Leveraging social media for good governance

Sreeram Ananthasayanam
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Unbelievable as it sounds, a majority of the Facebook account holders have expressed satisfaction over the swift response from administrators to their representations

When Hurricane Sandy hit the United States of America, public officials and government agenciesembraced social media to a greater degree than ever before. For proof, one had to look no further than the Twitter feed of Governor Andrew M. Cuomo of New York — more than 800 messages over 3 days, featuring everything from photos of storm surge damage to updates on power restoration. The power of social media in the hands of government agencies for emergency communication and management was well established here.

Closer home, the use of this potent media has seen sporadic use, but with undeniable benefits. In June 2012, the District Collector of Madurai, Anshul Mishra, inaugurated a Facebook page for the district administration. According to official estimates, about 30 to 35 complaints and grievances are sent to the Collector through the Facebook page. Unbelievable as it sounds, a majority of the Facebook account holders have expressed satisfaction over the swift response from administrators to their representations. While civic issues such as non-removal of garbage, encroachment, non-functioning of street lights or vacancies in government institutions such as Primary Health Centers are sorted out as soon as possible, grievances pertaining to Central government institutions or other districts are forwarded to the respective authorities.

The example of Bangalore Traffic Police embracing Facebook as a medium to communicate has been a resounding success. A recent post in the Facebook page details the rerouting of traffic due to a religious procession, which was well received, and indeed proves that this is a channel for communication that has to be tapped.

Another example where social media use has been leveraged to the maximum for Government to Citizen Communications is with the Government of Utah, whose websitewww.utah.govhas won 85 awards as one of the best government websites in the United States of America. At a city level, the City of Boston uses a mobile app called Citizen’s Connect that alerts the City of Boston to neighborhood issues such as potholes, damaged signs, and graffiti.

With internet density in our top cities growing exponentially, and mobile internet becoming a reality faster than we thought, it is but natural that our Government agencies across all levels (national, state, local) can reap the benefits of social media. Let us look at the possibilities from the perspective of Government-to-Citizen interactions:

Social Media can be used by governments as a citizen lobbyist – a lobbyist for positive transformation thereby helping the agencies become government for the people

Social media can be used by agencies as a mechanism to solicit response on policy planning, flaws / drawbacks in implementations thereby helping the agencies become government for the people

Most importantly, Social Media can be used as a channel for Government-Citizen communication across various layers of accountability, responsibility, hierarchy etc thereby helping agencies become government by the people

Though this sounds utopian, this is slowly becoming a reality in advanced democracies with high telecom / broad band infrastructure and mobile telephony access. What helps is that social media allows government servants to own up to things that make a difference to citizens, and this owning up gives a sense of purpose. Social media is now proving to be the spark that ignites the collaboration between citizens and the currently “unnamed government servant”, who wants to contribute and is seen as contributing. What is required to sustain this fire is linking quick response to public praise of departments, their employees and the politicians who fund them.

The challenges are known, and a strong policy/political will can help tackle these. The most important one is the will to engage, both from the polity and the bureaucracy. There is also the challenge of creating a structured mechanism with clear demarcation of roles and responsibility on who from the polity or bureaucracy will communicate on what issues. Once this is taken care of, then there is a need for constant continuous engagement and acting on the request and inputs that come from the citizens. Else there is the threat of this becoming yet another initiative on paper. Only a sustained effort from both the sides will propel this to a self sustaining model.

Social Media for Government-to-Citizen interaction is just a beginning. Social Business additionally encompasses Government-to-Government, Government-to-Employee and Government-to-Business interactions. Social Business uses collaboration tools like wikis, blogs, instant messaging etc and makes the business of government efficient and effective. Some of the very clear benefits include moving to the agenda of open government where various agencies can collaborate seamlessly on a common denominator at the level of an individual citizen. Sharing of information across agencies, faster communication, less red-tape, improved search resulting in faster retrievals, records for posterity etc will make decision making faster, transparent and help improve accountability.

The author is Associate Partner, Government & Education, IBM Global Business Services — Global Delivery. The views are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of IBM Corporation




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