Chennai Metro Water Supply and Sewerage Board’s (CMWSSB) tongue-in-cheek tweet to coincide with ISRO’s launch of Chandrayaan 2 was an indication that the department had finally got it right on social media. The tweet was a hit and the department, which had been heavily criticised for Chennai’s water crisis this summer and the way it was managed, finally seemed to have touched the right chords in the hearts of its followers with this.
— Chennai Metro Water (@CHN_Metro_Water) July 22, 2019
The CMWSSB has, in fact, significantly bolstered its online presence over the last three months, constantly putting out information about the lake levels on Facebook and Twitter and digitising services, for example through its Dial for Water scheme (which garnered mixed reactions, though).
“I got an immediate response from Metro Water department to a query I had raised on Twitter. The communications section of the department is active in redressing grievances,” said Deepak Raghuraman, administrator of a Facebook page called Namma Area, which raises awareness among the general public about lesser known government schemes.
There are gaps, still: a closer look at CMWSSB updates shows that the department focuses predominantly on water, but not so much when it comes to sewage. “The introduction of water booking online is a welcome move from the department; they have added an online payment option too. However, information related to the Sewage Treatment Plants — such as the quantity of sewage being treated — is missing. This needs to be live monitored,” said Prashanth Goutham, a social activist.
“Water supply is the central focus in our social media plan. Citizens are not as concerned about sewage,” admitted a CMWSSB official, seeking anonymity.
How do other departments fare?
Most of them such as Greater Chennai Corporation, Chennai City Police, Chennai Metropolitan Development Authority score poorly when it comes to connecting with people online. Chennai Traffic Police is active on Twitter, but doesn’t engage with citizens. The two police departments use social media more as a public relations activity, with regular posts on initiatives undertaken by the men in khakhi.
Chennai City Police has fewer tweets on its six-year-old Twitter account than the Bengaluru or Mumbai Police. A cursory look reveals that a lot of citizens, who are perhaps uncomfortable visiting police stations, are trying to interact with the police online.
“I have tagged both Chennai Police and Chennai Traffic Police on Facebook for bringing public issues and traffic related issues to their notice. I did not get a response; they are either inactive or unresponsive,” said Krishnakumar Subramani, a social media user.
Echoing the point, Deepak Raghuraman also said that while the Traffic Police are active on Twitter, they are not interactive. “They update information on traffic. But you cannot expect them to address grievances,” he said.
Greater Chennai Corporation (GCC) also has an unsatisfactory online and social media presence — their website is not updated, and even basic but important information, such as that related to award of work tenders, is absent. GCC Commissioner G Prakash said that the department would soon be floating tenders for a strong team to manage the social media. However, the civic body’s Namma Chennai application has proved to be effective in grievance redressal.
|Chennai Metro Water Supply and Sewerage Board
(4179 followers and 425 tweets)
|Greater Chennai Corporation
|No official account
(796 followers and 551 tweets)
|Greater Chennai Police
|Partially active (@chennaipolice_)
(30.8k followers and 1,208 tweets)
|Chennai Metropolitan Development Authority (CMDA)
|No official account
|No official account
|Chennai Traffic Police
|Partially active (@chennaitrafficpolice)
|Partially active (@cctpolice)
(24.4k followers and 5410 tweets)
(Number of followers and likes when writing the copy)
CMDA, on the other hand, has no official Twitter or Facebook account. Their website has vital information such as land use maps and the list of OSR areas.
Individual efforts matter
While departments or agencies may not be very responsive on their social media channels, often top level officials in bureaucracy make up for it. Some of them use social media as a very effective tool to disseminate important information or to communicate with citizens. For example, the Regional Deputy Commissioner (South), GCC, Alby John promoted plogging through Twitter.
And this was one fruitful day.
Thanks to all the Volunteers, NGO's, Residents Welfare associations and students who joined us. Congrats to the Zone 11 Cheanni Corpn team for successfully organizing the clean up.
— Alby John (@albyjohnV) July 28, 2019
Former Mylapore DCP, Balakrishnan V IAS has also been very active and engaged on social media. His call for volunteers on Facebook to address the problems faced by child rape victims met with huge response, as social workers across the city pitched in with ideas.
Corporation Commissioner G Prakash uses Whatsapp extensively to stay in contact with resident welfare associations and understand local grievances.
“Given its force multiplier effect, social media has virtually replaced grievance meets and petitions.The focus of these accounts must be on interface with citizens and not propaganda. Responses to suggestions are either absent or delayed, unless a senior officer from the concerned department, who is also active on social media, is tagged. I have had great responses when I’ve reached out to senior IPS and IAS officials individually on social media. But posts to department handles alone invariably draw a blank. Those who operate them need proper training,” said journalist, author and lawyer, Sanjay Pinto.
A need of the times
Section 4 of the Right to Information (RTI) act makes it an obligation for the public authorities to publish vital information such as powers and duties of its officers and employees; the procedure followed in the decision making process, including channels of supervision and accountability etc.
“Without information, citizens cannot question injustice by the government. Take tender details for example. The state government puts out only tender details on the website (and takes it out immediately after the tender is awarded), but not the nitty gritty of it, such as who participated and the terms and conditions of the work,” said Jayaram Venkatesan , convener of Arappor Iyakkam.
The Information and Technology Department of Rajasthan government launched Jan Soochna Portal to provide information related to 13 departments on a simple platform.
Arappor Iyakkam is planning a campaign in November to push government departments to go online aggressively. “A lot of departments have locked the information with Admin ID and password. It should be open for the public to keep a tab on the information,” said Jayaram.
It could also be used by departments to quell rumours and fake news. For example, as Ranga Prasad of Satta Panchayat Iyakkam points out, a current spate of messages on social media is spreading the myth that the 10-rupee coin is invalid. At this point, a single official tweet from the Reserve Bank of India could put all speculation and fears to rest. That is the power of social media and online communication in these times, and Chennai city authorities would do well to harness that for more effective interaction with citizens.