22 Nov 2016 14:52 IST

Governance @140 characters

Social media is changing the way government bodies work

Minutes after Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced the demonetisation of ₹500 and ₹1,000 currency notes in an address to the nation on November 8, his Government was using social media — Twitter, Facebook and WhatsApp — to spread the word on the bold reform.

Over the next few days as criticism grew over the execution, Modi, who is followed by nearly 25 million people on Twitter, and his ministers again took to the social media to give information on the distribution of exchanged notes, quell rumours and build public support.

While the jury on demonetisation is still out, social media has cemented its place in the heart of Indian administration. And it is not just at the Centre.

In September, Bengaluru witnessed violence over the release of water from the Cauvery. While a posse of police was trying to control mobs on the streets, another team of Bengaluru Police went on to Twitter to quell rumours spread from other social media platforms.

The social media team quickly sent a string of Tweets, which varied from clarification on whether Sec 144 under CrPC (Code of Criminal Procedure) has been imposed or not, to pointing out routes safe to travel. The response wouldn’t have been as swift if Bengaluru Police had followed the regular bureaucratic system of issuing official statements. The medium was also convenient for the public to alert the police on the ground situation.

When characters speak

Welcome to governance, the digital kind. In particular, Twitter — a 140-character platform — has emerged as a ‘language’ for governance. While External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj used the platform to come to the rescue of Indians stuck abroad, Gujarat Chief Minister Vijay Rupani organised a townhall on Twitter to reach out to the public. His counterpart in Kerala, Pinarayi Vijayan took to Facebook during Onam to curb festivities during office hours, and a collector in the state’s Kozhikode district uses the same social media platform to give information of welfare schemes.

At the Centre, even as the Prime Minister led the transition, a overhaul was needed to tune the administration to this new form of governance. For instance, Press Information Bureau (PIB), which is the interface between government and media, had to reinvent itself. “We realised that only having a website wasn’t enough. Not everyone will keep visiting the website. We had to get active on social medium. And this had to been done 24x7,” said a senior official, who didn’t want to be named. Just as in the case of government press releases, before pushing out anything on social media, the approval of the ministry or official concerned is taken.

PIB uses the framework and guidelines of the Department of Electronics and Information Technology for use of social media for government organisations for disseminating information. The guidelines state that it is not just to disseminate information but also to undertake public engagement for a meaningful public participation for formulation of public policy.

Customised mechanism

Twitter Seva, a customised live customer delivery solution, is now being used by Union ministries such as Railways, Commerce, and External Affairs; and Bengaluru and Uttar Pradesh police. The India-first innovation offers a mechanism to respond to public queries and grievances by helping process large volumes of tweets, converting them into resolvable tickets, and assigning them to the relevant authority for real-time resolution.

Approximately 4.25 lakh tweets generated by these government agencies are being processed a month under this mechanism. Each tweet stacks up as a metric of the government’s and police departments’ intent to deliver effective and transparent service.

It is not just the departments or the ministries that are using Twitter for governance.

Some of the ministers are using their personal handles to help people. For those overseas, External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj is the first contact point on Twitter when they are in trouble. With 6.55 million followers, Swaraj is assisted by 130 Twitter accounts that the Ministry has across the world amplifying its outreach and effectiveness.

Many entrepreneurs, exporters and those operating in start-up ecosystem approach the Union Minister of State for Commerce Nirmala Sitharaman, who has 9.4 lakh followers on Twitter, to complain and make suggestions. If you see Railway Minister Suresh Prabhu checking his mobile quite often during a public programme, then he would probably be responding to a tweet tagging him and his ministry.

Twitter handles connected to the Indian Railways generate more than 2,000 tweets a day, half of them being re-tweets. A team headed by three senior Railway officials keeps a tab on the messages, working around the clock in three shifts. According to the nature and location of the tweet, each of these messages is passed down to the respective zonal and divisional levels. More than 250 officers of the Railways have twitter handles.

Tweet analysis

A February 2014 study conducted by the Washington-based fact tank Pew Research Centre and California’s Social Media Research Foundation, said that a tweet can be bracketed under the six regular conversational archetypes. They are: divided, unified, fragmented, clustered, inward hub and spoke, and outward hub and spoke.

Different groups of Twitter users discuss polarising topics in divided structure; and users connect to one another for information, ideas and information in unified. Fragmented structure is formed around products and celebrities, and tweets on global news and popular topics are clustered.

The study observed that a hub-and-spoke tweet is often triggered by news media outlets and pundits. However, outward hub and spoke structure is used in governance. The study says this kind of tweet is created when companies or government agencies respond to complaints and customer requests. The hub — companies or government agencies — account replies to many disconnected users, creating outward spokes.

Participation plays a major role in governance. Twitter has become a connecting tool between government agencies and citizens to ensure better participation. So as a Railway user when you tweet a complaint to the Ministry on Twitter, it gets the attention of all in the departments and officials concerned.

Tags and hashtags

The person who complained is tagged in the tweet to keep him/her in the loop on the complaint and the action taken is also mentioned there. This makes the agencies or the person concerned accountable to handle the complaint of a train user. It also gives instant review of the performance; if the agencies or person concerned are responsive or not in this governance process. One of the Twitter executives recently tweeted that the response time to all complaints on Railway Ministry’s official twitter handle is less than eight minutes. In the traditional, offline model, the whole process — which required a person to get in touch with the agencies or person concerned either on phone, mail or through the formal complaint — could have taken days.

Hashtags help navigate the countless number of tweets. They also play a significant role in Twitter governance.

The Union Ministry of Commerce and Industry, headed by Nirmala Sitharaman, launched the hashtag #mociseva in April. An institutionalised mechanism, with a special Twitter cell in the ministry manned by a set of dedicated officers, has been put in place to monitor and direct all the tweets to the concerned officers of the department.

On handling abuse or trolls on social media channels, the PIB official said that the social media team of the department has eight people on the job. They go through the twitter handles of all ministers/ministries and forward the important ones to the ministry officials concerned and seek response.

In 2014, the Modi government came to power with the slogan ‘Minimum Government, Maximum Governance’. It is to be seen how this slogan materialises into action during its five-year tenure. However, ‘minimum characters, maximum outcome’ seems to be the mantra for taking governance process to a new level.

(With inputs from Richa Mishra and Raghavendara Rao K )