The official Facebook page of the Karnataka Criminal Investigation Department, “DGPCIDKARNATAKA”, is a string of one-sided comments punctuated with official-ese, or newspaper links of some prominent crime or an article by the officials.

The Twitter account, also started around June 2010, has all of 38 tweets, and barely any interaction with “common” men/women. Started with much fanfare, these are among the very few State Government agencies that took to social media, but haven't taken it beyond mere formalities. On the brighter side, blogs by a few Ministers — most prominently, Higher Education Minister V.S. Acharya and Minister for Law and Parliamentary Affairs S. Suresh Kumar — are lively and even interactive, in spurts. A few government departments too have blogs, but none remarkable.

Though the Indian Government's tryst with social media is fairly new — it took a few Twitter controversies, courtesy former Minister @ShashiTharoor, to make the government sit up and take note — some departments such as IndiaPost, the Delhi Traffic Police, Census India and even the Planning Commission, have been able to take it beyond mere posturing and have interacted with citizens, even tried to solve problems. IndiaPost's Twitter page is a good example of how agencies can engage with stakeholders, at least to an extent.

A draft policy

Twitter recently hit headlines again when foreign secretary Nirupama Sen logged on with an official ID and interacted with Indians stranded in Libya looking to make their way back. All these examples, that have earned these departments accolades, has prompted the Indian Government to come up with a new policy for social media.

The e-governance group of the Department of Information Technology (DIT) held a meeting this week to draw up guidelines to “regulate” Government presence on social media sites.

Speaking to The Hindu, a DIT official said this had been on the Government's agenda because efforts in this direction had been all too scattered, and some of the success stories had convinced them that it could be a good platform for interaction. The official added that the feedback they got on the 12th Planning Commission's Facebook page was seen as a good example of how these tools could be leveraged.

But why regulate at all? Regulating social media use by government officials is imperative mainly to ensure that use of information or data is compliant with existing laws.

Consistency needed

Sunil Abraham, director of the Centre for Internet and Society, a Bangalore-based non-governmental organisation, points out that with no general rules in place, the use of Twitter or Facebook account varies according to the bureaucrats heading the departments. “This cannot be the case as the channel of communication has to be a continuous thing, and the data shared with citizens has to be accurate; which means the same standards need to be applied to online sharing of data as is applied to offline data handling. Departments should also be obliged to back-up online data periodically,” he says.

For instance, a traffic police department announced that citizens could share pictures of traffic rule offenders on Facebook or on its website, to facilitate tracking of offenders. “Such a move could have huge privacy implications, and may also lead to vigilante activism,” warns Mr. Abraham, adding that we need a policy so that all activity, however casual it may seem, is compliant with existing law governing data protection and privacy.

With the Government jumping on to the 2.0 bandwagon (often under pressure like in Mumbai where citizens created a Facebook page for the police forcing them to create a real one), it is time to really make it official. So, while the idea of giving a face to government agencies and pushing for transparency and greater interaction with citizens, standardisation of social media use is indeed the way forward.