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Yes. I will go a bit further and say that it is necessary and inevitable.

Most, if not all, democracies round the world are Representative democracies. This merely means that the citizens vest the right in a few, whom they choose, to make decisions and govern on their behalf.  This does not mean that the citizens can or should abdicate their responsibility of holding their representatives (government) to account. That is their right and duty.

India, the largest (really just most populous) democracy in the world, already has a process of democratic decentralisation. Apart from the federal State system, even within the State governance is distributed at three levels – village (group of villages), tehsil and district. In cities & towns we have the Municipal Councils. The ‘legislature’ and executive are also structured on similar lines. This has been done to ensure that the plurality is accounted for and that citizens can engage in governance. The multi-layered systems enable citizens and governments to distinguish between local and national issues and deal with them differently.

With the explosion in social media, citizens can no doubt better engage with governments.  However, in countries with great disparity and diversity in India, there are two dangers associated with this.

  1. social media access is still a privilege and restricted to a few citizens. These citizens already have a voice that is heard, though many do not choose to exercise it. Social media leaves out a vast majority of citizens whose voice is not heard (I don’t believe that there are voiceless people, only voices that no one hears). Social media amplifies these voices and sometimes skews the picture on “what is the country thinking about” and deepens the divide.
  2. even those privileged citizens who have access to social media, often engage in criticism and rarely on issues of support: what Clay Shirky calls “…more on the NO and less on the GO”.

Just as social media makes it easy for citizens to engage in governance, it also makes it easy for governments to engage with citizens.

Smart governments can use social media to test the waters on public opinion. Of course they should not forget, in countries like India, that these opinions are not necessarily representative. Even with all the testing, it does remain the prerogative of the governments to take decisions that it feels are correct. Every decision cannot and should not be based on public opinion. Open Source democracy cannot work. That would only lead to anarchy and administrative paralysis. Even here on Quora we do have ‘open source’ with some control of topic admins and reviewers. It is not a free for allI am not as cynical as Humphrey Appleby in Yes Minister when he says “you can either be open or you can have government”. No. The government is and should always be accountable to its citizens. After all the checks and balances system that is part of democracies enables the citizens to vote out governments they think are not truly representing them. IMO Right to Information (already in place) and right to recall a representative (not yet in place but should be) are good accountability mechanisms.

What smart(er) governments can and should do is to use social (and other) media to generate a buy-in on the long term strategic decisions that may or may not be based on public opinion.

To conclude,

  • decentralisation is inevitable if citizens have to be engaged in governance beyond the 5-year-elections..
  • open source government is not a good idea because it will lead to administrative paralysis.
  • smart governments will feel the pulse of the people before taking decisions; social media makes it a touch easier though it is not the only method.
  • smart(er) governments can & should use social media to generate post-facto buy-in on strategic decisions.
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