Open house meetings may buck the digital trend

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Jayaram Sivaram follows a two-pronged approach to presenting grievances to civic agencies. He would send an email presenting the problem to the authorities concerned. If it does not elicit the desired response — he makes a visit to the department. More often than not, it’s this follow-up action that proves critical to the complaint being acted upon.

Sixty-five-years-old, Sivaram belongs to that group of seniors who swear by in-person grievance redressal systems without however shying away from online routes.

A regular to the open-house meetings conducted by Chennai Metropolitan Water Supply and Sewerage Board (CMWSSB) every second Saturday of the month, Sivaram says such meetings have their place even in the digital age.

“There is no grievance redressal mechanism than works faster than meeting the official in-person and explaining the problem to them,” says Sivaram, a member of T Nagar Residents Welfare Association.

Unlike social media or an email representation, where one can’t be absolutely sure if the decision maker read the complain unless they acknowledge the fact, open house meetings are by nature built for greater engagement.

For instance, Sivaram says, at Metro Water’s open house one will find two to three officials listening to the grievances. “Sometimes, these meetings would have a senior person from the head office in attendance,” he says.

Understandably now, government departments have put these open houses on hold.

India Post, for instance, conducts four circle-level ‘Dak Adalats’ a year; but after the one held in December 2019 it was not able to host its first meet for the year.

CMWSSB conducts meetings every second Saturday at all its 15 area offices, between 10 a.m and 1 p.m., and this system is going through a prolonged break since March.

Similarly, TANGEDCO’s public house meeting, held once in three months in every division, and the weekly meetings held at the office of the Chennai District Collectorate are in abeyance.

Meetings post-COVID

One can reasonably expect many precautions to be in place, even after the world witnesses medical breakthroughs, including a vaccine, to deal with COVID. In this scenario, will departments go back to organising open houses? Officials from India Post and CMWSSB say the open house format is not going away.

Besides a presence on social media, the Postal Department has a toll free number. Factoring in COVID-19, the department launched an exclusive helpline number which has been receiving, on an average, 20 to 30 calls.

Over the last one year since it opened its account on social media, Metro Water has more than 7000 followers on its Twitter handle @CHN_Metro_water. Besides that, its helpline number 4567 4567 is accessed by a huge number of residents.

“Many people have started posting complaints tagging the department’s official ID on Twitter, but our Open House is still an integral part of how we connect with people and resolve their issues,” says a grievance redressal official with the department. We get nearly 100 complaints, he says, during open house meetings.

“Though the helpline number 4567 5467 is helpful, those who are hard of hearing or those who want to show us record-based proof prefer to meet us in person,” says the official.

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Will more departments use tech tools to address grievances?

Recently, the office of the Chennai Police Commissioner started a WhatsApp video call feature to enable an aggrieved person speak to the city police commissioner directly.

The public can contact the city police commissioner, Mahesh Kumar Aggarwal, through a video call on 6369100100 between 12 noon and 1 p.m on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.

The virtual grievance redressal mechanism is aimed at circumventing the limitations resulting from the lockdown and travel restrictions that would prevent people from heading to the Police Commissioner’s office.

So, will we see more departments switching to digital platforms to address grievances?

Post-lockdown, the Chennai Circle of India Post plans to wait and watch and decide when to have its in-person meetings. “Or, we might think of conducting a virtual Dak Adalat,” says M. Vijayalakshmi, assistant director (public grievance), Office of the Chief Postmaster General.

Chennai district collector R. Seethalakhsmi says she will wait till the end of the month when the lockdown ends to take a decision in this matter. Her office conducts GDP (Grievance Day Petitions) every Monday between 10 a.m. and 1 p.m. “We receive nearly 100 petitions on an average in a GDP, a majority of them coming from the underprivileged and I wonder if they would be able to switch to technology-based platforms,” says Seethalakshmi.

Although the office has put its GDP on hold, it continues to get representations via WhatsApp and email. What would be a post-COVID GDP like?

“No doubt wearing masks and maintaining social distancing will become a norm,” says Seethalakshmi, adding that they may even look at having more rules and checks in place to ensure there is no crowding at the office.

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