04 May 2020 21:54 IST

Prasanth Nair and the Compassionate Kozhikode project

A people’s project steered by the District Collector provided public services and transformed the region

Prasanth Nair, the District Collector of Kozhikode between February 2015 and January 2017, was widely feted for conceiving Compassionate Kozhikode (CK), a volunteer-driven project that provided various public services. Popularly called “Collector Bro” by his followers, Nair employed social media extensively to engage with the public and inspired them to donate goods and volunteer their time to the CK project.

Nair created a Facebook public page called ‘Collector Kozhikode’ immediately after assuming this role in Kozhikode. Soon after, Nair happened to visit the government mental health centre in the district, and was left devastated by the plight of the 600 patients who were living in pitiable condition without even essential materials.

When the hospital Superintendent cited lack of government funds as the reason for this condition, Nair asked him for a list of items that the hospital required. Upon receiving a list of 22 items, including wheelchairs, cots, mugs, plates, air beds, nail cutters, scissors, and water purifiers, Nair posted the list on the official Facebook page and requested the citizens of Kozhikode to donate (in kind) the items. Nair later explained that he did not want to write to the government and wait for lengthy approval processes, when there was an immediate need for these items.

Many people came forward to help, and within two weeks, Nair had received all the items on the list – with citizens donating items worth ₹10 lakh. Encouraged by this response, Nair launched the “Compassionate Kozhikode” project in the first half of 2015. It comprised several volunteer-run community initiatives that tackled a host of issues such as poor roads, crowded buses, and hunger. Some of the initiatives were also aimed at helping institutions such as libraries, children’s homes, old age homes, and palliative care centres (See Table for the various initiatives).

 

 

Operation Sulaimani

Operation Sulaimani (OS) was the flagship initiative of CK. Nair did not want names that “smack of typical government projects”, so the initiative was named after Sulaimani tea, a popular beverage of the district. The objective of the initiative, launched in collaboration with the Kerala Hotel and Restaurants Association, was to tackle the problem of hunger and to ensure that no person in the district would go hungry for want of money. Under the scheme, Sulaimani food coupons, each worth ₹40, were distributed through counters set up at the Collectorate, village and taluk offices, at select hostels, railway stations, and bus stands. The needy could redeem these coupons for a free meal at any of the more than 125 partner restaurants.

The volunteer team placed boxes, with ‘Operation Sulaimani’ inscribed on them, across the district into which nameless donations poured in. All the money collected was employed to reimburse the partner restaurants for the coupons collected and meals served by them. The OS team allowed neither large donations nor government funding for the initiative. The team even turned down large donation offers as it believed that the spirit of OS was in the collective responsibility shouldered by the people to care for one another instead of a generous contribution by any one individual or organisation.

Nair said that the initiative also helped tackle the problem of food wastage and with time the administration started ensuring that only the needy people availed of the service. By April 2017, a minimum of 250 Sulaimani coupons were being used on a daily basis.

Volunteers offering range of services

Besides donations in kind, the CK project’s website, compassionatekozhikode.in, posted various areas that needed voluntary services. The donor could select an institution that he/she wanted to be associated with, choose from the list of its requirements listed on the website, and communicate his/her willingness in the space provided. For instance, as occupational therapists at mental health centres, plumbers at leprosy hospitals, maids at children’s centres, teachers at girls’ care homes, and yoga trainers at old-age homes. Social media platforms such as Facebook and WhatsApp were used to promote the project while emphasising one of the key tenets of the project – “No cash, kindness in kind only”.

By April 2016, there were more than 1,000 volunteers associated with CK. They comprised people from diverse spheres such as students, entrepreneurs, professionals, and individuals from local fishing communities. Since the unveiling of the project till around April 2016, the different initiatives, put together, had works worth around ₹2.5 crores in process.

Each of the initiatives under CK was handled, maintained, and sustained by volunteers. According to Nair, the responsibility for dissecting an issue and generating solutions had to be with the youth. Young people were bestowed with leadership roles and were required to tap their creativity in problem-solving, ensuring consistency in execution. According to him, a key tenet of ensuring that volunteers were engaged was trust. Another key tenet was that neither the benefactors nor the beneficiaries were photographed.

