What a “Digital Ministry” Could Mean for Taiwan

What a “Digital Ministry” Could Mean for Taiwan
Graphic: NDC

While plans for new digital agency are still being deliberated, both government insiders and industry players are weighing in on what form it should take and what its mandate should be.

For an economy as heavily dependent on technology as Taiwan’s, fostering digital and technological transformation is increasingly vital. The government’s plans to establish a dedicated high-level agency for such matters, announced by President Tsai Ing-wen at the Future Tech Exposition (Futex) in Taipei last December, could prove essential to this goal. The new body would supervise government policies covering ICT, information security, and telecommunication, as well as coordinate digital infrastructure development, Tsai said.

A national agency focused on digital policy was one of the recommendations made by AmCham Taipei’s Digital Economy Committee in its 2019 White Paper. In this year’s White Paper, the committee also stressed that the new agency should not just be a regulator but play a “major role in coordinating inter-agency dialogue.”

“From an industry perspective, we hope this new authority will be authorized to make key decisions,” says Renee Chou, co-chair of the Digital Economy Committee and head of public policy at Uber Taiwan. “We emphasize ‘development,’ not ‘management’ of Taiwan’s digital economy.” However, Chou says that committee members have expressed concerns that the proposed organization might focus more on regulating the new environment rather than helping it flourish.

The new government body would need to coordinate with units in different ministries that deal with similar issues, such as formulating digital strategy and information management. The result could be a redundancy of tasks and disjointed action as each unit is not always aware of what the others are doing.

“We need to make sure that they have a consistent worldview because each ministry, whenever they want to propose something, sometimes has to write three different versions for three different horizontal ministries,” says Minister without Portfolio Audrey Tang, whose unofficial title is Taiwan’s digital minister.

Tang, whose role involves coordinating policy related to digital technology, government data, and civic involvement, is helping lead efforts to establish the new digital body. Currently, she and two other ministers meet often to ensure consistency on issues related to digital transformation.

Graphic: NDC

“The three of us – the National Development Council minister, the Minister of Science and Technology, and me – need to convene very regularly just to make sure that we are on the same page when it comes to digital issues,” says Tang. “It causes a lot of internal churn, so to speak. The digital organization would ensure that for all these things, there is only one recipient for ministerial proposals.”

Tang’s office, the Public Digital Innovation Space, is not a ministry but rather a flexible arrangement that enables Tang to work on cross-ministerial issues and interact directly with the public. However, it lacks the personnel and resources essential for supporting digital transformation.

Settling on a name

Taiwan’s government is still deliberating what form the new organ would take. Most central government bodies under the Executive Yuan are ministries. There are also several councils, such as the National Development Council (NDC), which is responsible for crafting Taiwan’s national development plans and setting priorities.

Organizing the new agency as a ministry would give it the easiest access to funds, says Tang.

“It’s easier for a ministry to assume other existing agencies’ budgets,” she says. “Instead of having to draw the budget from scratch, you can have a continuous operating budget.”

On the other hand, Tang says, councils – while having less access to budget – have the advantage of being imbued with more oversight and strategy-making power. She cited the example of the NDC.

For certain issues, a ministry would need to be granted powers similar to those of a council, and vice versa, which adds to the complexity of the task of establishing the new agency. Tang jokes that she would personally prefer the formation of a “digital museum,” to be located next to the National Palace Museum, which is also a stand-alone body under the Executive Yuan.

One of Taiwan’s successful digital projects was creation of digital access to the exhibits in the National Palace Museum. Photo: National Palace Museum

Tang and her colleagues hope to release a draft plan for the new body before the end of the year. The proposal would then go to the Legislative Yuan for deliberation.

The most vocal support for a government body dedicated to digital development has come from the private sector. The Information Service Industry Association of ROC (CISA), which represents 750 software and networking firms and institutes, has emphasized the need for a new digital development agency for many years. Such a body “can help facilitate development of the ICT industry and oversee digital legal matters and cyber-security, as well as the government’s information and public communication policies,” says CISA Chairman Brian Shen.

He says that as Taiwan looks beyond its computer hardware sector to new areas of growth, the new digital agency should focus on expanding Taiwan’s software capabilities. Meanwhile, the application of ICT solutions in society will require relevant legal support, he says, pointing to the potential use of wearable devices in law enforcement.

“We have proposed that the new body’s organizational level be higher than a ministry – for example, a council similar to the NDC,” says Shen. “This new body could coordinate with different ministries.” He points to Taiwan’s centralized efforts to combat COVID-19 efforts as a successful example of intragovernmental cooperation. Under the program, immigration data was linked to the national health database, giving doctors access to patients’ travel history. Such efforts “showed that digital integration can provide value in information exchange, which is a feature of digital transformation,” says Shen.

He adds that the agency should be given the authority to oversee the ICT operations of other ministries, determining their ICT budget allocation and helping choose their Chief Information Officer. “This is key,” he says.

Whether the new body will place its major focus on working with the private sector or rather with other government organizations has yet to be determined.

“That depends on what the legislature declares as the mandate of the digital organization,” says Tang. She notes that former premier Simon Chang of the KMT proposed a more inward-looking plan that focused on the digital transformation of existing ministries, whereas President Tsai’s plan is more outward-looking, focusing on private industry, such as “speeding up the next Uber.” There are “strong arguments for the digital organization to do both,” she says.

Other countries, including Poland, Thailand, and Canada, have established bodies to oversee digital development. Tang says that in the UK the Government Digital Service comes under the Cabinet Office and operates an online public service, while the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport is a ministry responsible for digital identity policy.

Another option would be a new type of arrangement in the form of a hybrid ministry-council, which would provide a balance between strategy and execution.

While the Digital Economy committee’s member companies have worked with the NDC on issues such as industry regulatory needs, a specialized digital body would be able to further this engagement. “We think the new organization needs to be further authorized or empowered to make policy decisions,” says Chou of Uber.

Chou adds that the NDC’s mandate to plan for national development is overly broad. “It makes sense to move part of the responsibility for digital economy development to the new body,” she says.

Besides focusing on the economy, a dedicated digital agency should also look at the broader application and impact of technology on society, says Roy Ngerng, assistant research fellow at National Taiwan University’s Risk Society and Policy Research Center. He says that an integrated sustainability strategy should be part of the agency’s core agenda, with specific action items implemented to ensure that Taiwan’s digital transformation incorporates a sustainability mindset.

“For example, companies need to shift from adopting digitalization to make production quicker, to looking at how digitalization can be used to make production cleaner,” Ngerng says.

Given all the expectations and needs of government and the private sector, the progress toward creation of a new digital agency will certainly continue to be watched closely.