Gov2.in campaign gets a boost as Sibal, decision-makers join the debate Communications and IT minister favours transformational role for social media
The Municipal Corporation of Delhi launched a Facebook page last year and created a forum for better interaction with citizens. No one could have predicted it till recently but now more and more government departments and organisations are opening themselves up to qualitative interaction with citizens and other stakeholders using Facebook, Twitter and so on – the social-media websites many associate only with the youth.
In the days to come, expect more of them. Because the Gov2.in campaign, taken up jointly by Governance Now magazine and Microsoft India and aimed at consolidating the use of social media to further improve governance, has achieved critical mass now.
The Forum, held in New Delhi on March 11 – within weeks of launching its website (gov2.in) with The Gov2.in Forum – attracted the who’s who of our bureaucrats, policy-makers and tech trend experts not to mention the ubiquitous concerned citizen or two.
If IT and Communications Minister Kapil Sibal set the tone for the day-long Forum with his inaugural address packed with ideas, it was followed up by meaty panel discussions and rounded off with a hands-on workshop in which groups of citizens and bureaucrats set together to chart out models ready for implementations.
Social media should look beyond a transactional role and aim to be transformational, Sibal said in his address. “If you see what is happening in Libya and elsewhere… This (the use of social media) is transformational,” the minister said.
“It’s really time this started and I congratulate Gov2.in for the initiative,” he said. “(Social media) sites are transactional in nature, like e-commerce. We need to move from transactional to transformational. This is the challenge sites like this will face,” he added.
Sibal pointed out that the increasing use of social media to raise issue of common concern was “essentially a middle-class movement. So, it is not inclusive. How do you make it inclusive? Government has to play a role.”
“In the next two years, government will connect every village, every taluka with broadband. This is our national commitment,” Sibal said, reiterating the promise the president made in her speech to the joint session of parliament at the beginning of UPA II.
The minister also suggested social-media users to discuss and debate “the danger” of the new platform. “All kinds of opinions are put forward and that is dangerous. Freedom of speech has some caveats. How do you ensure that (social media) sites incorporate constrains of freedom of speech,” Sibal said.
“We shouldn’t be judgmental on social media. These platforms should be looking for processes, for accountability. We need more dialogue and debate on how to take this forward.”
Sibal argued, “There has to be a societal check, that the information put on the site is properly digested.”
The minister also admitted that the government needed to be equipped to respond to the increasing use of social media on governance issues.
“How do we respond to information coming from such platforms? There should be concomitant platforms (on the government side),” the minister said.
Governance Now editor B V Rao in his remarks spoke about the social media revolution as Facebook and Twitter were no longer fads but driving real change on the ground. He highlighted the exemplary work done by Delhi traffic police, among other government departments and organisations, in using social media to improve interaction with citizens.
Microsoft India managing director Sanket Akerkar too spoke of examples set by organisations like India Post and underlined the need to draw up a roadmap for the effective use of social media in further improving governance.
TRANSPARENT REGULATION FOR OPTIMISING POTENTIAL
As government departments have begun to use social media with some amazingly encouraging results, they are not only realising the power of this new tool but also some attendant concerns. Users of the social media outside the government are equally concerned because there is little transparency about the way the government goes about blocking certain websites. Experts debated these and other key issues regarding regulation of the social media, in a panel discussion ‘Gov 2.0 for India – The Opportunity, The Challenge, The Reality’.
Census Commissioner C Chandramouli and Navdeep Suri, head of the public diplomacy division in the ministry of external affairs (MEA), shared their elation at the positive response from the general public to the use of social media by the government departments. Suri recounted the MEA’s highly effective use of Twitter during the Libyan crisis, with the department posting authentic real-time information which in turn helped it to bring back stranded Indians from not just Tripoli but also the Misratah steel plant. Chandramouli explained how his department engaged the general public with the largest administrative exercise in the world through the social media.
Both, however, highlighted the need to regulate these media as well. Shankar Aggarwal, additional secretary, department of information technology, said while information on the blocked sites was not available in the public domain the government was in the process of devising a mechanism to facilitate the same.
Pavan Duggal, a supreme court lawyer who specialises in cyber law, outlined the concerns on both sides: the government has no policy for social media; there is little distinction between personal and official accounts of the government officials; there is no clarity on just who is liable in case of transgressions on the social media networks; and the fact that Gov2.0 needs to be integrated into the new IT law. Duggal pointed out that the law makes little distinction between a blogger and a web merchant, which, he said, called for a more extensive debate on the draft IT law.
