Tuesday, March 15, 2011

GOI's social skills.

Those of us in the digital inclusion/innovation space have understood the crucial need for e-government. We're not alone, the government has realized it too and many states are making a direct play to turn dusty old files into online folders. This intention has been further solidified by the first draft of Electronic Delivery of Services Bill, 2011, which has proposed that all ministries and government departments will have to deliver services electronically, be it through the internet or mobile phones.

All of this sounded very good to me till I attended a conference called "The Power of Social Media for Governance" a few days ago. It was called the 'Gov2.in' forum. Social media, we all know, can be employed to create knowledge networks, disseminate information and keep track of the world around you. Personally, Twitter is a better source of news than any newspaper homepage can hope to be, and Facebook keeps me abreast of my friends in a way email or simple phone calls could not do. But that's not the point right now: in the context of social media, it allows strangers to connect over a decidedly neutral platform and talk about issues. Sure, people get nasty, but there is a distance of a computer screen (mobile) to save you from any unnecessary facetime.

The first time that any of us heard about any government official *really* engaging with people online was probably Shashi Tharoor's twitter account. LK Advani's homepage had created a lot of buzz during the last elections (I did a story on it too, for The Indian Express) but it wasn't quite as chatty as Twitter can be. In fact, I was invited to a BJP youth meet where Advani was speaking, and to my surprise he did not answer a single question asked of him or even address the topic at hand (it was about employment and the future, if I remember correctly) but gave this inane speech about the first time he saw a cell phone and then basically said what he wanted and left. Contrast that to what we see online today, with politicians actually answering individual questions online, with the safety net of being measured if they want, because they can type, delete and retype before pressing enter.

Tharoor, of course, ended up on national TV in (for the most part) retarded "scandal" after "scandal" and social media was perceived as something "serious" politicians should not do. But he did, at a later stage, point me to the Ministry of External Affairs Public Diplomacy Division, where I learnt that officials had set up a Twitter page and were actively seeking social media strategies to let people know about what the ministry and diplomatic missions do. At the time I think they were focusing on promoting India's soft power (even within the country) by creating goodwill among people. I think the whole theory turned on its head in the light of events in Egypt and Libya, where the MEA actually had a Twitter account set up, with MEA officials manning it, and they were able to save lives through the technology.

The rest of us in Delhi were also getting familiar with Delhi Police's Facebook page, and that immediate cause and effect made most internet savvy people proud. The MCD has an online FB page that focuses on garbage disposal, India Post helps people track parcels through Twitter etc. Now imagine being able to converse with any and every department you can find out about electricity issues, passport issues... you name it.

Back to the conference. Kapil Sibal, Minister for Communications and Information Technology, gave the first speech. Although the topic was to discuss what I have already discussed above, I was immediately struck by the reluctance Sibal had in opening up government departments to social media, because it seemed, in his mind, it would go the way of TV News. What do I mean? The way TV news picks up a topic and wages war against it has clearly left a lot of politicians burnt, and it seems Sibal was looking at FB and Twitter (and other social media which we use next) as a device by which campaigns against the government will be waged, and complaints made even more public. He chose to, instead, focus on simple delivery mechanism e-gov stories, which kept the narrative simple. "I build software, you save time = less corruption".

The very interesting part is that this whole time I had this phrase from the West Wing stuck in my head (yes, I know, I'm sorry, I am obsessed!) where a Republican blames Democrats for "not liking the people" and that being a reason for big government. In this case, it was obvious that the government is not inclined towards "trusting" the people and is not very keen to move forward on allowing them to have free say in the way they are governed. At least not via the internet, that vote being saved for elections.

This was a reason the panel that followed, which included many bureaucrats, warmed my heart. These were our own babus who had taken steps to engage with the public (I have mentioned the examples above). The names, as far as I can remember now: MEA's Navdeep Suri, Census Commissioner Chandramouli, Gujarat gov's Ravi Saxena, Dept of IT's Shankar Aggarwal, MCD's Anshu Prakash, Delhi Police's Satyendra Garg, India Post's Ranjit Kumar, MEA's Abhay Kumar...... and so on. There were also other specialists on the panel who weighed in on e-government, but more to the point, using social media to complement e-government work.

