When UAE’s Minister of Cabinet Affairs Mohammad Al Gergawi asked Elon Musk, Tesla CEO and Founder of SpaceX, about his life’s biggest challenge during one of the sessions at World Government Summit held in Dubai in February 2017, to everyone’s surprise, Musk pondered for a while and identified his greatest challenge as making sure that he has a corrective feedback loop in place and maintaining that loop over time even when people want to tell him exactly what he wants to hear.Though corrective feedback loops are highly considered in education and in other learning activities for the benefits of students and teachers alike, they have not been given required attention in other areas of human activities. For example, we rarely see public and private institutions in emerging economies allocating enough budgets and mobilising sufficient resources for either establishing or upgrading tools and mechanisms through which those institutions can assess whether their produced goods and services meet beneficiaries’ needs. These arrangements can yield additional returns if employed well in government authorities. For instance, if there exists an efficient system through which people can register their complaints to the government and citizens there are also well aware (and are allowed to access the details) of the amount of government budget allocated for their community, they can help state maintain maximum transparency in government spending thus ensuring minimum corruption. In the light of these facts, Musk’s identified challenge reemphasises the importance of an accountable institution, public or private, paying serious attention towards establishing and/or maintaining its own indispensable feedback loop.
Historically, authorities have had built feedback loops that often demanded for longer time and extra efforts from beneficiaries while registering their grievances at respective public or private institutions. Citizens then required recording their criticisms either in public hearings or sending complain letters through post offices or by meeting appropriate officials from related stakeholders. Even after spending considerable time and putting in a lot of effort, people could not fully self-ensure whether their privacy would be protected.With the arrival of telephones and fax machines in the second half of the 19th century, people could reduce their time and effort and also increase confidentiality in their communications. But still people needed to devote substantial time and effort for accomplishing their works due to the limited numbers of such communication tools until the end of last century. The origin of internet and release of desktop computers in the latter half of the 20th century brought some hope for improved feedback loops.However, only after a sequence of technological disruptions in early 2000s and launch of today’s most popular social media platforms – including LinkedIn (2002), Facebook (2004), YouTube (2005) and Twitter (2006) – during the same period of time, institutions, mostly private, started to employ innovative ways to collect consumer feedback. During early phase, few companies like Amazon, Trip Advisor and Yelp allowed users to submit public reviews for different products, services and businesses through companies’ official websites.
The following years saw the rise and prominence of social media platforms, most notably Facebook and Twitter, and numbers of users using those platforms increased considerably. Release of the first iPhone and first iPad in June 2007 and April 2010 respectively also helped social media platforms to grow faster. Between February 2004 and October 2012, Facebook transformed itself from an online platform composed merely of few active Harvard University students to the world’s largest social media platform with one billion active users. Afterwards, it took less than five years for Facebook to double this figure. As of March 2017, the platform had 1.94 billion monthly active users. On the contrary, Twitter could not achieve Facebook’s growth rate but this platform now has 328 million monthly active users.
Realising the importance of integrating recent developments in internet, artificial intelligence, mobile phone technology and social media platforms, globally, individuals and institutions from governments, political parties and private companies have started to show their presence on major social media platforms. Generally, these platforms help private firms and individuals to market their goods and services in selected markets for selected group of consumers, politicians and political parties to share their political agenda and recent/future political events with their supporters, and governments and responsible public office bearers to communicate their plans, activities and progress reports with the citizens. Despite having different motives for joining these platforms, all of them have a common objective – to get as many feedbacks as possible from their consumers and/or supporters and revise their future plans to improve their overall performance. In other words, social media platforms like these assist individuals and institutions to create virtual feedback loops at minimum costs and through which people from their targeted groups can provide feedback in quick and easy way.
In case of Nepal, there exist multiple challenges for fully integrating social media platforms into an institution’s feedback loop. One key limitation for now is resource inadequacy – infrastructure, human and financial – for establishing and maintaining a state-of-the-art feedback system in the country. Despite all these limitations, Nepal Government’s Hello Sarkar initiative has earned a global reputation in one of Twiplomacy’s 2017 studies for being the world’s second most conversational government Twitter account. Hello Sarkar was established in late 2011 at the Office of Prime Minister and the Council of Ministers (OPMCM) with an aim of receiving complaints of the citizens. In June 2015, it went online on Facebook and within the following six months on Twitter. Currently, it collects feedback through emails, phone calls, fax messages and social media platforms on Facebook and Twitter. In one of my recent interactions, Pradyumna Prasad Upadhyay – Under Secretary at OPMCM who leads Hello Sarkar team there – said that after they went on to Twitter, they could better handle citizens’ grievances, as it was much easier for him and his team to read and understand complaints in 140 characters and process them accordingly.
Besides Hello Sarkar, key individuals and institutions from the government, political parties and private firms are also on major social media platforms for meeting their own objectives. However, with an exception to only few of these accounts, majority of accounts – including those belonging to educational institutions, hotels and restaurants, travel agencies, internet service providers, hospitals, food and beverage companies – are less responsive in Nepal. Personally, I still remember how a coffee shop owner in Rio de Janeiro in Brazil, an hotelier in Hué in Vietnam and a travel agency in El Nido in Palawan, Philippines were cautious of their online presence and how dissatisfaction of even a single customer could ruin their reputation and business. Thus, while serving their guests, they served each of their customers in the best possible ways to avoid potential offline and/or online bad feedback and ratings. In order to make new feedback loops functional and also to take most advantage by integration of social media platforms into any institution’s existing traditional feedback loop, we first need to make people and institutions understand the greatest value of feedback on and ratings of their social media accounts.
Jaya Jung Mahat, an alumnus of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at the National University of Singapore, is a Kathmandu-based public policy researcher. He writes extensively on issues that connect economics, politics and innovation. He can be reached at email@example.com