With the wide reach and extensive benefits of social media, it is time governments dropped their conventional methods of communication to adopt more advanced and digital means for effective results.

Social media provides a renewed push to deliberative democracy movement in India. The focal point is whether online public spaces are democratic at all and the concern is whether social media deliberation can have any concrete political impact. Is the social media participation enhancing deliberative democracy?In contemporary civic life when governments deal with social media, it also means how they deal with freedom of expression, civil liberties, privacy, and human rights. Then, Government 2.0 signifies manipulating emerging digital platforms, to augment government efficiency and effectiveness, while ensuring prompt service deliveries. Therefore, in contemporary world, platforms and technology facilitate modern governments to go back to founding principles at Agora that seeing government as for, by and of the people which has been popularized at Gettysburg in modern times.

Social media is a key element of many emerging citizen engagement platforms. These platforms bestow citizen’s voice and channels for government; for instance, many ministries, public authorities, etc., have Facebook, Twitter and YouTube pages. Facebook profiles of Ministries are having interactive engagement with the public, such as clicks, shares and Likes. Along with the Ministries, there are constitutional bodies such as Election Commission that is also on Facebook which creates a feeling among citizens that they can be in touch with highest offices from their home, street, while traveling or in any other manner.

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Government 2.0 across the world

World over, social media has been tapping for effective citizen collaboration and participation from government side. Despite the efforts at leveraging social media for open government, initiatives are making success stories from different parts of the world, Indian case is not much of relief to people. A leading case for Government 2.0 is the US model. US President Barack Obama’s celebrated electoral campaigns via social media have been aide memoire. In the same way, the UK government has formulated a cutout Twitter strategy for government departments; see for example, Twitter account @BISgovuk and BIS has a YouTube channel among its other digital channels. On the same lines, government in New Zealand has made regulatory changes in 2010 for its public and non-public service departments under the Public Finance Act (PFA) to use Web 2.0 platforms to incorporate an interactive government as well to create citizen-generated contents. Australia is one of the first countries to deploy social media and has been very aggressively making its use through social media guidance for the agencies staff and other stakeholders. Russia has also geared up to optimize the opportunities thrown by social media especially with the launch of Facebook in January 2010 and the growing popularity of Facebook among young generation. Presidential commission for modernization and technological development of Russia’s economy through online tools has created a forum called i-Russia.ru; thereby citizens can post comments and connect their social networks. These stories lead one to an informed conviction that many countries across the world maintain a very good social media policy for its citizens, governance, and content generation. While, many countries across the world are using social media platforms for citizen engagement, how interfaces between social media and government in India looks like, is often confusing!

 Government 2.0 initiatives in India

Several government bodies have been seen leveraging social media sites. The first government agency to join the social media was the Ministry of External Affairs in 2011. It has over forty two thousand followers on Twitter and the account has updates on a regular basis. In fact, the initiative has been applauded especially due to its role during the Libya crisis. Along with updating relevant information about crisis, the profile also helped Indians trapped in Libya to return home safely. The interactive platforms, in a way seem useful and hopeful  and this is evident from the Twitter experience of Ministry during Libyan crisis.

Another good example of government body that has effectively used social media is the Traffic Police in various cities. These include Traffic Police in Chandigarh, Bangalore, Delhi and Mumbai. They make regular traffic updates, respond to complaints and even educate citizens about road safety rules. Recently an initiative by the Delhi Traffic Police made news, that urged its citizens to upload pictures of traffic rules offenders and successfully seized over 20,000 of them. Traffic police in Delhi, Chandigarh and Bangalore are leveraging Facebook to the hilt and the initiatives have been immensely popular amongst the citizens as well. However, Mumbai Traffic Police, which initially was active has remained inactive lately.

In areas as diverse as energy, education, jobs, banking, health care, governance, there are unique opportunities to rethink how government agencies perform their mission and serve our citizens. Cloud computing, web, Social media, and cell phones, all provide new capabilities that government agencies are beginning to harness to achieve demonstrably better results at lower cost. Many constitutional bodies engage citizen via social media. However, it does not mean that these are real account of such bodies, but it is obvious that there is a presence of highest governmental functionaries at least in name that brings about heavy excitement to citizen. Election Commission of India, Finance Commission of India and National Commission for Women, are a few examples. Many ministries of union government have platforms in social media. The Facebook account of/in the name of ministries is a testimony to the growing significance of social media to empower the democratic potential of Indian democracy. Income Tax Department, GOI, Ministry of Finance, GOI , Ministry Of Health and Family Welfare, Ministry of External Affairs, India, Ministry of Railways, Ministry of Defence, GOI, Ministry of Defence, GOI. There are people who feel excited to see the platforms of highest offices is just a mouse click away for many Indians which otherwise was impossible for them to approach.
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While it will be some time before we are able to interact with various government departments on social media, over the years, some government officials that include high-ranking politicians and even certain government agencies are making their presence felt on social media as of now. The diplomat Nirupama Rao is an example. With social media embedded contentious political claims, m-governance platforms, of hate campaign in social media platforms, and fifth estate electoral constituencies being in full swing during election time, the Department of Information and Technology (DIT) under the Ministry of Communications and Information and Technology, realized the potential of social media as a platform to reach out to people directly. The drafting of the framework and guidelines for the use of social media for the government agencies after consulting various media experts, social media consultants, and lawyers was an attempt towards collaborative government and labeling government as platforms. The government has just recently issued guidelines to its various departments about the use of social media (FGUSMGO). Several politicians and few official bodies have been effectively using the medium ever since cautiously.

