Urban Evolution: Open Government and Civic Participation
Transparency for People to Trust
On December 25, 2014, Taipei City Government turned a new page. The new administration team, bearing Taipei citizens’ enthusiasm and expectations in mind, set about building a new city government that “tells truths, performs actual deeds, and pursues innovation and efficiency.” Starting from the basics with a steady hand, the new team began its effort to gradually change Taipei for the better, and furthermore, create the fair and just society citizens hope for. The city government strongly believes that the openness and transparency of a government’s decisionmaking process and day-to-day operations enhance people’s understanding and engagement, and thus help the implementation of policies.
Taipei City Government Citizen Participation Advisory Council and Online Selection of Council Members
The first step to achieve transparency is to collect public opinion extensively. Therefore, the Taipei City Government Citizen Participation Advisory Council (hereinafter referred to as “the Council”) was established to ensure people’s voices can be heard effectively. In order to have opinions from different fields, Taipei City Government invited enthusiastic citizens’ participation in the Council via the Internet. From 3 to 9 of March 2015, the nomination of the council members external to the city government was open to the public online. 12 external council members were selected through a series of selection and voting procedures. On April 1, 2015, the Council held its inaugural meeting and announced its formal establishment.
The Council is the pioneer in Taiwan for government agencies to encourage civil participation in the form of an organization. It consists of three working groups to set goals and make plans for citizen participation, open data and data mining, and participatory budgeting. Additionally, in order to maximize the execution efficiency of the Council, every working group has an external councilor serve as the convener, with one department of the city government as the responsible unit. The working group and its responsible department work together to carry out all related tasks such as advising, consulting, administrations, etc.
The major responsibilities of three working groups are as follows: the Working Group on Citizen Participation – making education and training plans for government employees to learn about citizen participation, formulating online voting mechanisms, and implementing tasks related to citizen participation in and outside of the Taipei City Government; the Working Group on Open Data and Data Mining – drawing up regulations and establishing mechanisms for open data and data mining, promoting the openness and value-added application of Taipei City Government data, and encouraging links with external databases for exchanges and interaction; the Working Group on Participatory Budgeting – developing an execution plan for bottomup participatory budgeting and its standard operating procedures, and continuing to work on three aspects: monitoring of existing budgeting and execution Citizens’ budget proposal, and evaluation of existing projects and mechanisms supporting public participation in all departments of Taipei City Government.
Citizen Participation – Establishing a Model of Transparent Governance
The council members immediately started carrying out the responsibilities assigned to each working group once Taipei Mayor Ko Wen-je announced the start of “buzzing like a bee” (working diligently) at the first meeting of the Taipei City Government Citizen Participation Advisory Council. Collaborating with their colleagues from the departments of Taipei City Government, they began the development of several execution plans and standard operating procedures (SOP) in order for citizen participation to be better incorporated into various existing policies and administrative procedures.
The monthly meeting of the working group is the best moment for the council members and city employees to sit together for brainstorming. The concept of open government and civic participation is fully practiced in the meetings. The council members express their opinions and bring up ideas, while city employees try to find solutions within the framework of administrative operations. In just a few months after the Council was established, the council members finished drawing up the SOP for online voting, open data and participatory budgeting. Additionally, for the first time in Taiwan the entire process of the Council meetings is broadcast live online. It is a model of civic participation, allowing all citizens to see the high-efficiency collaboration between the Council and the city government.
Online Voting – Expressing Opinions with Just One Easy Click
“Online voting” is one of the methods for citizen participation. It uses internet and communication technologies to collect public opinion. Not only does it eliminate the cumbersome administrative procedures the traditional methods involve, it also reduces social cost. In addition, online voting can be done anywhere without geographical limitation. People can express their opinions with just one click on the online voting platform as soon as their identity is verified. The system effectively enhances citizen participation.
