Author / Claire Cheng (The original article was written in Traditional Chinese)
Translator (ENG) / Ming-Chen Li
Editor / OCF Lab
As Taiwan’s democracy moves forward, the citizens’ desire for civic participation can no longer be satisfied by the government’s unilateral policy-making and the consultation of experts and academics. In spite of the government’s efforts, for many citizens, the government still hasn’t fully taken the citizens’ views into consideration when it comes to policy-making, rendering open government more similar to “Open Washing”. For civil servants, not only is their workload increased, but facing the citizens’ anger at times is also frustrating.
How exactly can Taiwan truly implement open governance policy? Fortunately, we are not alone, and there’s the Open Government Partnership (OGP) for our reference. The OGP not only collects the experiences of countries dedicated to achieving open government, but also monitors the implementation of each country’s action plans through a standardized evaluation mechanism. Last year (2020), Taiwan, though not a participating government of OGP, launched two action plans, one for the Executive Yuan and the other for the Legislative Yuan, based on the OGP’s standard, and released the official action plans this year.
This article is the third of the OCF Lab’s series on open government (the previous two articles are Introducing the Establishment and Operating Mechanism of OGP, and the Action Plan Framework Promoted by the National Development Council and Legislative Yuan to Promote Open Parliament Based on the Framework of OGP). The third article consists of three parts; the first part is about what OGP means for Taiwan’s open government policy in the past; the second part elaborates on the pros and cons of open government policy based on the OGP standard, and the last part provides an analysis of OGP’s impact on Taiwan.
Enhancing Cooperation Across Government Agencies and Striving Towards Horizontal Collaboration
In recent years, the government has opened many channels for citizen participation in public affairs. For example, vTaiwan and the Join Platform collect citizens’ opinions as reference for policy-making; Government Open Data Platform releases data of various public services that can be freely used by the public. However, most of these measures simply created a heavier workload for civil servants, and failed to fully integrate open government’s four key values (transparency, accountability, participation, and inclusion) into the process of policy-making.
1. One-way communication between the government and civic society is transformed into a collaborative relationship
Open government policy in the past had made it easier for citizens to raise concerns, offer opinions, and access government data, but most of the time, policy-makers still did not discuss with the public, and the public, whose opinions were not always adopted by the government, eventually became more and more indifferent to political affairs. For low-level government officials at the frontlines of policy implementation and public services, open government policy simply meant adding services of “Public Consultation” and “Government Data Release” within the original services. The open government policy not only increased their workload, but also rendered them more susceptible to public criticism and provided little sense of accomplishment, inevitably making them view citizens as trouble-makers instead of collaborators.
In other words, open government policy in the past focused on providing citizens with the channel to express their concerns and opinions, and releasing government data to the public. The policy as a whole was not based on public-private collaboration, but limited to one-way communication between the government and the public, and services that did not necessarily meet the public’s needs. The one-sided and limited openness made it harder for the government to fully understand the citizens’ needs and concerns; as a result, many government staffers worked harder than before, but were instead faced with waves of complaints from the public.
The process of action plan co-creation designed by the OGP aims to foster a public-private partnership culture. Before creating the Open Government Action Plan, the Multistakeholder Forum (MSF), which consists of representatives of both the government and civic society, creates a National Action Plan that spans two to three years, breaking the pattern of one-way public consultation and services in the past. The final progress evaluation includes not only the Self-Assessment Reports drafted by the government, but also the Independent Reporting Mechanism (IRM) supported by third-party experts (for more information on IRM, please refer to this article written by OCF Lab). OGP’s goal is to establish a collaborative relationship between government and citizens; the process of co-creating action plans not only enables citizens to express their opinions in the early stage of policy-making, but also allows them to fully participate in the entire process of policy-making, and government staffers no longer have to work entirely by themselves.
2. Integrating One-Sided Open Government Policy and Striving Towards Horizontal Collaboration
Nowadays, almost every issue requires the collaboration of different government agencies, but as the public sector in Taiwan still lacks systematic open government strategies, the implementation of open government policy highly relies on the political will of political appointees. Without horizontal collaboration between government bodies, the policy is rarely thoroughly implemented, since it is difficult for each agency to exchange their experiences and integrate the services they provide. For citizens who make proposals to the government, inconsistency in government policies and gaps in their implementation raise the threshold for civic participation in public affairs.
When developing open government action plans, government agencies under the Executive Yuan are expected to incorporate the principles of open data and public-private partnership mechanism, but not all the agencies have enough experience in open governance to meet the above expectations. This time, with the government’s active promotion of open government, the National Action Plan is supervised and assisted by the National Development Council and Digital Minister Audrey Tang’s Office, thereby allowing fundamental open government principles such as open data and public-private partnership to be systematically incorporated into the political promises of all government bodies.