Since 65 percent of the spectrum remains with the army, as Ravi Saxena, additional chief secretary, Gujarat, reminded, the social media is bound to remain constricted in its reach. Yet, he emphasised, there was no way governments could ignore the impact of the social media in governance any longer. Shashank Ojha, senior e-government specialist with the World Bank, said even as India had a lot of catching up to do it should aspire to reach the level of the European Union which allows discussions on its policies online instead of just disseminating information on its website as the United States and Australia are doing.
GOVERNANCE IS THE BOTTOM-LINE
The use of social media in bettering governance is a relatively new concept for our government but those few departments who have tried it are not only very happy with the experience they want to expand its use to the maximum.
Participating in a discussion of case studies, PN Ranjitkumar, director of India Post, spoke of how two years ago the department had tried to use the social media to reach out to those who were not using the postal services. One year later, it led to the development of a grievances redressal mechanism with remarkable results. Now he plans to develop a blog for “deeper and more meaningful engagement” with the people.
Same with the Municipal Corporation of Delhi. It opened a Facebook account to involve citizens in its effort to keep Delhi clean. In a matter of months, more than 2,000 designated garbage collection points are now being monitored with the help of this platform. As MCD Additional Commissioner Anshu Prakash said, the civic body would start monitoring cleanliness of the public urinals from May.
The Delhi traffic police are yet another government agency which had a pleasant experience. Started in the run-up to the CWG 2010, the department wanted to use the social media to elicit suggestions, share thoughts and report traffic violations but such was the success that soon the department wanted to inform people about the traffic conditions of the day. Joint Commissioner Satyendra Garg commented that going by his experience, use of social media in improving governance would succeed only if the department was committed to transparency and committed to take people’s point of view into its functioning.
The ministry of external affairs is another one to use social media to great use, especially in organizing evacuation of stranded Indians in Libya. Under-secretary Abhay Kumar noted that the ministry was planning to create a rapid response team given the huge response it was getting from people.
The Planning Commission too began using Facebook a few months ago to bring in “participatory planning” by eliciting and incorporating ideas thrown up by the civil society and ordinary citizens. Harsh Srivastava, a consultant to the planning commission, said there had been a flood of suggestions and the plan body was now trying to figure out how to use them while preparing the approach paper to the 12th plan.
Rodrigo Becerra Mizuno, MD of Microsoft’s e-government worldwide project, had the last word. He said how governments in the Middle East had described the social media as a passing fad when he approached them over a year ago, adding how he hoped they had not dismissed it thus.
Governance, needless to say, goes beyond government-citizen interface and delivery of services (or redressal of complaints). For Nirmala Sitharaman, national spokesperson of the Bharatiya Janata party (BJP), social media are an efficient tool for political parties to reach out to masses.
“Political activists just cannot shy away from Facebook and Twitter anymore. They should feel comfortable using it. Social media, especially (special interest) groups being created, will be very important (to governance at the ground level,” Sitharaman said.
However, as for the core government operations, she found “the level of preparedness” a matter of concern. At the same time, she said, “The government spent a lot of money telling people how to use the Right to Information. Now is the time the government spent money on telling people how to use your social media to interact with your leaders.”
The panel discussion on ‘Public Access Information and Open Government – The New Accountability’ was moderated by Manisha Priyam, a Delhi University political science teacher and a London School of Economics research scholar. Ashishkumar Chauhan, deputy CEO of Bombay Stock Exchange, shared the lessons he learnt in improving interactivity and underlined the importance of competition – after all, it was the advent of the National Stock Exchange that pushed the BSE to adapt technology more.
Sunil Abraham of Centre for Internet and Society pointed out that piracy was an area where we were lagging behind. Sanjiv Mittal, CEO of the National Institute of Smart Governance, noted: “A lot has changed in the last six years. Government departments know they cannot continue like this.. technology is the only way. They need transparency. Challenge is only in implementation.”
The workshop session provided the participants an opportunity to see how the ideas thrown up during the day can be implemented on the ground. Divided into five groups, each having enough representatives of government departments as well as social-media user citizens, they brainstormed for about an hour to come up with a basic roadmap for a citizen interface model for central and state governments as well as local urban bodies. Their reports are being collated and will be sent to the government.
The event was organised in association with Department of Information Technology, National e-Governance Plan and Public Diplomacy division of the Ministry of External Affairs.
While the knowledge partner of the event was India Strategy Group of Hammurabi and Solomon Consulting IIP, the animation partner was Bellpepper Animations. Tata Photon and Zee Business were the connectivity partner and channel partner, respectively, and Public Relations Society of India (PRSI) was the PR partner for the Forum.