Wide reach through social media

In January 2016, Nair posted a Facebook message inviting the citizens of Koyilandy, a town in Kozhikode, to clean up the Pisharikavu Lake, which was filled with dirt and water hyacinth. In return, he promised the participants a treat of sumptuous Malabar biryani. Nearly 750 people turned up to clean the lake. With Nair joining in, they cleaned the entire lake in a single day. The money from the drought prevention fund of the district administration was used to finance the food. The clean-up of the lake has since inspired similar initiatives across the district with residents coming together voluntarily to clean up water bodies in their vicinities.

 

 

Social media was a key component of Nair’s governance modus operandi. By 2016, the Facebook page of ‘Collector Kozhikode’ had registered more than 189,064 likes, and over 8,184 individuals were conversing about the page at any given point in time. Nair said that at a time when citizens were connected on social media, archaic practices like pasting notices on notice boards in public offices was not the way to reach out to the public. On the ‘Collector Kozhikode’ Facebook page, Nair, announced, among other things, welfare programme charity projects, and other initiatives and wrote detailed notes for each of them.

The page contained photographs of campaigns requesting the citizens of the district to take action in diverse ways. Through the page, people brought to Nair’s notice their complaints and the issues that they encountered in their residential areas (e.g. potholes on roads, etc.). They also frequently wrote in lauding Nair for his work. And he replied to each query, suggestion, and remark. There were times when he could get issues raised by citizens resolved within a day. On another occasion, when he required an app to rein in speeding buses, models poured in from techies within minutes.

According to observers, Nair’s use of language which was accessible, earthy, humorous, and interspersed with colloquial slang, increased the impact of his social media interactions. He addressed the people who interacted with him on the Facebook page as Bhai (brother), and the citizens addressed him as ‘bro’ and ‘rockstar’. By July 2016, the Collector Kozhikode Facebook page had more than 225,000 followers, and as of April 2020, the page had around 362,853 followers.

With the CK project being so much associated with Nair, there were apprehensions about its future when Nair was transferred to another position in February 2017. But the initiative continued even after that. However, this did not stop some observers from questioning his approach to governance. What made the CK project so successful? What are the pros and cons of Nair’s approach to governance and what can public sector managers learn from it?

Analysis

Often, public management is stalled by many constraints — funds can be scarce and the level of bureaucracy can create roadblocks to the delivery of timely services to the public. Prashant Nair is a smart public sector manager, who managed to circumvent some of these obstacles by adopting the twin strategies of civil society participation and the employment of social media to carry out the entire administration of Kozhikode.

His modus operandi was to analyse the existing problems in the district, organise participation from the public and civil society bodies, display the assessment on different public platforms such as social media, and prod people into volunteering and chipping in with solutions. For instance, instead of waiting for lengthy budgetary approvals to provide various amenities in the government mental health centre, he employed social media to crowdsource the goods required.

Key features

Apart from being an entirely volunteer-driven initiative, some of the unique aspects of CK are as follows:

· The use of social media to mobilise citizens is a zero-cost strategy.

· The catchy titles of the various initiatives such as Tere Mere Beach Mein, Kozhipedia, Hey Auto, and Yo Appooppa were devoid of any bureaucratese and generated excitement among the citizens.

· The project discouraged donations in the form of cash and hence prevented corruption (or perception of corruption). It also mitigated the risk of Nair himself being hounded by his detractors with allegations and insinuations of engaging in corruption.

· The policy of benefactors not being photographed discouraged those interested only in self-promotion from participating in the initiatives and contributed to the sustainability of the project.

· For its flagship OS initiative, large donations and corporate donations were discouraged so as to give citizens a sense of ownership of the scheme. Individuals and corporations willing to donate larger sums can always be diverted to other civil society groups that are trying to tackle these social issues in their own way.

· OS banked on the restaurants so no capital expenditure was required to construct kitchens; the scheme avoids potential issues such as food wastage and concerns related to the quality of the food.

· OS does not negatively affect the revenues of the participating restaurants; in fact, it potentially increase their revenues.

· While initially OS was more liberal and welcoming of all people who came forward to avail of the benefits of free food, with time volunteers started ensuring that the system is not abused.

