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Planning Commission goes Social 

TO Demonstrate why government bodies in India need to be on social media, we would like to draw your attention to one fact – by June 2013, 66 million Indians will be on social media*. This number is fast growing, with over 150,000 new users joining social media platforms every month. While these statistics appear relatively minor in comparison to the total population, it is important to note heir influence. For instance, a new study asserts, “at a very conservative estimate, the fortunes of contestants seeking election to the next Lok Sabha from not less than 150 constituencies will be determined by Facebook users”. The point here is that government institutions can no longer ignore engagement on social media platforms. These platforms provide voice to people, and it is essential to not only listen to them for feedback but also engage in dialogue through them. This engagement is not just a marketing tool prior to elections. Rather, it allows for a constant engagement between Ministries and the public, and is now an important component of the government’s service delivery to citizens. 

Governments around the world have recognized the power of social media. President Barack Obama uses Twitter town halls to take questions from the people, the Russian law department periodically seeks feedback on new policies through their Twitter handle, and in Ontario the province crowd-sourced ideas on how to better integrate social innovation in the government. Even in India, our Prime Minister’s Office uses Twitter to inform its 5 lakh plus followers on the activities of the PM. These are just a few examples to show that there is a growing acknowledgement that greater transparency can be achieved through proactive dissemination of information from the government. 

An informal survey conducted by the National Innovation Council (NInC) showed that among the 50 respondents (under 30 demographic, working professionals) only 8% knew that the 12th Plan has recently been unveiled. While not representative, this number is a clear indication of the low awareness of the Plan, which is a document of national vision and combined aspiration. The Planning Commission, realizing the need for better communication, decided to begin with social media. 

In March 2013, the Planning Commission went live on Twitter. Simultaneously, the Commission’s old account on Facebook was reactivated and accounts were created on Google+, SlideShare and YouTube. The idea was to make the 12th Plan more accessible and easy to read, and available in different depths for the audience. 

As the Planning Commission “went social”, the initial response was fairly hostile. People questioned the relevance of a “Nehruvian-style socialist body” in today’s times, and the issues of the methodology of the poverty line and the alleged expenditure worth lakhs of rupees on toilets. The Commission had predicted such a response, and to answer some of the questions raised by the public, a Google Hangout was planned to coincide with the 63rd Anniversary of the Planning Commission on 15th March. In the run-up to the Hangout, each division in the Planning Commission was asked to simplify its Plan chapter into easy-to-understand power point presentations, which were uploaded on to Slide Share. These presentations highlight the most important issues in each of the chapters and help make the recommendations more accessible.  

During the Hangout, Deputy Chairman Montek Singh Ahluwalia, Adviser to the Prime Minister Sam Pitroda, Members of the Planning Commission and MoS Rajeev Shukla dialogued with representatives from industry (Kiran Mazumdar Shaw), politics (Jay Panda), civil society (Amitabh Behar) and local government (Jagdish Bairwa, Sarpanch Kanpura) about the 12th Plan. The discussion used an external moderator (Vikram Chandra). In addition to sector specific questions, answers given also included those around the relevance of the Commission, and how government officials can be made more accountable. These questions were taken from the panelists and social media. It would have been clear to the viewers that the Planning Commission’s commitment to interact was sincere and transparent, as difficult questions were not ignored. The event was live streamed on YouTube and also broadcast live on several TV channels, including NDTV, DD, RSTV, CNBC, and All India Radio. The Hangout was also live-tweeted by the Planning Commission and First Post. 

The reception to the Hangout was largely popular, and the quality of questions from the people showed a deep engagement with specific issues around power, agriculture, infrastructure, and governance, among others. An interesting trend was observed - the scepticism and too-little-too-late sentiment from prior to the Hangout was significantly reduced. The majority of the responses after the one hour interaction appreciated the Commission for opening itself up for questions. This generated a lot of excitement on various platforms, especially Twitter, as it showed that the Hangout was not just a one-off event. 

After the Hangout, the interest in the Plan spiked. Collaborating with NInC, a Hacakthon was planned as follow-up to the Hangout. The Hackathon was envisaged with the aim of taking inputs and opinions from the citizens, especially youth by seeing the Plan through their eyes. The participants were expected to produce info-graphics, short-films as communication material as well as develop applications based on the 12th Plan and its initiatives. Over 1,900 participants registered and finally over 220 submissions came in. The Planning Commission now intends to use the material generated during the Hackathon to communicate the 12th Plan. 

One of the more interesting aspects of the Planning Commission’s social media efforts has been the fact that both major events, the Hangout and the Hackathon, were conducted entirely through support from government bodies, such as National Informatics Center (NIC) and Press Information Bureau (PIB). Although other government institutions have recently conducted events like Hangouts, they have mostly relied on external production, equipment and publicity. By utilizing only government services, the Planning Commission has helped institutionalize these capabilities, making these events more easily replicable by other Ministries in the future. 

News of Indian government institutions embracing social media is all the rage currently, with new Hangouts and Twitter conferences being announced every few weeks. However, it is important to ensure that the communication strategy underlying these efforts ties into the overall aims of the institution. It is also important to ensure consistency in approach, so that social media users feel that the institution is making an authenticate effort to communicate. Therefore, the Planning Commission is constituting a small “Social Media Cell” to manage its outreach efforts. This first of its kind cell will be responsible for devising a communications strategy for the PC, coordinating the production of social-media friendly content, and arranging interactions between PC officers and the public. The experiences of the Planning Commission in establishing this cell and developing communication protocols should serve as a valuable template to other Ministries who wish to adopt similar structures.

* Social Media in India (2013)- Internet and Mobile Association of India: In our classification, High Impact constituencies are those where the number of Facebook users are more than the margin of victory of the winner in the last Lok Sabha election, or where Facebook users account for over 10% of the voting population. Our analysis throws up 160 High Impact Constituencies out of the total of 543, which will go to the polls.

By : Planning Commission Social Media Team.


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