New Delhi: How responsive are India’s legislators when their constituents try to reach out to them through e-mail? As it turns out, not very.
A new research paper published by a group of international researchers sent out over 700 emails to members of parliament (MPs), asking for basic information regarding Kendriya Vidyalaya (KV) schools. The response rate was less than 10%.
“Out of 727 emails successfully sent by the research team [to the MPs], we received just 69 responses, for a response rate of 9.5%. That means that fewer than one in 10 MPs responded to our request for information…,” the paper, whose authors include Milan Vaishnav, Saksham Khosla, Aidan Milliff and Rachel Osnos, notes.
All the emails were sent under an alias resident of the legislator’s constituency and asked each parliamentarian to provide them with information about accessing MPs’ quotas for admission in KV schools.
The research paper notes that the level of responsiveness was far inferior from what studies from other democracies in developed countries and developing South Africa have revealed.
Of those lawmakers who did respond, “slightly less than two-thirds of responses suggested a follow-up offline while one-third suggested follow-up online”, reiterating that e-governance still needs “interactions outside of the digital space in practical terms”.
Lok Sabha MPs were more responsive
Unsurprisingly, members of the Lok Sabha, who are directly elected, were “five times as likely to respond as opposed to members of the Rajya Sabha”, who are indirectly elected by the state assemblies and are further required to serve the interests of their states at large.
Based on “helpfulness”, however, India fares much better in relative comparison. The quality of responses recorded was higher than the average with around “58% of them deemed helpful,” in that they included information that directly answered the request for “necessary information about accessing MPs’ quotas for admission in Kendriya Vidyalaya (KV) schools.”
An example of helpful responses from the study read: “Thank you for your email below. Unfortunately, this year’s KV admissions have already been completed–the form was submitted two months ago, and the nominated students are already in the classroom. Please ask your staff member to get in touch with our [constituency name] office, and they will try and add her application to the list for next year”.
While an unhelpful response expressed: Aap bahut late ho gaye hain. Naam aur form hum bhej chuke hain, translating to ‘You are very late. We have already sent the names and forms’.
As India possesses multiple salient social cleavages, the study also tested the MP’s responses for religious bias. The results, however, indicated no distinctive differences; the average response rate was “10% for Hindu constituents and 9% for Muslims constituents” even when the MP’s Hindu and/or Muslim identity was in question.
The only displayed bias reported was that in contrast to the responses of BJP MPs, MPs of the other parties were seemingly more inclined to respond to Hindu constituents over Muslim constituents.
The lack of bias, in general, maybe surprising, as studies in developed countries displayed a racial bias per the name of the sender. Black legislators in the US were more responsive to supposedly black names, suggesting that descriptive representation has some meaningful impact on responsiveness. Although this did not coincide with the results in India, the studies sole focus on a religious cleavage left out the possibility of varied results when exploring class, caste, gender, age, or language.
The BJP and wealthier MPs also displayed a higher response rate, explained by the fact that BJP MPs constitute almost 44% of the subject pool, while more prosperous MPs have access to more resources.
The Congress party, on the other hand, fared poorly, “both in relative and absolute terms, with just a 6% response rate”, the paper stated.
Other notable discoveries from the research include: MPs who are more active on social media were more prone to respond to inquiries while younger and/or educated MPs, who are assumed to be more fluent with technology, were not more likely to respond. Additionally, there was no significant relationship between a constituency’s population density and MP responsiveness.
The study employed a blocked randomisation design, barring three characteristics: the house of parliament (Lok Sabha or Rajya Sabha), the age of the MP (above or below the median age of incumbent parliamentarians), and religious identity of the MP using either the name “S.Mohamed” to represent a generic Muslim constituent or “R. Krishna” to represent a generic Hindu constituent.
Moreover, requests were sent on July 20, 2016, a day the Parliament was in session, less than two weeks from the July 31 deadline for KV admission and were also translated into 13 different languages, based on the dominant language spoken in the state.
The major limitation of the study was that the responses were restricted to the reliance on email – the paper acknowledges that in India, “SMS or WhatsApp is far more widespread as a method for digital communication.”
To even locate the official email addresses, contrary to India’s perceived rise of “digital governance,” proved to have been extremely difficult, as addresses were either wrong or missing. “Starting with a list of 786 parliamentary seats, only 727 address had working email addresses out of which 173 MPs did not have a working government-issued email ID”, the paper explained.
Overall, the results of the article suggest that e-governance holds “immense potential for connecting constituents with their representatives”, evidenced by the assuring quality of responses, however, the actual lack of response means e-governance in India still has a long way to go.’