“Today I speak to you as a practitioner of public policy who has had the opportunity to work at the intersection of public policy analysis and technology” – thus began Mr. Naman Pugalia, Google’s 25-year-old public policy and government affairs analyst, addressing an eager audience which had gathered on 23rd August at the IC&SR auditorium to hear his thoughts on the “Impact of Technology on Politics and Governance” in an EML.
Although Mr. Pugalia, an alumnus of London School of Economics and Political Science, graduated in Economics and Finance, the job crisis led him to abandon those fields, which had once promised high-flying careers.
Sans work and sans ideas, he embarked on a soul-searching mission in search of his passion. While backpacking through the USA, he assessed the social and political realities of the country. He then came across a very exciting project – UIDAI (Aadhar), where he offered his services, unpaid, despite his student loans. It seems to have paid off; he now has one of the most challenging jobs in public policy and communication, facilitating interaction between politicians and the public via Google.
”With the rapidly growing internet user base, coupled with the increase in the use of channels like Google, Facebook, and YouTube, technology could play a critical role in the political atmosphere of the largest democracy in the world,” he said.
Describing technology in India as an ‘imported idea’, he ventured to give some examples of the Indian adaptations of global templates. Startups based on the missed call concept, the use of washing machines as lassi makers, and the introduction of multi sim handsets are a few desi interpretations of technology. Out of 160 million internet users in the country, the majority are from the age group of 18-25 years, 40% of whom are female. Politics and news have gained a large following on the internet, next only to Bollywood and cricket.
He proceeded to elaborate on the impediments to internet penetration in the country. One major obstacle is language: the internet is in English, and mostly textual. Without a familiar starting-point or a compass, it can be intimidating to a beginner.
“Policy makers don’t get technology, and the technologists don’t get the policy,” he said, calling it the “irony of our times”. Public policy and technology should go hand in hand as they both share a common goal – the optimal allocation of resources. “The internet doesn’t promise a sense of control”, he said, “which is probably why most politicians don’t like it.” The Government is not built for feedback. Knee-jerk reactions to control or regulate the invasion of technology might stifle growth and innovation, he opines.
Social networks and government organizations often tend to be diametrically opposed. The consequences, when the two opposite ends — the chaotic social networks built for speedy information flow and the ordered structure of government built for slow but accountable decision making — collide are quite unpredictable. Rude shocks for the government like the case of the Bangalore exodus and the reaction to the Delhi rape incident are inevitable. Movements like ‘Lokpal’ wouldn’t have materialized without social networks. “Anna wouldn’t have been anna without the help of various social platforms like Facebook, Twitter,” he said, adding after a slight pause, “Google+”, prompting laughter from the audience.
The Indian Government has slowly been embracing technology to aid it in governance. The technology helps in fulfilling the 5 promises made by the government to its people – Transparency, Fairness, Equality, Speed and Scope. A cloud-based Unique Identification Number for every person in the country would have been unthinkable a few years ago, but Aadhar is now close to reality.
“Who would have dreamt that the Indian Finance minister, P.Chidambaram would discuss the union budget with the people of India on Google Hangouts!” he exclaimed. Narendra Modi, who is active on both Twitter and Facebook, was the first to use Google Hangouts to interact directly with the netizens of India. For the upcoming 2014 Lok Sabha elections, the Election Commission is using Android applications and Google Maps to vectorially map 700,000 out of the 850,000 polling stations in the country. Political parties may also find that probabilistic analysis to predict whether a particular household might vote for a particular party are quite useful for deciding their election strategies.
India is poised to have 348 million internet users by the year 2017. “With a very strong element to free speech and public discussion, technology impacts politics and governance in a very perceptible way but how far this impact is felt remains to be seen,” he concluded.