Taiwan’s open government policy in the past failed to establish collaboration between different government bodies. The OGP provides us with a better open government framework that integrates different government bodies, enables the participation of multiple stakeholders, and hopefully reduces the cost of open government implementation for government staffers.
3. Indexing the Development of Open Government and Being in Alignment with International Standards
Though Taiwan has been promoting open government for years, our open government policy was never in alignment with international standards. As a result, it had been difficult for other countries to learn more about the progress of open government implementation in Taiwan, and we hadn’t had much chance to learn from other countries, either. According to research conducted by the OGP, implementing open government has many benefits. For instance, an open contracting system can double the number of bidders, leading to increased competition and higher efficiency of public contracts; improved policy transparency and frequent and accurate disclosure of macro-economic data are associated with better foreign direct investment (FDI) inflows and credit ratings; open data can also create more jobs and lead to better economic growth.
How does Taiwan, which is not a member state, practice OGP?
Taiwan, which is not a member state of the United Nations, is subject to international conditions and often encounters obstacles in participating in international activities. Although Taiwan has been promoting open government policy for a long time, it was rejected when it applied for membership in OGP in 2015.
Nevertheless, at the 2019 OGP Global Summit, Digital Minister Audrey Tang announced that Taiwan would propose a “National Action Plan (NAP)” in accordance with OGP standards. After planning and discussion in 2020, Taiwan proposed a NAP which consisted of two parts: the Legislative Yuan’s “Open Parliament” and the Executive Yuan’s “Open Government”.
1. Open Parliament Action Plan
On May 19, 2020, the task of opening the parliament began after the Legislative Yuan passed the proposal named “The Legislative Yuan and Civil Society to Jointly Implement the Open Parliament Action Plan.” Driven by “The 1st Open Parliament Multi-stakeholder Forum (1st OP-MSF)”, and based on the five themes of “Transparency, Openness, Participation, Digitization, and Literacy,” the “Open Parliament Action Plan” was finalized on November 10, 2020, and the English version was completed in December. Then, the “Open Parliament Action Plan” was officially announced on March 9, 2021.
To allow the public to participate in the development of the action plan, the “OP-MSF Preparatory Committee” established an OP-MSF governance mechanism, based on which The 1st OP-MSF should be composed of not only members of the preparatory committee, but also 6 civil society members from an open selection.
The OP-MSF, which was composed of 7 Legislative Yuan members, and 17 legal and natural persons from civil society, was responsible for the formulation of the Open Parliament Action Plan. The two meetings held for the formulation of the action plan were broadcast live, and the draft was released on vTaiwan for open review.
2. Open Government National Action Plan
Different from the Legislative Yuan’s Open Parliament Action Plan, this action plan was driven by the Executive Yuan. Since July 2019, the Executive Yuan had invited civic communities and scholars concerned about open government to develop the “Open Government Action Plan”. After discussion across government agencies, the Executive Yuan proposed 12 action plans and five commitments, which were “maximizing open data value-added applications”, “expanding public participation in public policy mechanisms”, “increasing dialogue on gender and ethnic inclusion”, “implementing clean governance” and “implementing money laundering prevention.”
On February 21, 2020, the National Development Council released the draft on The Join Platform to solicit opinions from the public, and created an open government information page on its website to store OGP-related documents translated into Chinese, so that the public could get to know more about OGP. The content of the proposal was eventually submitted to government bodies, who then discussed with stakeholders in the form of forums.
To increase the channels for public participation, in August 2020, the Executive Yuan established the “Open Government National Action Plan Initiative", which acted as the MSF in OGP. The MSF had a total of 25 members, which consisted of 12 people from civil organizations and 13 government officials with decision-making powers, including ministers without portfolio as well as the heads and deputy heads of government agencies. The MSF and government agencies incorporated proposals from The Join Platform in a joint meeting and stated a total of 19 commitments. From November to December of the same year, government bodies held joint meetings with the MSF and non-governmental representatives to determine the content of various commitments, and released the finalized version at the end of the year.
How is Taiwan’s first promotion of open government in accordance with OGP standards different from the open government policy in the past?
1. Advantage: The process included extensive discussions with the public, incorporating the participation of both experts and citizens.
The discussion process of the Open Parliament Action Plan fully embodied the spirit of public-private collaboration: the “Open Parliament-Multistakeholder Forum (OP-MSF)” was established on a regular basis based on a particular governance mechanism, and its members were not only from various backgrounds but also familiar with democracy and open governance. The OP-MSF was responsible for promoting the action plan and making meetings and drafts open for public review, thereby ensuring professionalism, efficiency, and civic participation.
