Sep 16, 2016

Institutionalizing Twitter governance - from chaos to order

A random guy feels cheated because Snapdeal, an online retailer, gave him an offer of 32GB iPhone memory expansion drive for Rs 51 (it usually retails for around Rs 4000); and then canceled it within a minute. Probably the deal was on the site by mistake, or maybe it was a technical glitch. Snapdeal sends a prompt message promising a refund of 51 rupees within four working days. The guy in question, who is obviously well enough to own an iPhone, takes offence at this and tweets about it. He tags the commerce minister on his tweet, which is indeed noticed by the commerce minister, who in turn directs a Joint Secretary to look into the matter, and the aggrieved guy is told to connect with the officer. All on twitter. You can google! This is not a lone case. It's bizarre to go through the twitter handles of most of the ministers and departments. People want all and sundry problems to be solved through them, instantly on twitter. Some of them are indeed picked up and solved, or directed to a hapless officer, who takes up the case on priority as it is referred by the minister. Twitter feeds are monitored and each tweet where the minister is tagged becomes a 'Paper Under Consideration' (PUC) for a babu in the department who is sacrificed to monitor the twitter feed.

While using twitter to handle complaints/grievances needs to be lauded, one must also acknowledge the grim reality that this is creating an institutional bypass where the need to create a strong institutional mechanism of addressing service delivery issues is obfuscated with knee jerk tweet replies and artificial back-slapping praises for a random case where the issue gets addressed. This has built a skewed incentive for ministers in the system to launch various so called 'sevas' on twitter to address public grievances and solve problems. It makes good headlines, and at times indeed looks like a laudable effort. However, without building up back end capacity to handle the twitter grievances when they scale up in numbers, it is a disaster in making.

Twitter cannot be a replacement for formal institutional mechanism for grievance redressal. In the current form, it fails the basic test of a good institution of being effective, accountable and inclusive for all. But then, twitter is a social network, it was not designed to serve as a state institution.

For example, the correct institutional mechanism to address the case of snap deal cheating is through a strong consumer court institution which operates without delay or harassment. Twitter is not effective enough. One random case might get attention, but when it scales up, the department cannot afford to bother to take up each case.
The mode is also not accountable. There is no track and trace mechanism that is built into twitter, unlike a properly designed ticketing system for grievances. No one knows if the problem was ultimately addressed or not, or who is to blame for non-resolution of complaints on twitter. .
Twitter is also not inclusive. It is accessible to educated, net-connected and usually english speaking minuscule percentage of population. Any grievance mechanism cannot be exclusivist to this extent.

Strong institutional mechanism and required state capacity to address grievances/complaints needs to be built into the executive. It is a state building activity; slow but lasting. Ad-hoc methods like twitter cannot be a replacement to institutions. At best, twitter can be another input into the well designed process of grievance redressal that is handled through dedicated institutions.
Sadly, in the hope of projecting a social media friendly face, the ministers and departments seem to be missing the point.