Nick Ashton-Hart is the global private sector’s representative in Geneva dedicated to digital trade and economic policy and a long-time delegate to the International Telecommunications Union.
While it is largely invisible to the public, behind the scenes the biggest change to intergovernmental meetings in our lifetimes is taking place: they’re going online.
This may not sound earthshaking—but it is.
Until last month, intergovernmental affairs have been conducted almost entirely face-to-face. Since that is no longer safe, the United Nations, its specialized agencies, and other international organizations are scrambling to implement the technology and processes to meet online. Large in-person meetings have been cancelled or postponed, while technical meetings are increasingly entirely online. Some agencies have a longer history of remote participation and they have made the switch rapidly, like the ITU, IMF, and World Bank. Others, like the WTO, do not have the same institutional history of allowing virtual participation in its formal meetings. Consequently, it is taking them longer to adjust.
Anyone who has experience with online meetings could be forgiven for assuming this migration should be simple. However, it is not.
While heading public participation at ICANN, I led the team that designed and implemented remote participation in ICANN’s meetings. We had to ensure that remote participants were on an equal footing to those who were in the room. This was an enormous technical and logistical challenge, greatly complicated by the need for simultaneous interpretation in several languages. Interpretation requires, among other things, very high audio quality for everyone connected, plus a great deal of discipline by remote participants and moderators to avoid extraneous noise disrupting the interpreters’ ability to hear clearly.
We had an enormous advantage: ICANN’s stakeholders are used to working online. Even so, we worked around the clock for months to make it work (at scale first for ICANN’s 2010 Nairobi meeting). By contrast, diplomats have very little experience working online in a negotiating capacity, as intergovernmental meetings often don’t allow anything beyond webcasting, which is a one-way view.
The biggest challenges to this transition will not be technical. Let me give you a sense of the real issues.
It is often said that up to 90 percent of communication is non-verbal, and while it isn’t quite that simple, facial expressions and body language are incredibly important. In videoconferences, you only have faces to work with, and participants connected via limited bandwidth often have video turned off, so you have only audio cues to go on. When a meeting is multilingual, visual cues are even more important if the speaker is not speaking a language you understand. Unless the audio quality of a connection is very good, spoken interventions can become compressed or distorted, making auditory cues unclear or missed entirely.
Chairing an online process is also a very different experience. Chairs rely on a sixth sense of the room’s “feel,” of which body language is a crucial part, to do their jobs. They also need to be able to step in behind-the-scenes to solve problems in a dynamic way. This can be done virtually, but it is more difficult and less informal, given the added friction of technological intermediation.
Negotiations will also be more difficult. It is harder to avoid a compromise when your counterparts are in front of you, especially in larger meetings where only a few issues are left to solve—the peer pressure of everyone around you wanting to finish is palpable. When you’re negotiating while sitting in your home, remaining disagreeable is easier.
Much of the hard work of reaching agreements takes place in smaller, off-the-record gatherings. It is possible to facilitate online equivalents of these processes, but it is more complex than simply walking down the aisle and having a quick word or running into people in hallways.
For everyone involved, training and new processes—such as formal ‘breakout’ sessions online to replace informal, ad-hoc gatherings—are necessary. In my experience, training generally focuses entirely on using new tools for virtual meetings, despite the fact that the psychological adaptations necessary for them to be used effectively are more important. This is especially the case because experienced negotiators are rarely young enough to be “digital natives.” To adapt to remote negotiations, they need to form working partnerships with younger colleagues for whom technology is fully integrated into their social interaction skills.
While it is sometimes indispensable to have in-person meetings, many meetings, especially those dealing with less politically sensitive or more technical matters could be fully virtual, even without the pandemic. Others could be a hybrid, with some delegates “in the room” and others participating remotely. However, this will only be sustainable if those in the room and those participating remotely have equal opportunities to participate and influence outcomes. Remote participation in meetings is also cheaper and would allow countries that are unable cover travel expenses to participate.
There is another upside: openness. Remote participation in hybrid meetings and fully online meetings inevitably means more people participating in decision-making, which increases openness. Over time, this should lead to more participation from NGOs, including the private sector. This is essential: non-state actors are often where the real expertise on complex technical issues is concentrated.
Time is not our friend. COVID-19 is the biggest challenge humanity has faced in our lifetimes. It has made it starkly clear we are all in this together and rapid, iterative, collective action is indispensable.
All of us in international affairs will have to up our game considerably and learn to work differently to achieve good results in a challenging policy environment.
I’m sure we’re up to the challenge.