SOS democracy? Hope & doubt at OS//OS

Closing Pray by Audrey Tang
Poem by Audrey Tang
“New Zealand and New Zealanders will save us all”.

Douglas Rushkoff, the media theorist and writer, tweeted this after addressing the Open Source: Open Society conference 2016 (OS//OS) in Wellington, New Zealand by video link from the United States.

At the same event, Sir Geoffrey Palmer, a former NZ Prime Minster and leading constitutional expert, questioned whether New Zealand’s reputation as a leading and innovative democracy was still justified given what he’d heard from the eclectic speakers at OS//OS, especially from Audrey Tang about the reforms in Taiwan.

Bill English also talked about reform. The current NZ Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Finance still seems to believe in replacing democratic institutions with markets. He was categorical that governments can only ever be self-serving monopolies that are incapable of learning and innovation. Now how can English believe this when historically they have been responsible for enabling the kinds of innovation which have led to many high-tech developments (e.g. planes, computers, the Internet)?

English was the last big name to take the stage at OS//OS. As he was slipping in comments like “policy is not hard, a 12 year old can do it” and hinting that the public service would be unrecognisable in 5 years, I was starting to think about what his National-led government has, or has not, done to strengthen democratic institutions. After all, English told us that leadership from the top was needed to change the government system, to make governments more “customer focused” (English responded to questions about whether ‘citizens’ were a more appropriate focus with the claim that the term ‘customer’ is just a shorthand).

What has been done about Question Time, which is supposed to be one of the ways of the Parliament publically holding the Government to account? With Ministers not being required to answer questions, and too many ‘gotcha’ and ‘patsy’ questions, it’s clearly not working.

What about the public’s right to see official information? The Parliament’s watchdog, the Ombudsman, reports a 44% increase in complaints about Ministers and their agencies not processing requests properly over the last 5 years. Furthermore,“many agencies’ processes render them vulnerable to not complying with the law—in terms of the content of the responses, and the time taken to respond”.

What about other important institutions that serve to “keep the buggers honest”? The OS//OS devoted considerable time to the existential challenges facing serious investigative journalism. What are political leaders doing about this? Have they sought to strengthen public broadcasting? No, the fact is there has been no extra funding for at least 5 years. What about doing something to support private sector journalism? I haven’t seen any such initiatives either. Indeed, I suspect it suits our government to let market forces ‘give the public want it wants’ – more entertainment, more celebrity reporting, less investigation.

What does all this mean? I think the pattern is clear: political leaders and their parties, in NZ and elsewhere, seem happy to carry on their games of political theatre as citizens becomes more and more disenchanted with political elites and with our democratic institutions.

At this point, I’d like to return to Rushkoff’s plea for NZ to “save us all” [the world]? Given Palmer’s obvious excitement about what he was seeing at OS//OS, let’s turn to Audrey Tang’s story from Taiwan.

In April 2014, protestors occupied Taiwan’s parliament for 22 days to make a stand against free-trade proposals and, with the help of civic hackers at, invited the public to explore the proposals. By showing citizens how it is now possible for them to constructively participate in a twenty-first century, internet-enabled democracy, the protestors gained public support as the government lost its creditability.

In December 2014, a government minister a laid down a challenge to a hackathon. Could create a platform for rational policy discussion and deliberation that the entire nation could participate in? If it could, the government promised to implement broadly agreed proposals.

Within months the new platform, vTaiwan was launched. It quickly proved itself to be effective for the government as well as for citizens, even on very contentious and polarised issues such as the online sale of alcohol. Since the launch of vTaiwan, citizens have been able to input into the early stages of policy making when they can make the greatest impact by helping to define problems and by proposing ways of solving them. Keeping its side of the bargain, the government has delivered on its promise of implementing broadly agreed proposals.

In 2016, the newly elected government committed to using vTaiwan for all major issues. Such a promise may be easier for politicians who do not belong to political parties, which is the case for the new Prime Minister and several other senior ministers. To make sure vTaiwan is used, Audrey Tang, one of the hackers who created it, has been brought into the new government as a minister without portfolio.

Part of the success of vTaiwan is its use of a new mass participation technology called This tool uses artificial intelligence to enable thousands of citizens to set the agenda and to see areas of common ground as well as differences, through advanced data visualisations. The game changer for political authorities in terms of legitimacy and being able to get things done is that makes it cost effective to identify areas of common ground even for contentious issues.

So perhaps Bill English will be right about governance in New Zealand being unrecognisable in 5 years. I just hope that whatever emerges is not based so much on competition, efficiency and customer-targeted government services but resembles the Taiwanese reforms which provide a model that enables people to act as full citizens in the governance of their nation. The difference is beautifully captured in the poem Tang wrote to close OS//OS and which I have featured as the picture for this post.

To wrap up this instalment of PEPtalk, I’d like to offer my thanks to the organisers of OS//OS including Enspiral and Loomio. These organisations are not just talking about new models of governance and business, they are giving them a go and learning heaps in the process about how to solve problems collaboratively and sustainably in a networked world using new business models. There’s lots to be hopeful about and I’m now sure that there are New Zealanders helping to “save us all”.

This PEPtalk was first published on 2 September 2016. You’ll see from the website and from more recent blog posts that PEP’s thinking has moved on since then!