Can g0v be replicated abroad?
By Sam Robbins, CC BY 2.0
One question that often lies somewhat in the subtext of English-language discussion of g0v (pronounced gov-zero), a Taiwanese decentralized civic hacking community now in its 10th year, is whether such a structure could be replicated abroad. Other times, this line of inquiry is made explicit, whether it be in articles on lessons from gov-zero and gov-zero projects; discussions of Taiwan’s democratic innovations, or in discussion about pandemic tech. At many points in professional and more casual contexts, I have been asked to provide a road map for how g0v could be done abroad, or to explain what Taiwan is doing right. In reality, I’m increasingly convinced that we are asking the wrong question.
The more honest answer is that it could, and the presence of g0v communities in the US and Hong Kong already attest to this, but that it most likely won’t be, and that most of those who ask the question are not actually interesting in setting up a g0v, but in hearing a feel-good story of the power of activism. More crucially, I think it is important to ask what people mean when they ask whether g0v can be replicated abroad, or what it would even mean to do so.
g0v began when a team competing in Yahoo’s Open Hack Day 2012 made a last-minute switch in their project from an online shopping project to a website that visualized how the government budget was being spent. This was in response to both a failed attempt to collaborate with the government on housing data visualization, which ended somewhat acrimoniously, and to a Ma Ying-jeou advertisement which claimed that economic policy was too complicated for citizens to understand. After winning prize money, the team purchased the g0v.tw domain and used their money to host their own hackathon dedicated to more politically-oriented projects, in contrast to commercial projects more common at the time. This was the “0th” g0v hackathon, and the 53rd is being held in October 2022.
The origin of the 0th hackathon, in addition to the boon the community received following the anti-government Sunflower movement protests in 2014, reveal the first crucial lesson for those interested in replicating g0v abroad: g0v has been borne out of a sense that the public lacked ways to participate in the political process. This sentiment was most acute during the Ma years, which saw a range of popular movements emerge in response to a seemingly increasingly opaque political system, but it also has deeper roots in Taiwan’s still-recent transition to democracy. I have argued elsewhere that the central grievance that motivates g0v as a movement is the sense that opportunities for participation and oversight are low, as g0v has very few other central principles or values other than openness, sharing and open source. Professor Mei-Chun Lee has referred to this as g0v’s attempt to “hack governance” by creating alternative forms of collaboration, solidarity, and ways of working together. In this respect, the g0v community remains somewhat unique in both its refusal of any attempt to formalize its structure and its focus on hosting hackathons and project work as the central form of political action.
A central question for me is thus whether a movement organized around a need to create new channels for participation is feasible abroad without Taiwan’s specific historical context. Another question is whether such a movement would decide on hackathons and project-work as their central technique. G0v functions the way it does because people are more interested in the goal of working on projects than on building successful projects. Indeed, g0v is a place where projects fail. Successful projects only emerge because people are committed to the form of engagement and the broader goal of participation, but this commitment is not easy to replicate.
The question thus becomes: what do we want from replicating g0v abroad? In reality, the answer is likely to have a community that produces successful technological tools that the government can appropriate. Most g0v coverage focuses on specific projects, such as budget visualization, Cofacts, the fact checking system, or pandemic technology. All this technology is indeed impressive, but if all people want is successful tools, then the question is not really one of replicating g0v abroad. All these tools are open source, and open source is perhaps the most central value within g0v. If we want to borrow the successful technology that g0v has created, all can be “forked” and repurposed for different contexts.
If instead we want to replicate the context in which, in response to a pandemic, hundreds of people would gather online to create new tools to help the government, the task is much more difficult. This is not because collective action is a phenomenon unique to g0v: people around the world responded to the pandemic by creating community support projects and creating new networks to buy groceries in response to sudden lockdowns. Indeed, what makes it difficult is because people are already mobilizing in ways that respond to local contexts, and thus don’t feel the need to join a slack to build technology, as happened in Taiwan.