Citizen Co-production

With the CK initiative, Nair facilitated citizen co-production, wherein government views the public not as customers but as collaborators, expanding the part played by a citizen from merely a recipient of public services to an active participant in jointly addressing social issues. In exchange for their enhanced efforts (viz. time, skills, etc.), citizens have a greater hold over resources and decisions.

The Kozhikode citizens’ co-production assumes the form of ‘citizen sourcing’, wherein the citizens enhance the government’s responsiveness and effectiveness. The onus is on the government; however, the public has a bearing on the direction and results, updates the government where required, and may also help in the carrying out of government services on a daily basis. In the case of CK, for instance, the citizens provided goods and services to the government mental health centre and the welfare homes — these were actually the responsibilities of the government. Also under OS, the needy could get meals for free with dignity (another government responsibility).

The role played by the citizens of Kozhikode in the CK project can be broken down into three broad areas:

Service design (Consultation and ideation): Through social media, the citizens of Kozhikode contributed ideas to the framing of various initiatives under CK – it was not only their ideas that contributed to the design of the project but also their bringing to the notice of Nair the problems that they faced in their localities.

Service delivery and execution (crowdsourcing and co-delivery): The citizens executed various initiatives under the project. Examples are of their volunteering as occupational therapists, as plumbers, and so on.

Service monitoring (citizen reporting): The citizens passed on information to Nair and his team. For instance, they identified roads with potholes and informed the government of the details.

Leveraging social media for Governance

Nair’s success with employing Facebook as a communication medium can be gauged from the fact that by July 2016, the official Facebook page had more than 225,000 followers; by March 2016, the Facebook page had registered more than 189,064 likes and over 8,184 individuals were conversing about the page at any given point in time. The initiative started by Nair seemed to have become self-sustaining as, even after he was no longer the District Collector of Kozhikode, the number of followers continued to grow.

 

Through social media Nair could disseminate information related to governance schemes transparently, provide public access to himself, elicit their opinion/ feedback/ grievance and ideas, call for volunteerism and tap into the citizen’s resources. All these could also be done in a cost/time-efficient manner.

Lessons from Nair’s governance approach

Some of the lessons that public sector managers can draw from Nair’s governance approach are as follows

  • Deploy all the tools at your disposal, including technology, to make governance as inclusive as possible.
  • Citizens possess latent wisdom about how their every-day problems can be solved. All that is needed is for an enabling platform to be provided by administrators for this knowledge to be channelled right.
  • A crucial aspect in involving citizens in governance is the experience they are provided in terms of how the administrators personally interact with them. Adopting a down-to-earth style, as Nair did, is required to sustainably tap citizen power.

By personally handling the official Facebook page instead of outsourcing it, Nair brought credibility to the CK initiative.

If public sector managers intend to emulate Nair’s strategy of extensively interacting with citizens through social media platforms such as Facebook, they need to adopt the kind of direct, humorous and earthy language used by Nair. Using a high-handed approach in interacting with citizens will defeat the very purpose of the medium.

Public sector managers should be agile in resolving the grievances posted by citizens on social media.

Flaws in the model

Though novel and well-motivated, Nair’s governance approach was, however, not devoid of flaws. The following are the drawbacks in the CK project:

~ By putting up volunteering opportunities on its website, CK substitutes planning with probability — the certainty associated with scheduling a service is replaced by the probability that someone will be available to help. Public services must be carried out with the assurance that they are available for a citizen in need and not only when someone volunteers to help him/her.

~ Not everyone has access to social media and the Internet. By primarily using social media and the Internet as the tool to garner ideas and to mobilise the community, CK may have missed out on crowdsourced ideas from those lacking access to the Internet. This segment of the population may also have been handicapped in bringing its grievances to the notice of the authorities.

~ Kozhikode, with citizen co-production as one of its key features, runs the risk of the local government passing over its duties and responsibilities to citizens. Many of the public goods volunteers were delivering are primarily the responsibility of the government.

So, while we need more and more innovative public sector managers like Nair, we also need the government to step up to its primary responsibility of delivering public goods in an efficient manner. The initiatives launched by Nair, though innovative, pushed under the carpet probable systemic issues such as inefficient tax or public revenue system, inadequate social welfare finances, and inefficient public service delivery.

(With contributions from Vijay Kumar Tangirala.)

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