In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, Premier Su Tseng-chang (蘇貞昌) on May 4 announced that the Cabinet would expand its financial relief program with a NT$10,000 grant for eligible applicants. On the first application day, long lines formed outside district and township offices, and since many applicants did not qualify for the grant, disorder broke out, exposing flaws in the government’s policymaking and implementation.
The first problem is the lack of a bottom-up approach with local government participation. Many democratic countries have long since abandoned one-way, top-down thinking, and instead emphasize bottom-up administrative participation.
Taiwan’s highly successful pandemic prevention can be partially attributed to local governments’ proactive responses and advanced deployment.
Despite the central government’s claim that it and local governments are of one mind, the subsidy program was rushed without participation from local governments, which instead became “errand boys” to implement the policy.
Local governments are responsible for implementing the program on the front line, as they better understand their constituents’ needs. The central government should have coordinated with them when formulating the grant program, and it should have launched it only when complementary measures were in place to avoid public complaints.
The central government invites mayors and deputy mayors of Taiwan’s six municipalities to the Executive Yuan’s weekly meeting, and Su should have allowed them to participate on this issue. He was able, but unwilling to do so.
Second, there is a lack of “customer-oriented communication” about the policy. Su used flower sellers and people who advertise in the street as an example of those who would benefit, saying that all people whose income is affected by the pandemic could apply for the grant. Then the public — the external customers — swarmed district and township offices nationwide.
Unfortunately, like the public, civil servants also learned about the program from the news and were unable to explain it to applicants.
Third, there was a lack of empathy in the implementation of the program, as the government failed to streamline administration to simplify the process for applicants. Although Minister Without Portfolio Kung Ming-hsin (龔明鑫) on May 6 proposed a few steps to simplify the application process, public anger had already spread to the central government.
New Taipei Mayor Hou You-yi (侯友宜) was praised for telling the city’s district offices to promptly simplify the application process and pledging to take full responsibility for his decision, while Taipei Mayor Ko Wen-je (柯文哲) criticized the central government for creating unnecessary problems.
For years, I have promoted “e-government” solutions. The Ministry of Finance, which has access to household income data, has long provided taxpayers with online services for calculating tax filings, so why does it still require people in need to prepare documents and fill out one form after another?
It has been more than 100 days since COVID-19 broke out in Taiwan, and the government has switched from easing restrictions to saving the economy.
The central government should learn from the relief-related commotion. On the basis of participation, communication and empathy, it should cooperate closely with local governments to ensure that its policies benefit those who need it in the next phase of their relief work.
Jack Lee is a professor in National Open University’s public administration department.
Translated by Eddy Chang
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