Messaging the Governor | Big Bold Cities

Messaging the Governor

Citizen Engagement by YouTube and text

three colored squaresMessaging the Governor


Jakarta’s former governor Basuki “Ahok” Tjahaja Purnama instituted a practice of posting meetings and speeches in full to YouTube, and the governor also published his cell-phone number and encouraged Jakarta residents to contact him directly. “What the public needs right now is not a system having ... answers everywhere,” the governor’s personal aide Michael Victor Sianipar said in 2016. “They need to be able to access the leadership. And the simplest way is by sharing the governor’s phone number.” The governor’s personal staff—a team of 50 young professionals, more than half of whom worked as interns—would forward messages to the appropriate ministries from the governor’s own account, to spur a quick response.

Democratic Challenge  

Many citizens have low levels of trust and confidence in government’s ability to solve problems and serve their needs, and many civil servants do not feel empowered to raise concerns or pitch ideas to their superiors. In the second decade after Indonesia’s democratic transition and decentralization, there remains a public perception that government is wasteful and ineffective. There is also a perception that the hierarchical culture of government makes decision-makers inaccessible for the public and for the civil service rank-and-file.

With communication culture that the governor brings to the bureaucracy, even the one who maps the street every day can text message the governor...At the end of the day, it only comes down to one simple matter: whether the lowest of the low official can have access to the highest official.

Michael Victor Sianipar, Personal Aide to the Governor

How’d They Do It?

Ahok made a point of publishing his direct contact information throughout his career in public service, from his time as a local elected official in his home province. According to his staff in the governor’s office, he originally responded to Jakarta residents’ texts personally, often in the car while shuttling between meetings. But as the number of messages grew, he brought in staff to respond on his behalf.

The staff relied on a then-novel smartphone feature, auto-text capability, to handle approximately 5,000 incoming text messages each day. Over time, patterns and similarities emerged in the questions people ask, allowing the city to provide automated responses. For questions that required an individual response, the governor’s staff copied the text message and used the governor’s phone number to forward it to the appropriate department head. The citizen complaint-reporting app Qlue can also forward complaints to appropriate departments, but officials recognize that it’s an automated message. When a question  or complaint comes in via the governor’s number, it means that his office has flagged it as important and expects follow-up. “It’s primitive, but right now it’s the best way,” Sianipar said.

The practice of using YouTube as a broadcast channel began in November 2012 when then-deputy governor Ahok posted a video of his budget meeting with officials from the city’s Public Works Agency officials. In the 46-minute video, Ahok breaks the news that his administration will be cutting the agency’s proposed budget by 25 percent. The video was viewed more than 1.3 million times within a few weeks. His YouTube channel as governor posted thousands of videos.

How’s It Going?   

Hearing New Voices

Dinita Andriani Putri, former Operational Director at the Centre for Innovation Policy and Governance (CIPG,) said in 2016 that her research team heard stories from residents about texting the governor and getting immediate attention to unresolved complaints. “It’s how they feel that they are being heard and the government is there,” Putri said. “They feel the presence of the government in real life. That’s what is important. The openness plays a great role in communicating to the citizens that the government is here and doing a great job.” This openness was noticed inside city government as well. One member of the governor’s staff said, “In our bureaucratic culture, it’s very difficult for officials from the lower level to have access to the higher-ups. One time, we had a meeting, [and] I wanted to invite a section head to a meeting with the vice governor. He refused. ‘I’m only a section head, let the agency head attend.’ With the communication culture that the governor brings to the bureaucracy, even the one who mops the street every day can text message the governor.”

Openness Fosters Trust 

Putri, of CIPG, also said she had conversations with taxi drivers about city business, which hadn’t happened before Ahok’s YouTube channel took off. “In a way, it increases their trust to the government,” Putri said. “They know there are no secret meetings or under-the-table deals. It increases the trust of citizens to the government. But it doesn’t mean they have to support policies.” The former governor’s personal aide Michael Victor Sianipar suggested that city government had nowhere to go but up, in terms of public trust. “We’re very, very lucky,” Sianipar said. “We’ve come from a very low position. People are still very merciful and very gracious. ‘At least they’re doing something. At least they’re clean. He’s sincere with his approach.’ We’re given a lot of leeway. If the public was more critical, we would be doomed.”

Demonstration Effect

The Anti-Corruption Commission announced in 2014 that it would begin broadcasting graft trials to YouTube.

When it comes to governance reform, our biggest innovation is not the Smart City Unit. The biggest reform we have is communication. And that's very important.

Michael Victor Sianipar, Personal Aide to the Governor


Transparency or bullying?

The success of Ahok’s YouTube channel divided the political class along predictable lines, with some welcoming an “unusually bold” move toward transparency, and others  lamenting a ‘political’ move to humiliate officials in public. This was part of a larger debate about the effectiveness of Ahok’s combative leadership style, which won him high approval ratings among some segments of the electorate but alienated others.

Political risk

The governor’s staff said in spring 2016 that video documentation of meetings could provide a defense—in the court of public opinion as well as in courts of law—against potential allegations of corruption or inappropriate deals, which they anticipated his opponents would bring. But video footage and an active social-media presence can also provide tinder for supporters, critics and rivals alike to light fires using Indonesia’s large, active and free-wheeling social-media culture.

Innovation Point of Contact

Michael Victor Sianipar
Aide to Governor Basuki “Ahok” Tjahaja Purnama

Who Else Is Trying This

Newark, New Jersey, United States

Former mayor and current Sen. Cory Booker has been at the forefront of interacting with his constituents directly on social media. Booker states that Twitter creates a level of accountability to residents who are empowered via social media. After Hurricane Sandy, he personally took to Twitter to invite neighbors who lost power to his home and used the system to find residents who needed help shoveling snow. As a Senator, the types of issues he is involved with have changed, but he remains a passionate advocate of civic technology and directly interacting with constituents via web-based platforms.

Whitehorse, Yukon, Canada

To increase interest in and awareness of City Council meetings, which are broadcast on public television, the small city of Whitehorse commissioned a dramatically produced commercial to promote the weekly broadcasts. The video went viral and has been viewed over 175,000 times, and has led to increased interest in the broadcasts of city council sessions.


Ithaca, New York, United States

“Text the Mayor” is a collaboration between Ithaca’s 29-year-old mayor Svante Myrick and artist Blake Fall-Conroy. In 2014 the mayor provided a phone number on Twitter. When constituents (or anyone around the world) send a text message to that number, the message is immediately transmitted to a scrolling LED sign hanging in the mayor’s office, while the message, sender and other information are recorded by a server in City Hall. The Text the Mayor project hopes to give people a direct link to their local elected officials, similar to other forms of electronic communication and social media, while using an actual piece of hardware in the Mayor's office. Over 1600 texts have been sent since the initiative began.

Jun, Grenada, Spain

The township of Jun (population 3600) is well known for widespread usage of internet technology, both by residents and the municipal government. In December 1999, the municipality announced the right of every citizen to have Internet in their home. In 2001, the town had its first interactive municipal council, leading then-head of the European Commission, Romano Prodi, to call Jun the birthplace of interactive democracy. Twitter has become the town’s main method of communication and interaction with its citizens, in an effort led by the mayor.