Not many governments would risk inviting a self-confessed anarchist and “civic hacker” to join their ranks. Especially if the person in question was someone who refuses to give commands or obey orders and is a fervent believer in what they call “radical transparency”.
But Taiwan is no ordinary place and Audrey Tang, a 36-year-old transgender software developer and former entrepreneur, is certainly not your average politician.
“I don’t think I’m working for Taiwan. I’m working with it,” the country’s digital minister says on being asked if she’s concerned about being co-opted by the government to get good PR.
“I joined [the government] with an agenda to empower the civil society to fully understand how the system works, she says.
Speaking of her appointment last October, Ms Tang says: “Of course, there is a mascot-like effect involved but I don’t think it is bad because this particular mascot is really strange. It stands for anarchy, and anarchy of course means self-governance.”
If anyone was ever capable of showing people how to do things off your own back, it is Ms Tang. Having dropped out of school at the age of 12 to focus on coding, she founded a hugely successful search engine company before the age of 15. She later moved to Silicon Valley, becoming involved in a number of start-ups and also working for Apple, before officially “retiring” as an entrepreneur in her early 30s.
Having returned home to Taipei, Ms Tang had been advising the government on cybersecurity and transparency initiatives before her appointment as a minister last year. She has now been asked to help the island in its bid to become an Asian Silicon Valley by devising and implementing a master plan to create a “digital Taiwan”.
That might seem relatively straightforward, given the island is renowned for its extremely successful $130 billion (€110 billion) high-tech sector. When it comes to hardware, it plays such a key role in the global IT supply chain that as many as 85 per cent of the world’s laptops are produced there, according to the Taiwan External Trade Development Council.
But as the economy seeks to move beyond hardware to newer technologies such as cloud computing and the Internet of Things, Taiwan needs a change of mindset.
This is where Ms Tang steps in. As a minister she is charged with a number of tasks. These include (but are not limited to) a greater sharing of official data, the rolling out of new digital-friendly services, the introduction of a free software database for citizens, and the adoption of artificial intelligence tools so that public servants can be freed from routine tasks to focus on “real” issues that affect citizens.
Her role is varied. It covers everything from introducing cutting-edge initiatives and bolstering support for start-ups, to fighting fake news and helping to bridge the digital divide.
“I’m a hacker without hats in its original sense. I am someone who immerses themselves into a system to find out its flaws but instead of exploiting them, builds new systems that don’t suffer from the same issues,” she says.
“I would say I’m still hacking the system in my new role but not in the sense that I’m destroying or discrediting the existing one. I’m conserving the best parts of it such as the social mission and governance, but am also working on new ways to lower fear, uncertainty and doubt for everyone,” Ms Tang adds.
Her concept of “radical transparency” plays a part here. Attend a meeting with Ms Tang, whether as a journalist or a high-ranking politician, and the transcript is made publicly available. But it goes much further than this.
Each week, she and her colleagues work on an e-petition that has been proposed by 5,000 people to solve a problem that will eventually be put before the prime minister.
Members of the public are further invited to let their voices be heard in whatever format they wish in order to create trust.
“We try to encourage society to engage in the manner in which they feel comfortable. If they don’t want to use their real names, we accept pseudonyms [and] if they don’t want to show up in person we allow them to message us while a meeting is being livestreamed. If the government trusts civil society then the citizens will eventually trust back but the government has to make the first moves,” says Ms Tang.
As she sees it, all sides must overcome obstacles in embracing truly open government.
“When public servants hear the words ‘civic tech, civic participation, radical transparency etc’ they associate them with a mob scenario, with uneducated masses. But with our regular meetings we see that the people who sign the e-petitions are not protestors or mobs. They are actually professional user experience designers who want to contribute [to things like] improving the tax-filing process,” says Ms Tang.
“They [the public servants] eventually see in this that it is politically advantageous for them to engage with people because it delivers highlights,” she adds.
Towards the end of the meeting, Ms Tang recalls a short poem she wrote around the time she joined government, which succinctly outlines her views on how technology should be about encouraging a better civil society:
When we see “internet of things”, let’s make it an internet of beings.
When we see “virtual reality”, let’s make it a shared reality.
When we see “machine learning”, let’s make it collaborative learning.
When we see “user experience”, let’s make it about human experience.
When we hear “the singularity is near”, let us remember: the plurality is here.