A former journalist for the local affiliate of CNN, Raheel Khursheed joined Twitter in 2014 as its first head of news, politics, and government in India. In 2016, he launched Twitter Seva, an e-governance platform that enabled Indian citizens to request assistance from government ministries through mentions on Twitter. Khursheed left Twitter in 2018 and has since co-founded a series of startups, including the video-streaming platform-as-a-service Laminar Global.

How do you solve a problem like one billion complaints?

Public systems in India are overstretched. Take the railway, for example, which carries more than 8 billion passengers a year. That scale often translates into apathy on the government’s end regarding any complaints about public services. It wasn’t as though the government didn’t have a complaint system earlier. But you would call a number, and that would fundamentally be the end of it. Who took your call, what happened to that call: nobody quite knew. 

I saw that a lot of traditional hierarchies were flattening on Twitter: a lot of regular people tagging high powered ministers and getting almost immediate responses, which is rare in India. I was asking myself: Where can I go with this next? Twitter Seva, which means Twitter service, was the natural progression. 

Our system brought the complaints under sunlight. When you put these complaints on our platform, they are public. If there is prominence attached to that complaint — if an editor, influencer, or the community has seen it — the imperative to respond is much higher. You get shamed if you don’t respond. 

I remember an incident where a man was traveling on a train, and the air-conditioning was not working. When he told the staff, nobody listened. And then he tweeted, and within minutes, he had staff in the coach working to fix the problem. They even checked to see if he was satisfied with the outcome. 

We built a framework of metrics. The focus suddenly went from how many followers to what your presence on your platform was worth. It was about how soon you could resolve an issue. We moved the product from a vanity metric to an impact metric. 

It just takes one early adopter

The obvious challenge was getting the government to sign on. People didn’t immediately see the benefit of it. I had gone to the Mumbai police and the Delhi police repeatedly, and those conversations didn’t go anywhere.

So we started this experiment with the Bengaluru police. We built this on the police commissioner being an early adopter of the platform, who was super sold on it. We convinced him that he could do a lot more with the platform, and that we could create a workflow to help. He generously opened up his organization for us to conduct this experiment. 

We manually kept track of each of their Twitter mentions and assigned it to the relevant officer to resolve the issues tweeted. We eventually automated the process, and at its peak, the Bengaluru police were addressing 500 tickets a day from Twitter. 

Fundamentally, this created a virtuous circle, where we had government officers respond to complaints, and then immediately, people would praise them. It’s not as if people in government are doing their jobs and getting patted on their backs every day. It was a feedback loop — and the department got hooked on resolving issues even faster. 

People thought, “If the railways can do it, then we can too.” Once they realized we had an actual workflow for them, it wasn’t a hard sell. By the time I left Twitter, we had rolled Twitter Seva out within at least 15 ministries. 

Before I left, we had launched the product in Indonesia, and we were talking about bringing it to Brazil. After I left, the product fell by the wayside. Initially, I was sad because I felt there was potential for it to go global. But companies have other priorities.

Lessons learned

Governments are resistant to online tools. But we found the right officer to work with us in Bengaluru, and he opened up his organization to us. If you find the right allies, you can still make headway. If you give governments solutions that they can use and incentivize the adoption of those products, really great things happen. 

I have no doubt in my mind that had I built this product while being based in Twitter HQ [in San Francisco], the profile of this product, the amount of resources we put behind it, the longevity of this product, and the number of markets it would have gone into would have been way higher. 

It just happened to be that I was developing it in India, which is a back or beyond market, so to speak, particularly from a product development point of view. So it didn’t get as much attention as it should have.