In the coming weeks, Indian ministers will use Google Hangout to directly engage with voters on issues such as the country's 12th Five Year Plan and highway safety.
In a statement released Tuesday, the government's Planning Commission announced that at 5pm this Friday, curious citizens can use Google's free, online video conference application to query deputy chairman Montek Singh Ahluwalia, National Innovation Council chairman Sam Pitroda, and other department staff. The officials will discuss the government's latest Five Year Plan which sets the medium-term agenda for the country.
To compile the plan, the department consulted over 950 civil society organizations, multiple business associations, all state governments, as well as local representative institutions and unions. However, the social media blitz will likely promote the government's agenda, rather than shape policy. "In formulating the 12th Five Year Plan, the Planning Commission consulted much more widely than ever before, underlining the need for a more inclusive and interactive approach," the department said in a statement.
The move presents new opportunities for market players such as Australian startup OurSay, which recently established an Indian presence to promote its gov 2.0 Web application. The software allows people to pose questions they would like answered by a politician or industry stakeholder, and the community then elects the top questions. The application was previously used to interview Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard, whose responses were broadcast via Google Hangout.
In an interview with ZDNet, OurSay's co-founder Gautam Raju, who recently relocated to New Delhi, was excited about the company's Indian prospects. He said this could be the start of a more concerted effort by the government to use online tools to more deeply engage citizens in the democratic process.
"As more and more politicians do Google Hangouts and use these form of citizen engagement, it's going to be interesting to see how the government deploys other social media technologies to engage the public," Raju said.
In this vein, last month, the Minister of Road Transport and Highways (MoRTH) announced social media plans to crowdsource opinions to refine policy development. Union MoRTH Minister CP Joshi announced that, on March 29, he would appear on a Google Plus Hangout to discuss highway safety with the public as part of a broader citizen dialogue "experiment".
"This dialogue is an extension of the ministry's IT initiatives to connect with people of the country," Joshi said in the statement. "The minister's conversation with people will expedite the process of inclusion of people's voice in policy making."
Users can submit suggestions via the ministry's Web site and social media channels. Once an idea reaches a milestone--"a critical mark of 5,000"--it will be brought to the attention of concerned officials. Joshi added: "The feasibility of the suggestion will be examined, and those found suitable will be implemented."
The MoRTH mentioned a range of technology initiatives to improve road safety including tablet apps to send images to top management, remote sensors to maintain national highways, and a global tender for a common ERP system.
Earlier this month, the Finance Minister used the platform to spar with constituents over the recent Union Budget--the government's last before the next election. A link to the Google Hangout does not reveal how many people tuned in, but almost 200,000 people watched a YouTube video which advertised the event.