As for the Open Government Action Plan promoted by the Executive Yuan, the early stage repeated the mistakes of the open government policy in the past: “Citizens are only allowed to express their opinions before drafting the action plan and before the action plan is finalized; whether to adopt their proposals or not is still up to the government.”
Fortunately, the situation improved after the establishment of the “Multistakeholder Forum(MSF).” Although members of the MSF were not from an open selection and were instead composed of non-governmental representatives who had been concerned about open government issues for a long time, the government was able to discuss with civic groups and individuals who understood the public’s needs by consulting non-governmental representatives recommended by the MSF for each commitment.
2. Advantage: Public-private collaboration of developing action plans truly achieved the purpose of meeting the citizens’ needs.
The OGP’s mechanism for the government and citizens to develop a national action plan together not only allowed the citizens’ needs to be taken into account in the commitments, but also prevented the government from meeting behind closed doors and ignoring public opinions.
The commitments of the “Open Parliament Action Plan” were entirely developed based on public opinions by the OP-MSF, instead of following the traditional pattern in which the public sector passively received public opinions without fully taking them into account. Therefore, with the purpose of civic participation in legislative affairs in mind, the government was able to see difficulties that citizens often faced. For example, the data were either scattered in too many places or not released in an open format, thereby making it difficult to collect, analyze, apply and share the data. Also, citizens who were willing to participate sometimes could not find channels for online participation or instant access to information on issues they were concerned about.
The solutions proposed by the OP-MSF could be roughly divided into two parts: the adjustment of communication mechanism and the improvement in types and format of released data. For instance, the threshold of civic participation in legislative affairs could be lowered by actively disclosing information to stakeholders, and establishing transparent and easy-to-use communication channels.
As for the Open Government Action Plan, the 7 new commitments added after the establishment of the MSF included privacy and personal information protection, right to information access, labor rights, education and the environment, and more. In addition to increasing the scale and channels of civic participation, the 19 commitments also took into account the protection of citizens’ rights. For example, the commitment to “enhance digital privacy and personal information protection” mentioned that the increasing complexity of the digital economy made it difficult for the public to identify the exposure of personal information, and current laws and regulations were not sufficient to address the problem. Another problem concerning citizens’ rights was that, when it came to policies such as open government data and placemaking, the government only consulted experts and scholars and did not discuss with other stakeholders.
During the discussions between civil society and agencies under the Executive Yuan, several agencies invited civil society to co-edit the action plan, hoping to spread the influence of open government to more public affairs through public-private collaboration.
3. Room for Improvement: Short Open Public Review Period and Not Enough Public Participation.
During the process of drafting the action plan, the draft was posted online for open public review, but because of the short period for open public review as well as citizens’ lack of professional knowledge, the number of participants and opinions was rather low. In addition to collecting opinions through meetings with focus groups throughout the island, the Open Parliament Action Plan was open for public review for 12 days in the first round and 10 days in the second round, and only five people left their comments. The Open Government National Action Plan was open for public review for 15 days, and only 18 people or groups left a total of 46 comments.
In addition to extending the period for open public review, the government can also reduce the barriers to civic participation, so that the public will have more opportunities to learn about issues mentioned in the action plans and participate in discussions with the government. It was already hard for most people to understand the mechanism of OGP, or the principles of open government and civic participation, and it was even harder for them to share their thoughts about them within just two weeks. However, just because these people didn’t participate doesn’t mean that they were necessarily indifferent to political activities; they might just lack the information or the resources to find the right answers.
What Is the Next Step After Proposing the Action Plans?
Thanks to the OGP, Taiwan’s government was able to develop its first ever action plans through public-private collaboration. Previous open government policy was mostly about consulting the public before the policy was made, and providing channels for the public to express their opinions. This time, through the cooperation mechanism established based on the OGP’s standard, the government and citizens were able to work together to identify the problems of Taiwan’s open government policy, thereby promoting mutual understanding and building commitments that met the public’s needs without increasing the workload for the public sector.
After intensive preparations, Taiwan finally completed the Open Parliament Action Plan as well as the Open Government National Action Plan through public-private collaboration, and translated them into English for OGP’s 78 member states and other international partners, building the pathway for Taiwan to share its experience of democracy with countries around the world.
The next step is to ensure that the government will fulfill each commitment. The MSF of the two action plans will also strive towards promoting the ideas of OGP, and hopefully more and more citizens will realize the importance of open government and implement the action plans along with the government.
The article is licensed by CC BY-SA 4.0.