Digital democracy and public participation in Taiwan: a lesson for Kenya

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By Claudio Ndeleva Mutua

A modern democratic state is, by necessity, supposed to incorporate the views of the people it governs in the decisions that affect them directly. While the election of representatives to public bodies, including the legislatures, has been one of the hallmarks of the traditional democracy, there has been a shift towards more participatory democracy in recent decades. The participatory mechanism was initially conceived and designed as a way for citizens’ views and input to have an influence on the political and bureaucratic decision-making process. It was also imagined that participatory mechanisms would become tools for holding elected leaders accountable for their actions. Moreover, public participation and good governance are intractably joined. 

In the Kenyan context, public participation materialises in different ways. First, townhall-style meetings are common where a few people attend sessions, and where possible, to have people who only have a particular view to be allowed to participate. Secondly, public bodies may also invite the public to participate in a discussion on the public bodies’ premises. There has also been a call to submit proposals online by various public bodies. These models of public participation are not fool proof and can be limited to the members of the public. Moreover, views that are skewed towards a certain ideological or personal position are likely to result from the public participation mechanism in Kenya to the exclusion of other points of view. It is the opinion of this paper that an adaption of the Taiwanese model of public participation would be a significant improvement in the public participation mechanism in Kenya. 

The Taiwan Example

Anchored in Article 118 of the Constitution, there is no dearth of public participation in the Kenyan law in spite of the lack of an umbrella law in the form of the Public Participation Act. However, there is a question of how to effect public participation into a meaningful exercise in Kenya, so that it is not just another legal prerequisite the state, county governments, and their respective agencies have to follow. There is no objective measure for public participation and or its efficacy. With this in mind, it is not possible to know a number of people excluded from participating as there is no mapping of the various views on any issue, and their an indication of the number of people who presented the various conflicting. Consequently, in most cases, public participation has been treated as nothing more than a legal technicality without a required set of results or efficacy. 

Taiwan does not have comprehensive public participation guidelines like Kenya. But the country has a citizenry that is actively engaged in civic affairs. Civic engagement in Taiwan has evolved into an online public participatory and engagement mechanism that is not only quantifiable but also efficient. It is imperative to note that the Taiwanese model is also able to map public opinion issues consequently assisting in legislative drafting and policy choices that have broad public acceptance. 

The Taiwanese model was initially based on a platform known as vTaiwan (www.vtaiwan.com). According to Hsiao et al. the “V” in vTaiwan stands for vision, voice and virtual. On the platform, citizens are able to propose solutions and then vote on them. This involves four stages. The first is the proposal via which opinions are presented on a range of issues. These can come from computer programmers, journalist, and civil servants as well as other professional and ordinary citizens. Documents and views are shared via the platform so that individuals are informed of the various positions the public, professionals and other stakeholders have on the matter. 

Next is the opinion stage, which involves the collection of views online. The opinion stage, among other things, requires the concerned authorities to reply to the stakeholders’ comments within seven days. The collection of views and opinion may take a single opinion survey or may take several opinion surveys. The third stage is the reflection stage. In the reflection stage, there is an online or offline discussion of the issues raised with industry and policy experts. The dialogue combines the surveys in the second stage with idea exchanges from policy and industry experts, other stakeholders and the wider public. 

The legislation stage is the final one. At this stage, there is an expectation that the state will then incorporate the views expressed into the suggested policy and legislative solutions. The new policy and legislative solutions are thus broad-based taking into account the various views and opinions from policy specialists, the industry doyens, various stakeholders and the public at large. Among the laws that have been passed after undergoing the vTaiwan process is Closely Held Company Law as well as a range of issues involving the cybersphere.

The most prominent part of the vTaiwan system is the Pol.is, a digital platform through which Taiwan people can vote on various issues. There is also an option to comment on the issues, and one can further upvote or downvote the comments. To avoid trolling and squabbling, the platform does not include an option to reply to comments. Mapping of the opinion that is expressed in Pol.is is apparent via the collation of the upvotes and downvotes on the issues presented on Pol.is. The platform uses technology to generate a map on the views based on the votes. A broad consensus of option on the various comments and the votes therein then emerges, with broadly concurring groups emerging. With each subsequent draft, there is a more natural drift towards drafting policy proposals and legislative agreements that are agreeable to all the views. Pol.is is run by volunteers from an organization termed g0v. 

While Pol.is is run by the volunteers, the state has established a new platform through which Taiwanese people can participate in policy formulation and the legislative process. The platform, dubbed Join, is run by the Ministry of Digital affairs. Once a petition through Join gets more than 5000 signatures, the concerned government agency is supposed to explain why the proposal is agreeable or not. In the long run, there is a view that more people will be members of Join. More importantly, they will be able to actively participate in the governing process of their country in a way that is both meaningful and measurable through petitions and voting on various issues presented in Join. 

The Constitution and the legislation passed post-2010 have extensive requirements that in policy and legislative solutions, there has been no tangible, defined manner to measure citizen participation and map out ideas that come out as a result of citizen participation. The law, while providing for the inclusion of the public in the making of decisions that affect them, has failed to explicitly define the ways in which public participation may happen leaving the method mainly to state organs and agencies who solicit for participation from the wider public. 

The use of townhall meetings, solicitations for views from the public via the internet among other methods, have proven woefully inadequate. The adaption of the Taiwanese model of public participation which not only takes to account the views expressed by the public, but also maps them into broad categories and then drafts the laws and policies in a bid to reduce the differences in opinion, would not only ensure a more inclusive legislation and policies, but also reduce social conflict regarding laws and policies. (

Writer is an Advocate of the High Court of Kenya

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