Saturday, February 6, 2016

Service with smileys: The Times of India

KOZHIKODE: It is not every day that you appreciate an outgoing police officer's wit and humour. That's probably because it's not often that an officer signs off by tweeting: 'Alvida ... Until we tweet again' as former Mumbai police commissioner Ahmad Javed did. His last act before he handed over the reins of Mumbai police was to create a Twitter handle that turns routine public service messages into witty lines that get furiously retweeted.

Javed isn't alone in using humour, wit and a responsive online persona to draw in the public to clean lakes, report traffic violations or create a dialogue about drug use. A handful of government officials are moving away from drab social media accounts that looked like they were run by bots programmed only to wish followers on public holidays.

One of the earliest chirpy government accounts was ISRO's @MarsOrbiter, which recently wished 'earthlings' #HappyNewYear, while exclaiming, "North pole looks wicked cool here!" In the same vein, Kozhikode collector N Prasanth is 'bro' to his Facebook followers and chats with them about malaria prevention and civil society initiatives late into the night, while Mumbai customs deputy commissioner Kiran Kumar Karlapu is equally comfortable tweeting about gold biscuits recovered from inside water taps as he is about Andhra Pradesh politics.

"If we have to reach out to people, we have to go where they are," says Prasanth. It is the same reason that prompted former Bengaluru police commissioner MN Reddi in 2014 to set up Twitter handles for the force, probably the first for an Indian police department. The tech-savvy, young population of the city was getting restive about rising crime and apparent bureaucratic apathy. Rumours on WhatsApp and Facebook added to the stress levels and Reddi took to Twitter to reach out. "Urban policing is driven a lot by perception. You have to use media so that incorrect information can be corrected," says Reddi. The Bengaluru police's @CPBlr account notched up more than 3.5 lakh followers within a year. In the aftermath of the recent attack on a Tanzanian student by a mob, people used the Twitter handle to exchange information about the assailants.

Prasanth's "informal and casual style" has landed the Kozhikode district's FB page the highest number of followers among all district administration pages "While most other government pages use it for information dissemination, we are using it for consultation, public grievance redressal and mobilization as well," says Prasanth.

Javed was clear that the public service announcements on drug use and traffic violations had to be catchy enough to grab attention. He sought the services of a digital media agency and came up with witty lines like 'If you roll, we will weed you out. #HoshMeinAao' and 'If you overtake from the left, you can never be right. #FollowTrafficRules'.

Officials say social media is a tricky two-way street. For one, you need to monitor posts and respond to followers immediately. The collector says though he has a social media team he is always at hand through his smartphone. "I handle every message and post personally to keep the identity and individuality of the page. This is not a fan page of some film star that can be outsourced but a tool for administration," says Prasanth.

Sometimes listening to a rant is not enough. What really matters is follow-up action. "Listening is the first step in engaging with somebody," says Reddi, whose team issued Action Taken Reports on complaints. Prasanth famously fed Kozhikode biryani to volunteers who cleaned up a huge lake after reading his FB post seeking hands for the operation.

Though seniors are usually supporters, sometimes the attention could rile a politician or two, unhappy over the fact that social media is cutting red tape and middlemen. The old school of administration, which swears by secrecy, frowns upon community participation and crowdsourcing, mistaking it for publicity, says Prasanth. There is also another problem. "Many expect me to be an online demi god who can solve every problem," he says. The other day, a citizen demanded why the collector wasn't clearing an overflowing drain, which is clearly the civic agency's job. To that, he shrugs and writes "Not my job, but tell me bro, where is this drain?"

That's service with smiley.

Author: Sandhya Soman

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