In order to adopt this e-generation method of citizen participation, the city government began with setting up an easy type of online voting platform. Also provided to the public was the i-Voting Operation Guidelines, which include all procedures involved in online voting such as collecting and deciding issues to be voted on, promotion, casting ballots, and the application of voting results, etc. It is intended to help citizens fully understand the whole mechanism and, as a result, allow them to enthusiastically take part in every online voting in the future. The initial online voting platform also allows the city government to accumulate experience so a voting system that better meets the needs of citizens can be designed.
The existing online voting system has been used for a few projects such as the Logo and Mascot Design Contest for the 2017 Taipei Summer Universiade. While the city government has gradually gathered valuable feedback and experience from the use of the system, people are also getting used to this new channel to express their opinions. The next step for the government is to take this feedback into consideration and plan an upgraded system with more flexibility. It is expected to provide a verification interface that can process various types of identification to meet the needs of citizens and the government offices with regards operating procedures and internet security. Taipei City Government hopes to create a platform for the general public to express their thoughts comfortably, help develop people’s habit of speaking out, and eventually increase the voting turnout. The data acquired through this mechanism will help the city government create a more well-rounded living environment.
Open Data – Creating New Values for Public Resources
Another crucial element for the success of open government is open government information and open data. The government becomes closer to people when the administrative operations and public policies are fully disclosed. If people have equal access to government information and thus share the same understanding, they may grow more supportive of the government policies. Consequently, the implementation of public policies is enhanced. As open data converts the resources stored in the government’s massive database into machine-readable format, experts in private sectors can use the data more effectively, and the value of government resources is maximized accordingly.
In order to hear opinions extensively and optimize government data, the Working Group on Open Data and Data Mining of the Taipei City Government Citizen Participation Advisory Council collects diverse suggestions on open government information and open data from as many as sources possible. They evaluate and develop the open data policies of Taipei City Government and perform a comprehensive data inventory for all departments of Taipei City Government. Furthermore, the Council members review the data against the missions and responsibilities of the departments, and organize it for the use of the general public in human-readable and machine-readable formats. In order to release the data that truly meets people’s need, and for citizens’ and developers’ convenient use, machine-readable data should be at least 70% of the data set. Up till August 2015, more than 1,253 pieces of data had been examined, and 731 were determined to be disclosable.
In addition to a comprehensive inventory, the first Taipei Open Data Hackathon, a valueadded application of data contest, was held on May 23, 2015. More than 200 participants competed in a 10-hour marathon to develop applications using the data set on the Data. Taipei platform. The contest featured creation of software application and services on four themes - value-added application of open data, organization and comparison of open data (platform), open government and civic participation, as well as bad data/good data challenge. The results of the contest were made available as open sources for the reference and use of the public and other government agencies.
Open data brings numerous benefits for citizens. For instance, the publicly available crime map allows citizens to have a better grasp of their personal and property safety; the opening of the information on lead water supply pipes helps people learn about their surrounding environment and drinking water, and also pushes the government to replace outdated or wornout facilities; real-time open data on disaster and disaster relief ensures immediate evacuation of the residents in disaster areas to prevent worse loss of life and damage. These are the new values open data creates for public resources by way of data innovation, value-added services, and data potential release.
Visualized Budgets – Illustrating the Dynamics of Government Spending
Government budgets are usually confusing for most people owing to the enormous numbers and complicated budgetary items. In order for everyone to understand and scrutinize the city’s budgeting, Taipei City Government decided to visualize municipal budgets or in other words, illustrate the budgets with graphics. It offers an easier and friendlier access for people to learn about the details of the city’s budgets.
It is not a simple task to illustrate the existing budget with easy-to-understand graphics. Besides the information technology, it is essential to fully understand the connotation of the budget of every department before making a straightforward and comprehensive graphic presentation of the budget. With the collaborative efforts of the Department of Information Technology, the Department of Budget, Accounting and Statistics and civil groups with regards organizing information sources, programming, and linking the systems for visualized budget, the city government officially announced the first visual government budget in Taiwan on September 11, 2015. The municipal budget was not only illustrated in graphics, it was also converted into open data and made available to the general public on the Budget Visualization Website. Moreover, people can sign in to leave comments on the website with their Facebook accounts. The website has attracted at least 180,000 unrepeated visitors since it was launched, with a total number of visits of more than 570,000, and more than 540,000 Facebook visitors up to November 20, 2015.
