East Asian neighbors.

MoDA is to be headed by Audrey Tang, who previously served as Minister without Portfolio of Digital Affairs and head of Taiwan’s Public Digital Innovation Space (PDIS). Even before her official appointment as MoDA’s first minister, Tang is already a high-profile representative of digital transformation both internationally and within Taiwan. Her rising fame is in part due to her charismatic personality and bilingual eloquence, which has made Tang an iconic torch-bearer for Taiwan’s international reputation as a digital democracy.

Contrasted against the image of Taiwanese democratic governance as slow, uncoordinated, and factional, such representations of digital democracy in Taiwan highlight the creative, adaptive, and rapid response to pressing issues achieved through digitally-mediated collaborations between civil society and government. Taiwan’s mask map, first worked on by members of Taiwan’s g0v community, a decentralized civic hacking community, and later adapted and scaled-up by Tang, or the use of v.Taiwan, a public deliberation platform, to determine legislation on Uber regulation in Taiwan are two of the most (over) cited examples of such digital democratic innovation. However, outside of such high-profile examples, it is hard to accurately measure exactly how Taiwan is doing in terms of digital governance.

With the establishment of MoDA, it seems that it is time for Audrey Tang, the Taiwanese government, and the unique brand of digital innovation both promote, to put their money where their mouth is. MoDA comprises six departments and two administrations, including the department of resilient infrastructure, department of digital democracy, department of digital policy, and the administration of cybersecurity. According to the ministry’s Organization Act, first announced in January 2022, MoDA is in charge of overseeing strategy for Taiwan’s data economy, promoting cybersecurity, and coordinating digital governance in Taiwan. Although MoDA’s three missions of economic development, cybersecurity, and digital governance are all of grave importance, it is in pursuit of the third goal that the sustainability of Tang’s approach to governance will most likely be tested.

In a recent dialogue moderated by the Open Culture Foundation, Tang characterized her style of governance as more interested in developing proofs of concept that other government agencies could choose to adopt rather than in creating systematic change that would incentivize and encourage such shifts. When explaining her plans for promoting ideals shared by many in these communities, such as “public money, public code,” Tang’s approach seemed to suggest that her goal was for MoDA to lead by example rather than by regulation. For example, in describing how MoDA would promote open-source code in government, Tang’s answers focused on how MoDA itself would use and produce open-source code that other agencies could use. Throughout her talk, it seemed the implication was that MoDA wouldn’t be actively trying to encourage other agencies to take up open-source code.

MoDA will work on modeling good digital governance, but it is unclear how it will promote good digital governance and create the regulation to do so. It is also unclear whether the ministry will even have this authority.

Open Culture Foundation’s joint statement on MoDA (currently not available in English), co-signed by leaders from Taiwan’s human rights and technology sectors, underlines many of the concerns that members of Taiwan’s civil society have surrounding this new ministry. The joint statement notes how, despite MoDA’s focus on digital governance, the ministry has thus far lacked a clear orientation toward digital human rights. When being interviewed, Tang mentioned that privacy and other “regulatory affairs” will not be in MoDA’s area of work. It is thus unclear how the ministry that will be in charge of Taiwan’s “data economy” plans to protect personal data or safety online.

The statement also notes that there has been a notable lack of transparency surrounding the establishment of MoDA. Although the mist is slowly starting to fade in the weeks before its launch, information surrounding the operation, organization, and structure of MoDA was notably slow to appear. News of MoDA’s establishment first emerged two years ago, and yet still little is known. It is still unclear exactly where MoDA fits in with existing organizations, such as the National Communications Commission. Tang has described MoDA as Taiwan’s digital “acceleration pedal,” in explicit contrast to the National Communications Council, which she described as Taiwan’s “brakes.” But no official explanation exists.

With information only appearing at the 11th hour before MoDA’s launch, it has been hard for civil society groups to monitor and give feedback on its establishment. The fact that the joint statement was published only about a month before MoDA is to be established reflects the lack of opportunities for dialogue and feedback.

There is no quick fix to promoting procedural transparency and cooperation, but it is essential to ensure great public participation. Indeed, international success stories of rules-based, transparent digital governance should provide one key lesson for MoDA: instituting strong digital governance is slow and difficult. This is a lesson that Taiwan’s government has thus far been unreceptive to learning.

For example, Taiwan tried to copy Estonia’s roadmap for implementing electronic ID (eID) cards with regards to service provision while disregarding the related laws and regulations Estonia put in place to safeguard individual data and personal privacy. When the emphasis lies on promoting successful technology and not on institutionalized ways of governance, dangerous oversights can emerge. With regard to Taiwan’s proposed eID reform, it was very unclear how the data would be stored, regulated, and ultimately, kept safe. This is not a unique problem to digital governance, but rather reflects a broader problem in Taiwan: Legislation is hard, and government agencies tend to by-pass legislative processes to avoid political dispute.

Although consistent action from civil society helped halt this policy plan, such an instance belies the limits of a results- or solution-oriented approach and of a broader style of politics that exists in other government agencies. Indeed, despite the sheen that surrounds the new ministry and the newness of its focus, the struggles facing MoDA reflect many of the longer-term struggles that have continued to plague Taiwan since its gradual transition away from authoritarianism, which began over 30 years ago. These are questions of how to work with civil society to build systems and build policy; how to enshrine protection of human rights into law; and, crucially, how to pass strong legislation that promotes accountability. With Tang’s current approach to governance, it is not apparent that MoDA will be able to help Taiwan tackle these challenges in the digital age.

It is still somewhat unclear exactly what MoDA will do and how it will work. It is also unclear how Tang’s political style will work when she is no longer the enigmatic “digital minister” but rather the head of a full ministry of government. What we need from MoDA is not just best practices or a commitment to building successful case studies, but rather a commitment to procedural and structural justice. If this is not the case, it will instead fall to Taiwan’s civil society to seek for greater accountability and participatory governance.

Even as more information about MoDa begins to emerge, Taiwan’s digital future is still unclear. We hope this future will be truly democratic, but there are still many hurdles to overcome before this can be assured.