In a new column examining ideas from governments around the world, Joshua Chambers looks at how India is including its citizens in public service delivery
On 2 October – an Indian public holiday to mark Gandhi’s birthday – prime minister Narendra Modi picked up a broom, headed outside and started to sweep the streets of Delhi.
Right across the country, huge swathes of the Indian population did the same as part of a new, government-led mass movement: the Clean India campaign.
Using social media, Modi called on Indians to pick a location to clean up, and then share before and after pictures online. Soon sportsmen, movie stars and celebrities were taking part, as were government officials, whose involvement was compulsory.
The move was more than just a political stunt. It demonstrated the new Indian prime minister’s desire to involve people in public service delivery. In essence, it is his version of David Cameron’s Big Society – but it’s already proving far more successful.
Key to the movement is India’s use of new technology. Government was relatively late to social media, launching Facebook and Twitter accounts only in 2012, but it quickly discovered the obvious pitfalls.
“The level of engagement tends to be rather unidirectional,” one senior Indian official told me recently. “There are some comments that might be taken into account, but there’s no commitment on behalf of the government to respond.” Social media is also an echo chamber for the loudest, most aggressive voices – not the ideal place for building a more inclusive model of government.
So this year, India launched MyGov – a platform to combine citizen feedback with volunteering projects, crowdsourcing and departmental accountability. I caught up with the chief executive of the programme at a round table in October hosted by FutureGov.Asia – the digital magazine I edit.
By launching their own platform, he said, officials are able to have more meaningful conversations and respond directly to citizen concerns. “All people who are interested in various aspects of governance in India should be able to connect to this platform, give us their opinion and then the agencies concerned will take those [opinions] into account, analyse them and come back to the people with what is actually being done,” he said. There is, in fact, a “mandatory requirement” for agencies to respond to questions and concerns with specific action points and status reports. Further, the best commentators will be chosen to attend face to face meetings with senior officials as part of a travelling roadshow.
MyGov’s second element is its crowdsourcing function, which is the most transformative part of the site. Departments can post tasks and problems, such as help with cleaning the Ganges river to ideas and photographs for tourism campaigns.
Citizens register to join the site and must list their skills, with options ranging from software engineering to poetry, design and communications. They are then encouraged to join relevant groups and projects. For example, one state’s safari park is looking for citizen photographs to help boost its visitor numbers. Another campaign asks for international best practice on government websites, while a ‘Creative Corner’ allows citizens to submit draft banners, logos and slogans for departmental projects.
In essence, it is the Indian Government’s version of My.BarackObama.com, the social network that helped the US president win two elections. Tasks that volunteers complete will be reviewed by and shared with the community on the site, and members receive a weekly update on existing campaigns and relevant new projects.
The third element of the site is accountability: citizens can use it to help audit government departments, the chief executive said. Groups will be encouraged to go and monitor a particular citizen-facing activity, providing feedback and posting pictures.
Such initiatives aren’t limited to India. Malaysia recently launched a crowdsourcing site for its autumn budget – “Bajet 2015”. With categories ranging from youth and sports to health and public safety, citizens were able to make suggestions and vote on those from other citizens. These ranged widely in theme and quality, from improving the architecture of new government buildings to mandating video recorders be placed on the front of all cars to facilitate investigation of traffic accidents.
Another noteworthy project is taking place in South Australia: the Citizens’ Jury. An exercise in open policymaking, the state government pulls together a representative group of citizens and asks them to help solve a knotty policy problem. The ‘jury’ hears arguments from different sets of campaigners, and then pulls together a report making its final recommendations. Two have been run so far: one on improving Adelaide’s nightlife, and the second on how to make roads safe for cyclists. Both sets of recommendations were deemed sensible and accepted by the state government.
In many ways, the Big Society was on to something. Citizens’ expectations are increasing, and these expectations can be harnessed to improve the quality of public services. Ironically, it is the countries which inherited Britain’s parliamentary system that are now adapting to better include their citizens. But if the UK can learn from some of these initiatives, use the power of technology and avoid the mob tendency of social media, then it’ll be a clean sweep for all concerned.