There were efforts by the Information and Broadcasting (I&B) ministry to integrate social media for citizen collaboration and it has requested citizens to become  `digital volunteers’ to help disseminate its messages on social media platforms. My India initiative, is a digital volunteer programme to enable government to disseminate information to citizens; specially youth in India. The programme has embedded principles of participative and deliberative governance, leading to real time engagement through social media platforms. The people interested in becoming digital volunteers are expected to fill up a form and give identity proof for registration that will take about five days. Participants are expected to spread words on government policies and programmes through social media presence. A digital volunteer here is expected to talk about the government’s programmes by sharing them on Facebook and Twitter.

For a long time, governments at various levels and its departments have been seen as faceless entities with no transparency and labeled as untrustworthy. Just as trademark, brand labels and corporate entities have started to use the potential of social media to reach its target consumers. Inspired from business success stories, governments need to do the same by communicating with its target audience: the citizens. It seems the policy makers and politicians have come to realise the potential of social media beyond using it during elections and to advertise themselves. Social networking sites such as Twitter and Facebook are becoming the newest tools of Government of India in guaranteeing active participation of the citizens in governance. For instances;  various government departments like India Post, Delhi Traffic Police, Ministry of External Affairs, and MCD are bringing in the benefits of budding social media.

Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) opened its Twitter account under the name ‘IndianDiplomacy’ that is a verified account with more than 72159 followers as on 28-03-2013 currently. The account was started on 10th July 2010. There is a YouTube account created as well which hosts more than 50 documentary films on various subjects and has received 2,806 subscribers and 1,071,880 video views as on 28-03-2013. The Ministry manages a blog having 53 members as on 28-03-2013. Indian Postal service, world’s largest postal network had Twitter account for its interactions with users and it has been the first government office to open account in social networking. They have been answering queries posted by users in relation to the service and questions like how one can use the services easily. Additionally, the government department also launched an exceptional “e-post office” which would add up as an e-Commerce platform.

Census 2011 has utilised social media. It has been useful to ask citizens to fill in their information accurately during the time of visit of an enumerator. The initiative has been launched on Facebook and Twitter with an on ground movement. The Facebook has 38,861 likes, 252 talking about this as on 28-03-2013 and Twitter profile 26338 followers, 303 followers and 206 for same period. Planning Commission of India has been using its Facebook page to ask users to submit their expectations and ideas for the twelfth five-year plan. As part of this, they were able include in the approach paper that remains to get approval from Union Cabinet and National Development Council.

A new future: Digital Agora

A new form of governmental deliveries appear on the Internet. Social media platforms have facilitated such phantom advances in the way government functions in India. In the age of digital technology, government has existed and functioned at a mouse click away. The most prestigious institutions and offices along with most important office bearers have now reached our home, our computer screens and respond to us at our fingertips.

Obviously, there are challenges when governments are on platforms. This is more severe in the case of maintaining the secrecy of private and confidential information. However, the positive dimension of Government 2.0 would outweigh the negatives in the long end. Social networking would make association and engagement with public simple and powerful, make research faster, provide mechanisms for getting rid of negative publicity and most importantly in understanding public sentiment to help form public policies.The pulse of the people has began to reach the State apparatus by new forms of engagements facilitated by the digital media. People have started to give feedback on proposals, policies, legislative enactments and governmental decisions. Now almost all governmental documents appear to be downloadable by the citizen and that one can easily share, comment, sent, check, upload and what not, nearly everything to reach millions of citizen within no time.

Participatory politics, deliberative engagements and contentious actions have become almost unavoidable to Indian democracy. Digital media has facilitated all these necessary components of democratic engagements with much ease and vigour. The social media powered democratic engagements has formed a digital agora that will facilitate what modern democracy has lost from the ideal: Greek agora. The digital agora of India is, yet, very young since the people using digital media are comparatively lesser than the majority which does not. Now, time to make a call for new initiatives that can refine both the penetration of Internet as well the participatory politics and deliberative attempts in digital media. Now time to think of the ancient ideal in a modern envelop, a digital agora!

By Biju P.R

Also See:
Expatriates Build Bonding Capital Through Social Media
Are Cell Phones Carrying Activism in our Pockets?
Social Media– At Your Service As You Want (Part 2)

Image Source: By User:ZyMOS [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

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