Participatory Budgeting – Putting the Essence of Deliberative Democracy into Practice
Following the visualized budgets, which have enabled people to have a comprehensive grasp of the municipal budgeting, the next important point is participatory budgeting – the essence of deliberative democracy. For the present, the city government has developed policies, execution plans and standard operating procedures with regards to three aspects: monitoring of existing budgeting and execution, citizens’ budget proposal, and evaluation of existing projects and mechanisms supporting public participation in all departments of Taipei City Government. Implementation has been incorporated in the Project for Encouraging People to Participate in Community Transformation of the various district offices.
To test the mechanism, the district offices take the approach of bottom up decision-making for initial projects, such as organizing community-based self-help from users’ perspective, submitting proposals by neighborhood magistrates, representatives of community development associations or other registered community-based organizations to promote community participation with the description of advantages, analysis of resources and identification of the foremost issues. Building Neihu Public Assembly Hall was the first case pulled off adopting the concept of “participatory budgeting.” It was kicked off in April 2015 and carried out in two phases. The first phase “The Perfect Assembly Hall in My Mind” studied citizens’ expectation of the public assembly hall by using a questionnaire. The second was “Name the Happy Baby and Young Citizens’ i-Participation.” In addition to choosing an impressive and memorable name for the Happy Baby, the mascot of the Neihu Public Assembly Hall, the most important aim of the event was to nurture the concept of citizen participation in the minds of children. The students of the Taipei Sanmin Junior High School and the Hsinhu Elementary School in Neihu District demonstrated participation by casting ballots. The activity stimulated children’s interest in social issues and helped them learn to express their opinions.
Several events held afterwards also adopted participatory budgeting. The Zhongshan District Office organized the Green Community Forum on July 4, 2015 to encourage people to join the garden city movement; the Songshan District Office held “Building a Perfect Garden” on July 14; and, the Neihu District Office had “the Growing Happiness on Purple Star Farm: the Grand Opening Party” on July 20. These are the best examples that applied the concept of participatory budgeting. They created maximum benefit out of a small investment and helped determine the appropriateness of the plan to improve the efficiency of government resource utilization.
The key to the success of participatory budgeting is the thorough understanding of the concept by participants and planners. Therefore, the Taipei City Government Citizen Participation Advisory Council worked with the Department of Civil Affairs, Taipei City Government to develop a series of training courses. The seed personnel training for the city employees began in May 2015, including courses on participatory budgeting basics, international experiences, local finance, and various operating procedures pertinent to participatory budgeting and workshops, etc. The training inspired their sophisticated thinking on “open government and civic participation” because the instructors passed everything they know about the subject. For district office staff, the Council organized face-to-face discussions and training sessions. The participatory workshops for all district offices were completed before August 18, 2015. Moreover, the program promoting participatory budgeting to the general public was launched on November 20. By obtaining certification at three levels –basic, advanced, and the “369+Buzzing Cards,” people are encouraged to learn about and take part in participatory budgeting. It is hoped public participation in Taipei City will be taken further when the images of participatory budgeting becomes more and more clear.
Participation in Taipei City’s Today and Tomorrow
A city should be an ever-evolving organism. Public participation is the solution citizens expect of to make constant progress for Taipei. Taipei City Government believes citizens’ thoughts are the city’s best assets and what has been done so far is just the beginning for citizen participation in Taipei. In future, more public policies and urban planning will include citizen participation. In Taipei, “people are the boss” is never just a slogan. Instead, it is a shared commitment and a norm for collaboration. Taipei City Government is committed to think, govern, and take responsibilities together with all citizens to build a better tomorrow.