Features | Politics | Oceania

Technology and Diplomacy

It looks like any other diplomatic meeting. Seated on one side of the table is the President of the United States. Opposite him is the prime minister of a small African nation. The discussion centres on the African’s desire to accelerate the arrival of promised military aid in response to a rising coup attempt.

It looks like any other diplomatic meeting. Seated on one side of the table is the President of the United States. Opposite him is the prime minister of a small African nation. The discussion centres on the African’s desire to accelerate the arrival of promised military aid in response to a rising coup attempt.

The atmosphere in the room would be tense, but for the fact that the meeting is taking place using TelePresence, and the two parties are situated on opposite sides of the world.

TelePresence is an advanced videoconferencing system created by the US computer network technology maker, Cisco. It enables people to meet in a much more realistic situation than is possible in traditional videoconferencing technology, thanks to its use of high-speed broadband technology and high-definition video equipment.

And while our opening scenario actually came in US television series 24 Resurrection, collaboration technology is having a real impact on how governments – following the lead of multinational businesses – are conducting their affairs.

High-definition videoconferencing systems such as TelePresence, or Halo from Hewlett-Packard, are being deployed today by the likes of Telstra to facilitate better communication between offices. They provide a strong benefit through reducing the need for travel, with associated cost and carbon emission savings, but carry a price-tag in the hundreds of thousands of dollars.

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Nevertheless, the Australian Government believes that is money well spent, recently announcing that it would be deploying TelePresence across more than 20 government offices. The network will span thousands of kilometres and reach across all states and territories, and is intended to ‘reduce the cost of travel, improve productivity and lower the impact of carbon emissions’. The system will be used for inter-jurisdictional meetings, including Council of Australian Governments (COAG) and Ministerial Council meetings.

While such high-end technology is yet to be extended to diplomatic circles, many organisations are using more cost-effective technology, such as standard-definition video conferencing, online collaboration tools (where documents can be shared between remote users), webcasts (where sessions are broadcast over the Internet) and online seminars, called webinars.

For instance, videoconference technology is used extensively throughout the United Nations. According to the UN’s chair of its working group on knowledge management, Linda Stoddart, videoconferencing is used primarily for small meetings and interviews, but has been used to connect large conference facilities.
‘We are exploring the use of webinars, and have facilitated several global webinar events,’ Stoddart says. ‘Webcasts have been in use for a few years. We are also exploring the use of virtual meeting tools such as WebEx for day-to-day use, as well as for use during emergencies when physical meetings are difficult, [such as during] pandemic conditions.’

Stoddart says the knowledge management strategy being developed by the UN will incorporate many of these tools into a strategic framework.

An ‘explosion’ of tools and facilities

‘Additionally, experimentation will continue with proliferating pilot projects focused on timely and effective collaboration as well as knowledge retention,’ says Stoddart. ‘Use of the current tools will expand. The increased emphasis within the UN on knowledge management, together with the explosion of tools and facilities commonly available, will result in expanded awareness, demand, and uptake of these new ways of breaking down the barriers to effective online collaboration.’

Much of the diplomatic use of these tools to date has been within trade missions, such as New Zealand Trade and Enterprise (NZTE). NZTE’s director for information technology and services, Phil Hayward, says the organisation has been using videoconferencing for seven years, and deployed its first units in foreign locations three ago. He says the use of videoconferencing makes for better engagements.

‘It is a lot easier than it is over the phone – you can get their reactions,’ Hayward says. ‘And it avoids us having to fly out everywhere. So we avoid cost, and the carbon footprint is a lot less.’

The facilities have, however, been used by the New Zealand Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade on occasion, typically for interviewing staff for internal appointments.

‘You’re still going to have to have those face-to-face meetings at some point, especially in the diplomatic space where so much of what you are doing is gauging reaction and reading body language,’ Hayward says. ‘But [videoconferencing is] better than a phone.’

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NZTE has investigated advanced high-definition systems, but balked at the high price-tag. Hayward says one idea had been to install high-definition facilities in some locations instead of having an office. However, there is a significant drawback in that a videoconferencing facility is static, whereas the role of a trade commissioner requires them to be out and about.

Nonetheless, Hayward says that the higher-definition systems deliver a superior experience, and he could imagine multiple organisations, even across international boundaries, investing together in shared facilities.

‘The standard videoconference facilities just don’t give you that sense of engagement that you get face-to-face,’ he says. ‘I see in the future a group of entities getting together and perhaps putting one or more of these things in place and sharing.’

The Australian Trade Commission, Austrade, is also an extensive user of videoconferencing between offices around the world, and makes these available for use by external parties. The organisation is using online collaboration tools from Citrix Systems that enable users to share documents relating to meetings and projects.

