September 01, 2015

The Social Media route to Digital India

Can Digital India be launched on the back of a private social media network ?

E-Governance is a concept that has fascinated bureaucrats, academics and the IT industry in India for many years but the term is ill defined. At one end of the spectrum we have government departments that put up web portals with static, mostly obsolete, data while at the other end we have useful applications for, say, passports and income tax. This great disparity in sophistication and utility is because each such application is the result of an independent initiative and reflects the vision of the owner and the competence of the vendor who was awarded the tender on the L1 ( lowest cost) basis. In the corporate sector this is referred to as the “Thousand Island” scenario  -- with “islands” of automation separated by gaps of inconsistent data -- and the common solution that is offered is based on an “ERP” like SAP that can tie together all parts of the organisation with one coherent software. Unfortunately there is no such universal platform for government requirements but now with a new push for Digital India, we could perhaps envisage something similar -- based on the generic idea of social media networks like Facebook.

Why social media ? Because this is a platform that is very simple and convenient for people to use and relate to  -- no one has to be taught how to use Facebook or Linkedin! There is something intuitive about “friendships” and “group membership” that anyone can relate to and participate in through status updates, comments, “likes”. So if we create a private social media network, let us call it publiNc -- a Facebook look-alike, it should be fairly easy for government employees to join and use.

But use it for what ?

Since a large part of the government work consists of collection and dissemination of information, a social media platform, with its collection of blogs, forums, posts, comments, replies,  document attachment and messaging facilities, could be a simple starting point. Currently employees of the government operate on a diverse set of platforms but now in publiNc they will have integrated messaging, email, chat, and VoIP voice -- all available on desktops as well as smartphones. Individual departments (and sub-departmental groupings) can be reflected as publiNc communities, with their own “pages” or “groups” some of which could be closed and private while others could be open with some degree of moderation. Departmental administrators who currently arrange for tea, tables, cubicles, cars etc., can trained to be “group admins” responsible for moderation. By facilitating all communication within the government, publiNc will be the first step towards Digital India.

But there is more to government than sharing information. Information has to be recorded, processed and displayed on demand -- through database driven transactional applications. On social media we see this in the form of thousands of games or apps -- independently developed software like Candy Crush, FarmVille etc.  -- that sit on top of and provide diversity to the social media experience. So would it be on publiNc. Individual departments, or “communities”, can have their own software developed as an “app” and users who need this functionality can add it to their profiles. publiNc apps built for one department and found to be useful can also be used by similar departments operating in other parts of the country. Since these “apps” are generally hosted on independent hardware, issues related to security and privacy can also be addressed.

Another key requirement in government is approvals, along with audit trails. This is a straightforward workflow application where an electronic document moves through a series of predefined named individuals who must take some action, that signifies approval, before it moves to the next person. In social media terms, this means that after a user has taken some action with a publiNc app, the app must automatically post an update on the wall of the next person along with a link that will lead him back to the same app. This is no different from tagging friends on a post or Facebook games that automatically invite friends to come and play the same game. This is a great irritation on Facebook but is perfectly suited for our publiNc workflow since it sets an automatic reminder for the next person to take action.

Finally, privacy settings for individuals, communities and apps will ensure that only the right people will know who is doing, or not doing, what and for how long.

The next step would be to allow private citizens to open accounts in publiNc so that they too can communicate with government employees. But before being activated, all such accounts should be verified against some government document like PAN card, passport or Voter ID card and a KYC-compliant mobile number to establish the authenticity of the user. With such an account citizens should be able to communicate with individual government employees or with the “pages” created by departments for such purposes. Questions posted on such pages can be answered by designated employee and, depending on privacy settings, can be viewed by many. Similarly, citizens can be allowed to install and use certain apps that allows one to send applications, pay fees and taxes or do anything else that would otherwise need a visit to a government office and wait in a queue in front of counter. Responses from the government department can be posted on searchable forum posts or sent to private inboxes.

So now we have a complete digital ecosystem that could link all parts of the government with each other and, potentially, with each and every citizen of this country. Normally, such a gigantic system would take years to build and need thousands of computers to run on but the beauty of social media is that it is intensely scalable. When Zuckerberg created Facebook in 2004 it was a tiny system meant for a few students of Harvard University. So can it be with publiNc. We can begin with a small system with a few apps that caters to the needs of a couple of departments at the Centre and a few of the more dynamic States. Then just like Facebook, publiNc should attract people, both government employees and citizens and add more and more e-governance apps until it can become a behemoth that Facebook is today -- spanning the whole world and having more than 1 billion users -- the same as India’s population today.

The technology for building a social media network like publiNc is very much available and that too much of it is in the public domain. Issues related to scalability, stability and security are all known and easily addressable within reasonable cost and time. While 80% of India’s population may not have access to the internet, the other 200+ million who have access constitute a large enough pool worth catering to and with the proliferation of smartphones the number of publiNc users will grow by leaps and bounds. So there is no doubt that the system can be built very easily and can be readily used both by government employees and by citizens

But the real challenge lies elsewhere. Will our government employees want to use such a system ?

Can our politicians and bureaucrats tolerate the intense transparency that a system like publiNc will bring to the country? While privacy settings may keep many of the actions and decisions out of the public view, all actions taken -- or not taken -- will be automatically noted, recorded, stored and may be retrieved by duly authorised agencies. This can a serious blow to the discretionary powers enjoyed, and abused, by government employees. Hence the biggest challenge to publiNc would come from the entrenched vested interests who would be reluctant to allow the system to work. There is a clear and present danger of publiNc being sabotaged from within.

But this is not a problem restricted to publiNc alone.It is something that can plague any e-Governance system that is created to support the vision of Digital India. So there can be no technology based approach that will facilitate or expedite the adoption of a e-Governance applications -- we need a “social” approach or one driven by peer-pressure, or the need to conform to the environment.

This is where social media based software is so different from the typical IT systems that we use in banks, shops, government agencies and other commercial environments. No one needs to force anyone to join and use networks like Facebook or Linkedin. People not only find these systems useful and easy to use but what is most important is that without it, they feel that they are being left behind by their peers. Hence the urgent need to join and catch up. So if a few pioneering departments can adopt this social media approach, most of its employees would willy-nilly join in and then other departments can join in one after the other. Adoption can be expedited however, with a few useful and universal apps like leave application, provident fund or new pension scheme updates and so on.

Finally, one can ask if such a social media based approach to e-Governance has been tried in any other country. Possibly not, but for a change, let Digital India show the world a new way of doing things, instead of forever copying what is happening elsewhere ?
This article originally appeared in the August Issue of Swarajya, the magazine that reads India right!

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