The other aspect of answering this question is being honest about why some g0v projects do indeed succeed. The crucial ingredient is often outside funding or other forms of outside support, which speak more of the success of project managers within g0v to market their projects to funders than of the way in which g0v operate. The other aspect, the fact that the Taiwanese government has been generally receptive to g0v and its projects, again perhaps speaks more to the nature of the Taiwanese government than to the structure of g0v. Indeed, although it is notable that Audrey Tang, a g0v participant, entered the government in 2016, even before her, Jaclyn Tsai, minister without portfolio under Ma Ying-Jeou, reached out to g0v following the sunflower movement to investigate ways to collaborate.
It is thus also important to return to whether people really want to replicate g0v abroad, or just be told that they could. We should be careful of bracketing off Taiwan’s successes as a story of some kind of weird East-Asian Exotic Innovation hub and the expense of focusing on what people do in g0v, which is often working on projects that will later fail. I am always excited when people want to learn about g0v and learn from g0v, but I worry that those ask me are often more interested in either a simplistic how-to model, or alternatively, the key as to why g0v is somehow uniquely Taiwanese (uniquely Eastern) and thus irrelevant to discussion of activism in the West.
Perhaps the best answer is thus that g0v could be replicated abroad, but it shouldn’t be. G0v is highly unique in the specific ways it approaches problems, but thoroughly un-unique in being a group of activists dedicated to solving problems. We can not forget the second part of this when we reflect on the first part. How activists come together to work towards a common goal depends deeply on political contexts. Tech and civil society can collide in a range of different forms. A look at the list of members of the Association for Progressive Communication (APC), a global network of civil society groups promoting equality through information and communications technology, also reveals that there are already many groups engaging with digital technology as a liberatory tool, but few focus so specifically on hackathons, projects and such a horizontal structure. Different movements emerge in response to different local struggles. And, as APC shows us, there are many movements innovating and creating new forms of engagements, even if they lack the attention that the g0v community has received. Similarly, there are movements around the world pushing for greater democratization, political participation, and enfranchisement. The central values of g0v, supporting greater political participation, are not unique to the organization, they just manifest themselves in a unique arrangement in g0v.
If there is one thing I believe other communities can learn from g0v, it is the way that fun is consciously cultivated by participants as a way to help tackle burnout and make people interested in participating. In the g0v community, fun isn’t tangential to politics, but part of the way that political action can continue to happen. Indeed, it is the honesty and clarity that g0v participants are able to describe how fun can be political that is perhaps g0v’s greatest lesson for other groups. Hackathons are designed not just as places for work, but as places for socialization and community. I, along with many others in g0v, participate in part because I have made friends in g0v and I enjoy working with them. Even though not all social movements can perhaps be propelled by positive emotions, creating activist spaces that people want to go to just for the sake of being there and not just as a way to mobilize is likely a lesson that other movements could learn from as a way to prevent movements getting demobilized when progress seems slow.
G0v is without borders. Those interested in g0v, regardless of where they are, should join the g0v slack and participate in g0v. Those interested in taking the benefits of g0v and replicating them in another political and social context would perhaps be better served by learning from g0v and then on reflection on what existing movements are already taking place in their home country. G0v’s success is not because g0v has cracked any secret activist code, but because the community has created a model and form of engagement that has appealed to people locally and thus been able to slowly grow and expand. There are other models that work, and there are other models that are working. Other movements would perhaps be better served by reflecting on how g0v responds to specific challenges, such as governance, creating an environment open for all to join, and in fostering connections with communities traditionally disconnected with technologists in Taipei. Such specific forms of exchanging ideas and learning from other activists is likely a much more enriching experience than trying to recreate g0v abroad. If you still want to recreate g0v, perhaps you first need to elect Ma ying-jeou as president of your country. I’ll let you figure out the specifics of that arrangement.