According to Amanda Turner, Austrade’s project specialist in its knowledge and information management group, the tools are commonly used to host information sessions and training sessions, in both one-on-one and group scenarios, and to hold presentations to groups. She says Austrade is also considering extending the use of these tools to some of the external groups that it works with.

Turner says Austrade has also built an information-sharing tool called Connect, based on Microsoft’s SharePoint software for document management and sharing, to increase collaboration between posts.

‘We’re a huge and globally dispersed organisation,’ Turner says. ‘The idea was to provide a space where people can collaborate, share and work on documents. The more we can share and work together, the better we can serve our clients and work with the market.

‘We can get people together at times that may not be so sociable, because you can jump onto an interactive session from home. And it means they can also participate on the road, because all they need is Internet access and a phone.’

The recent Australian Government announcement is a sign that the technology is starting to catch on in a significant way outside trade missions. And while the need for face-to-face contact, and the associated prestige that accompanies in-person visits (particularly where high-profile, enormously popular international leaders like Barack Obama are concerned) remain compelling, virtual diplomacy may soon become a reality.

POLLIE TECHNIKS

How ‘new’ technology is changing old political habits

The media, new and old alike, are currently awash with stories of politicians embracing ‘technology’. From Twitter to MySpace, YouTube to Second Life, Facebook to SMS, the world’s leaders (or, more accurately, their staffers) are interacting with their supporters like never before, particularly during elections.

According to Ravi Singh, CEO of ElectionMall Technologies, successful election campaigns reach out to people and generate awareness. Singh told Government Technology, ‘It is crucial to have the ability to target voters, and technology is a sure-fire way of finding like-minded people to agree with a candidate’s issues and values.’

Barack Obama’s victory in last year’s US presidential election has been attributed in large part to just such a tech-savvy approach, particularly with regards to his ability to mobilise traditionally apathetic voters under the age of 30. Prior to the election, his use of mobile phones – including announcing Joe Biden as his running mate via text message – was called ‘a novel development’. After it, it’s been hailed as decisive. According to a former John McCain campaign aide: ‘We did a lot of new-media stuff, but in the context of the Obama campaign [which had an active presence in up to 40 social networking sites and services], anything we did was automatically drowned out because they were so good it.’

Not that November 2008 was the first ‘YouTube election’. That label has, together with ‘e-election’, already been applied to the November 2007 Australian Federal election – a claim Jim Macnamara, Professor of Public Communication and Director of the Australian Centre for Public Communication at the University of Technology Sydney, calls ‘greatly exaggerated’.

Writing, appropriately, a blog for openforum.com.au, Macnamara highlights research showing that ‘much of the claimed impact of YouTube, MySpace, Facebook, blogs and other “new” media remains questionable at this stage’. Specifically, he points to his own study, titled E-Electioneering: Use of New Media in the 2007 Australian Federal Election, which ‘found that most Web 2.0 type applications used by politicians and political parties failed to take advantage of the interactive “conversation” features this technology provides’.

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Yet, the perception continues that technology, particularly Web 2.0-type applications, is changing how politicians interact with the populace. Elections have always been a battleground with underhand tactics part and parcel of the game. In the run-up to the November 2008 New Zealand election, a ‘Google bombing’ campaign by National and Labour supporters alike saw New Zealand being named by foreignpolicy.com alongside Nigeria, Russia, Taiwan and Austria as holding one of the world’s ugliest elections.

Google bombing is when people work cooperatively to manipulate Internet search results, and thanks to Labour apparatchiks, an October search on google.co.nz for ‘clueless’ returned National Party leader John Key’s website as one of the top results – an approach that has been called ‘an interesting piece of character assassination’ and which caused National supporters to respond in kind.

But while such strategies could be viewed as funny rather than sinister, there is no doubt politicians are serious about using new Web technologies to increase their appeal. The Rudd government has recently called on Obama’s online strategist, Ben Self, for advice, and spent $1.1 million on 36 new government promotional websites. However, as Macnamara has pointed out, the lack of negative or critical feedback comments, or comments that have been heavily moderated, undermine claims that these sites enable the government to engage openly and interactively with the public.

‘The extent of Rudd’s online engagement has been to attempt to access a new audience through a new medium. But the frame he does it through is still the old politics – tight message control of one-way communication for a passive spectator of the political process,’ Ed Coper from activist organisation GetUp has claimed.
No politician can afford to be left behind in the cyberspace race. In India, candidates are currently making use of text messages and the Net to reach voters, and political avatars are now commonplace on Second Life, following the lead of former French Socialist Party presidential candidate, Segolene Royal. Which means the sight of politicians the world over Tweeting their way through parliamentary sessions and political campaigns is virtually assured.