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Lessons on democracy

  • by JW

… in the field of high tech and grass roots representation


The VGS doesn’t ‘do politics’ – but it does follow the old notion of ‘think globally, act locally’ – as what’s happening on the other side of the world might well be of interest to our small corner of it.

Take the very big political issue of ‘democracy’, which is very much a topic of discussion across the globe – and which is something of interest to us here in the Sid Valley and East Devon.

More about us in a moment.

But let’s look at the other side of the world and the lessons it might impart.

Taiwan was highlighted back in June 2020 for its huge success at combating the coronavirus – and it was due to much more than the stereotyped ‘conformist society’. Rather, it was much more to do with its ‘hyper democracy’: Taiwan’s “hyper-democracy” helped it beat COVID-19 – through “humour over rumour”, and hackers making games out of the search for masks — THE ALTERNATIVE

Of course, there’s a huge amount of power politics at play, with the UK parliament playing host to a Taiwanese minister to “discuss the dangers to democracy in Taiwan”: Taiwan: democracy in danger – UK Parliament

Perhaps, however, Taiwan does have something to recommend to the Mother of Parliaments – with a Radio 4 documentary this evening looking at what the country has been doing and what lessons it might have for us here in the UK and even in East Devon:

Taiwan is… now being heralded as a place where digital technology is giving citizens a sense of direct engagement with political systems and law creation. They have a Minister of Digital Affairs, Audrey Tang, who has brought his computer software programming expertise learned in Silicon Valley to bear on the way in which ideas, petitions and suggested law reforms can be promoted by way of a website which boasts millions of users.

The BBC’s former Taiwan Correspondent Cindy Sui revisits the Island to try and measure the success of the website called ‘Join’ at a time when Taiwan faces very direct international pressures. But she also explores more established systems of local democracy, including the system of community chiefs or Lin Zhangs and the 24 hour hotline with its promise of a speedy response to any inquiry or report about issues closer to home.

Western democracies have faced harsh criticism in recent years about sections of their populations feeling that their voices aren’t being heard. Does Taiwan have lessons for its more established democratic colleagues, and if it does, are they in the field of high tech or grass roots representation?

BBC Radio 4 – Taiwan: Hyper-democracy

And how well are we doing more locally?

Let’s take two of the main themes and explore them from the perspective of East Devon.


It could be argued that the increase in working from home enables greater digital participation – and more of both is happening in East Devon: The debate on WFH continues – Vision Group for Sidmouth

Certainly there was greater participation when council meetings were being held on zoom: Virtual meetings and citizen engagement – Vision Group for Sidmouth and Should councils be allowed to continue doing virtual meetings? – Vision Group for Sidmouth and Should councils be allowed to continue doing virtual meetings? part two – Vision Group for Sidmouth

But unfortunately, a lot of the debate has become party political: Council leader calls for government to allow virtual and hybrid meetings – East Devon Radio (December 21) What is democracy supposed to be? | East Devon Watch (October 22) East Devon backs MP Simon Jupp’s call for public access to EDDC (November 22) 

Nevertheless, at all sorts of levels, local councils are trying to make use of technology to engage with their citizenry – for example, with Devon County Council: Democracy and engagement – Digital Devon

However, ‘digital democracy’ should be more than the simple availability of online information from the authorities: there need to be real opportunities for feedback and influence ‘from the bottom up’.


Perhaps, then, ‘citizens assemblies’ are a way forward.

During the pandemic, the Devon Climate Emergency and University of Exeter put together proposals for an online citizen’s assembly: Citizens’ Assembly – Devon Climate Emergency

Last year’s climate citizens’ assembly in Hereford was decided by sortition, or by lots: Of sortition, participatory democracy and engaging people in the political process – Vision Group for Sidmouth

This is very much going from a representative democracy to a participatory system: Participatory budgeting and participatory democracy – Vision Group for Sidmouth and New times: new ideas: Participatory Budgeting – Vision Group for Sidmouth

East Devon has made some efforts: Democracy and Transparency at East Devon – Vision Group for Sidmouth

With a dedicated portfolio holder: Executive post – Portfolio Holder Democracy, Transparency and Communications – East Devon

This May there will be local elections – and accountability and process will no doubt be an issue: East Devon District Council Elections – 4 May 2023 – East Devon

Finally, see the dedicated page on the issues: Local democracy – Vision Group for Sidmouth