The takeways were simple enough: although there is criticism, however, if you respond to it then social media users will also come to your defense. And even if the technology seems alien to you, if you keep at it, you can really bring people over to the side of governance. Perhaps the most important was: if you don't have a team in place to deal with all the questions/comments/complaints that come your way, people become very impatient and think your department is lazy. So, all in all, its not easy to *just begin* but as someone noted, if you are not in it, you are out it. Sounds simplistic, but being out of it will cost a lot.

I know this post is very long so I'll try and end it: In discussing policy and IT laws that govern the country, a very big concern came out. The draft amendment to the IT act places intermediaries responsible for content. For example, now that bloggers have been called intermediaries, they will be responsible for comments on their blogs. And because of these changes, the government can then shut down blogs and sites because of concerns, none of which they are really concerned about spelling out. During the conference this question was asked twice: is there a list of banned blogs and why the government has banned them. The person asking drew the comparison to books and said; we all know which/why books are banned. IT lawyer Pavan Duggal also pointed out that state governments have a lot of power in blocking sites and in the case of non national interest reasons, they must disclose what the reasons are.

What all of this is adding up to is this (for me anyway): there is a divide between the government's instinctive reaction to *not* trust people with the kind of freedoms the internet intrinsic nature allows them, and harnessing this power/potential goodwill to become a better democracy and a more responsive government. However, right now, we must go according to the highest statements -- the additions to the IT Act and the ministers reserved language. And they seem to say: we want to adopt e-government because “technology” is here to stay, but we are wary of blogs/social networks because citizens can offer direct and public opinions, and the tide may go against us.

There seems to be these waves of imagination and creativity passing through the Indian government, especially when it comes to the internet. But it will have to trust its people, and it will have to trust its own ability to respond to the people. Otherwise this system is going to crash.


Abhay K said...

Brilliant piece Miss Kaul. Enjoyed reading it.

mahima said...

thanks :))

Ira said...

well said -of course, sitting in my village, not more than an hours drive from the 'education capital' of the country our concerns are very different-!!

egg style said...

Outstanding piece. It nicely captures the confusion of the Indian ruling elite over aspects of ‘freedom’ that are clear to people at large, a clarity that one might add is starting to haunt the present government.

This ‘trust’ thing you speak of is the essence of democracy, no doubt, though am not sure if there exists any model anywhere that can be looked up to; The West Wing (indulge your obsession by all means, Mahima, we’re all ears) reflects views too damn American to offer any worthwhile analogies: small government in a caste-ridden and poverty-stricken country like India would be one devoid of compassion and thus one that dislikes people (mostly the marginalized) in a more visceral way.

Free speech for bloggers, yes, again the Centre is hellbent on imposing its own azaadi confusion on people who have some clarity. But here again, we should not be awed by any model anywhere else in the world. There is no Barbiesque perfection to be found, and therefore no order of ranking on this measure that makes any real sense.

Speech has limits just about everywhere, most of them socially rather than legally ordained, and if anyone believes him/herself to be ‘free to speak’ in its truest sense, he/she is obviously someone whose thoughts have been thoroughly conditioned culturally to comply with the prevailing limits of ‘free speech’ [McCarthyism in the US and its new avatar Kingism show America's limits, for example].

Anonymous said...

Nicely written and I have to agree that the government is really showing a lack of faith in the people - and more then that, they are showing a leaning toward not WANTING to listen to the people and giving such a clear avenue for expression because as has been exemplified across the globe in recent times, it can bring people together and allow dissent against those in power and expose the corruption and failings within the system more clearly and without outside influence as happens in some mainstream media - either through personal bias or from govt pressure.
If the kind of governance they are aiming for comes through, we will on our way to a more police state and it will be a death knell for free speech in this country.
Sure, maybe I'm looking at a worst case scenario there but the last few years have shown me little reason to be optimistic with the ruling class.