Role of Internet Intermediaries in improving Government service delivery in India

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According to TRAI’s latest report, the number of internet users in India has reached 391 million. With several mobile operators racing to offer data driven services at affordable prices, the user base has risen sharply. The government’s buzzword has moved from e-governance to m-governance. The first instance of internet being successfully used for governance began with digitisation of services at the municipal level as well as the proactive disclosure under the RTI. Beyond these traditional platforms, popular social media and messaging services like Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp have today emerged as a tool in enhancing transparency as well as service delivery.

SOS Tweets

Soon after the swearing-in ceremony of the NDA government, several key ministers like Foreign Minister Mrs. Sushma Swaraj took to twitter. She directly engaged with Indian nationals around the world in distress. This created a new scenario in the Indian context, an average Indian who would usually have to navigate the government bureaucracy suddenly gained direct access to the highest offices in the country. With erring officer’s fearing the wrath of the minister, efficiency and performance of these officers improved. With this medium proving to be successful, the number of people seeking her assistance grew. However, this model of quick response comes with higher responsibility. Citizen’s in distress require immediate response despite time and place. Mrs. Swaraj herself responded to requests not only at 3am but also during her hospitalisation. The outreach which initially started via her handle and the official MEA handles, expanded massively with every Indian embassy and consulate having its own twitter handle and Facebook page.

This model was later replicated by Railway Minister Mr. Suresh Prabhu as well as municipal corporations and police departments across India. Apart from help with visa, and repatriation of citizens, more importantly, citizens in life threatening situations both while travelling on trains as well as in public places have received immediate assistance with active intervention of corresponding departments.

Proactive Monitoring and Transparency

In 2014, Police departments of key cities created helplines on WhatsApp. A year later, many municipal corporations of key cities like Kolkata, Coimbatore, Agra, Namakkal, etc. replicated this model. These cases portray a replication of the twitter driven one-time issue resolution model but with an alternative intermediary. With time, issues relating to confidentiality and privacy arose which resulted in WhatsApp initiating end-to-end encryption in 2016. WhatsApp’s move to increase the maximum number of members in a group amplified this transformative journey.

What began as conflict resolution, transformed into proactive governance. To enhance the impact of Swachh Bharat campaign in the city level, members of civil society created groups consisting of citizens as well as the local PWD, Municipal Commissioner among other officers to ensure efficient waste collection and disposal.

Puducherry, Coimbatore among other cities actively utilised these tools for administration. Coimbatore’s civil administration began a WhatsApp group in 2015 “Namma Kovai” which had the commissioner, the airport director, head of police, public works, road transport and other departments. By using this application, the challenge of resolving key issues that required cross-departmental cooperation was solved. Similar to Coimbatore, Puducherry’s Lt. Governor Dr. Kiren Bedi upon taking office initiated the process of grouping all officers on the platform based on department. By roping in officers across hierarchy into one group, speed of issue detection, planning and resolution improved. By integrating complaints via Toll Free numbers with those raised via Facebook, Twitter and WhatsApp helplines, tracking across platforms was ensured. The groups also enabled timely relay of orders and directives, which in turn made the government machinery function as a single cohesive unit.

An application Kaizala similar to WhatsApp developed by Microsoft, has been chosen by the Andhra Pradesh government for both internal communication as well as citizen-government connectivity but at a larger scale. Additional features like geolocation tagging, photographs have proved to be useful in tracking progress at the grassroot level. New features like live video have disrupted the press & media industry by removing the intermediaries. Every press conference and speech of the government and its officers today are telecast live over these platforms.

NGOs have used these platforms for aid and rescue of victims facing child marriage, sexual abuse, domestic violence among other dangers. While farmer’s cooperatives have used groups for information sharing, cases of doctors aiding under trained medical practitioners in remote locations have also come to the fore. Several small enterprises ranging from local news aggregators to food manufacturers, these apps serve as medium for interaction and business dialogue. In addition to civic administration, social media like YouTube, Instagram, Facebook, Twitter have all proven to be popular platforms for promotion and outreach. Governments worldwide have used such platforms for promotion of tourism, social reform campaigns. Instagram, Behance, Dribble, etc. has proven to be popular marketing tool for designers, photographers and other artists. With attractive financial support, popular users of these platforms have restricted their daily lives to their engagement on these apps.

Legal and National Security Challenges

While the benefits of these internet intermediaries are countless, the primary challenge of national security and legal ramifications remain. Several of these services host their databases and servers in other countries and therefore create possible avenues for snooping and espionage. When Dr. Kiren Bedi initiated the program for Puducherry, she faced criticism from several quarters for using private email and messaging platforms. While the information shared may not be confidential, the incident initiated the debate surrounding confidentiality and prospects of data leakage and theft. Apart from a relook at the Official Secrets Act, a revision of India’s Information Technology Act must incorporate aspects relating to privacy, data collection & storage as well as emerging technologies. This is essential for continued utilisation of these services for public good.