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Social Media & Govt: A Steep Learning Curve

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Emily Dickenson once said a word is dead when it's been said, some say. I say it just begins to live that day. This statement continues to be relevant even today i.e. around 150 years after she left for the heavenly abode. The statement is true for any form of communication. As a matter of fact it is apt and pertinent for people, governments, organisations or anybody using social media to craft and propagate words. Her words cannot be less relevant in the technology age. Every tweet may be retweeted, or posts may be shared. Words remain omnipresent and may resonate forever. Therefore, the only way to use social media is to exercise caution. This responsibility is even more on governments and people holding high offices entrusted to them by the people.

Apart from actions, governments also depend on words which are carefully stitched together to formulate policies and plans. These policies and plans are required to be communicated to the citizens and world at large. Social media has made the propagation of the policies easy and convenient. What is worrying is the communication from the government functionaries which is apart from policies and plans. Off the cuff statements and instinctive responses are something one needs to be wary of. Legislation and policies take time, thought and debates to take a final shape. Same is not the case with statements. This leads to question whether the people associated with the government have learnt how to use the social media? Well, we can't say they haven't as the 2014 election (apart from the biggest election the mankind has seen) was perhaps a social media spectacle. However, we can still say that t6he learning curve is steep and much is to be learnt in a shorter period of time.

Two instances may help us understand the relevance of going through this steep curve. Let's start with the most recent one. Appointment of India's army chief is confirmed. A senior government functionary decides to use a microblogging site to propagate his views on certain issues. Media is still discussing the statement and people are taking views on the same. There are other instances. However, to understand the issue I have taken the liberty to highlight this episode. In the year 2012, the Department of Electronics and Information Technology laid down the framework and guidelines for the Use of Social Media for Government Organisations. The guidelines stipulate the practices which the government departments and officials are required to follow while using social media. It may be noted that when citizens associate a person with a designation, people are unable to delink the statement from the designation of the person making the statement. Result is embarrassment for the government. The problem and the solution lies with the social media. This mode is instantaneous. Therefore, even when some thought goes into a post, the communication is faster than the traditional modes. Unfortunately, the social media policy of the government does not deal with restrictions on the ministers. The restrictions and structure of media policy is only meant for the babus helping the concerned ministers.  

This episode again evidences that though we are IT superpowers, we are still in tech kindergartens, when it comes to its use. The key here is to understand the best practices of and to dissociate the person from the designation. The person who holds any post or position is required to be clear that whatever he is posting on social media should not be unnecessary. Further, the posts should not reflect the position of his post. As far as the government is concerned the social media policy should not only bind the government but also the personal profiles of the concerned officers. In the event the same is not possible, the policy should at least specify that the posts on social media from personal profiles should not concern the issues concerning governance. Again this is easier said than done. In which case, the only solution is discretion. The ministers and other important members of the ministries should understand that they should abide by what they think the officers in the ministry are required to comply with. Same applies in the instances of transition.

Organisations and business conduct social media training for their employees. Why the government cannot have similar training sessions for everyone including ministers? Mere stricture or direction will not help. Social media is relatively new phenomena and people need to learn how to use it. Every controversy or issue anchors people to the next level of the learning curve. Hope these episodes help the government and the people associated with it learn fast.

The author, Prashant Kumar, is a Senior Associate at J. Sagar Associates