E-participation – the opportunities and challenges in opening up our meetings
I recently participated in an interagency teleconference organized by the ITU on “E-participation”, which in this context basically meant using technology to allow people to engage in meetings remotely.
The participants in the meeting (which was of course held virtually) included a wide if eclectic range of participants from international organizations including UNFCCC, OECD, UNHCR, Council of Europe, WTO, WHO, in addition to UNICEF and ITU. Several of us presented our experience with virtual participation in meetings internally and externally.
In UNICEF we don’t have a formal policy or strategy for e-meetings and are using a number of technologies and approaches, but our IT Division invited me to present on behalf of UNICEF about our practical experience, probably because I’m one of the most active (but very far from being the only) user and advocate for such approaches.
If detailed official notes from the meeting become shareable at a later stage I’ll share them, but I wanted to share my presentation as well as give a few personal reflections.
Here’s my presentation (very telegraphic I’m afraid) from slideshare:
Some of the points that came out from the discussions around our various experiences were:
1. Most international organizations are experimenting with use of virtual meetings, but the majority were at early stages of testing out the approach, often without any specific strategy with only a very few who were using them systematically with established practices and procedures for doing so.
2. The interest with the approach was fuelled by the fact that new technologies offer a range of potential benefits for remote participation in meetings which can have a number of important advantages over regular face to face meetings in a global organization. These can be both efficiency focussed such as reducing travel costs and time delays, but also effectiveness focussed – such as including new voices in the conversation whether allowing greater internal participation, or providing opportunities for greater external transparency and incorporating stakeholder voices.
3. Virtual meetings are a new kind of interaction and require new rules and culture change within the organizations that use them. This aspect is often much more challenging than identification and setup of the technology itself. The challenges range from overcoming the reluctance of people to use the technology, to working out rules for formally documenting meeting outcomes or for calling on remote and local participants in an eve-handed manner. And while there is a great potential for organizations to use virtual participation or webcasting to open up their governance processes to partners or the broader public, this poses the greatest cultural challenge of all – are we ready to show the outside world the sausage making machine that is UN decision making? Which meetings should be shared externally and what level of external participation is desirable and manageable, and what about those who don’t have the ability to access a meeting online?
Another cultural challenge is that e-meetings are often recorded which is great in that people are able to really hear what was said by whom afterwards – but this also poses a challenge to those used to carefully crafted meeting reports that might reflect the eventual sanitised agreements but not the full content and dynamic of the meeting. And if you know you will be recorded and broadcast does this change how you behave and what you say in a meeting?
4. Virtual meetings actually come in a variety of different flavours from simple broadcasting of a meeting with no opportunity for feedback, to video conferencing and telepresence where the attempt is to make everyone’s participation experience as even as possible. And there is a wide range of options inbetween. A few possible use cases are in my slides. It’s important to think about the type of interaction and participation you really want and how well the technology set-up supports this – also in terms of managing expectations about the type of experience and level of contribution and interaction remote participants will get.
5. It isn’t like being there. There are important social interaction dynamics which are very different in virtual meetings to in person meetings. In particular there is always a degree of asymmetry in virtual participation in that remote participants don’t get the same experience as those who are present in the meeting room. To run a meeting successfully you need to watch the “virtual body language” – can people hear you?, are they following and engaging with the conversation?, or are they tuning out and checking their e-mail (after all you can’t see them to tell if they are paying attention), do remote participants feel they are getting a fair opportunity to contribute?
6. The technology still mostly sucks (well that wasn’t how it was expressed in the meeting) – and there is always a good chance that some aspect will go wrong – so you need to manage expectations, and always have a plan B in case it doesn’t work. It’s also important not to lose sight of the purpose of the meeting and the type of interaction/input required while trying to deal with the technology challenges.
7. Participation isn’t only the meeting itself. It’s useful to think in terms of how to engage people before, during and after the meetings – in particular to link meetings to online communities or discussion forums to allow people to start to engage before a meeting, or to continue the discussion after the formal meeting has finished.
If you want broader participation you need to plan to promote your event and motivate people to join. During the meeting it can also be useful to make use of tools like Twitter (or Yammer if you want to keep it internal) as a backchannel to the meeting itself and also as a way to share soundbites from the meeting with those who aren’t able to join the virtual meeting live. After a meeting is over it’s also important to quickly share the meeting recording and presentations with both participants and relevant non-participants, and to quickly carry out any follow-up using online tools if necessary in order to keep people engaged and active in the next steps forward.
Within the UN at least I think we have some way to go to make use of some of the online tools to support collaboration outside virtual meeting tools such as twitter, online communities and chat-rooms or live document collaboration (such as using wikis or google docs in real time).
8. One issue we haven’t really dealt with in UNICEF and that is logistically very tricky and costly is that of real time translation/interpretation. For internal meetings we can probably muddle by but for external meetings especially relating to governance and policy we will need to find ways to allow participants to be able to contribute and listen in other languages -and how to weight up cost, translation quality and speed of interaction.
9. Not everything can be done virtually. Sometimes it’s important to meeting in real life. In particular some kinds of meeting require both face to face trust building as well as highly interactive meeting methodologies for sharing and interacting that can’t easily be simulated virtually. So we need to recognize when not to use virtual meetings and not imagine we can do without real meetings altogether.
The meeting didn’t end in any specific decisions on how to work in this area in the UN but I think it will be interesting to see what are some of the emerging good practices and use cases that come up from across the system.
Bonus: here’s something I wrote earlier on how to make meetings and conferences better – a lot of it focusses on the face to face aspect – but making sure there is an online piece and getting it right can go a long way to making meetings more productive too.