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Future Operation of International Organizations within an Electronic Environment

Framework for reflection on intra- and inter-organizational issues of relevance to both intergovernmental organizations and NGOs

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It is unnecessary to comment here on the established and successful use of electronic exchanges for: 


The focus here is on the challenge for established international organizations in adapting an extensive part of their communications to facilitate: 

Past concerns

As has been demonstrated in a number of different ways, the principal constraints to further and rapid development of more flexible forms of communication have been: 

Present and future concerns

As the previous point implies, the current concerns are no longer technical or financial. There are technical and financial solutions to suit most budgets, most technical environments, and most levels of know-how. 

The challenges at present may be summarized in the following terms (in no particular order): 

(a) Legal requirements: Many international organizations have legal obligations that decision-making meetings be held in a face-to-face mode at a single physical location, notably in the case of plenary sessions and executive board meetings. This practice often extends without question to other meetings where the legal constraints no longer apply. This situation is analogous to past requirements that financial transactions should be recorded on paper to leave a hardcopy audit trail. Special legislation had to be introduced to permit electronic accounting. Analogous legislation is required to permit non face-to-face statutory meetings, whether or not this takes place simultaneously or delayed interventions are permitted over a more extended period of time. In the case of intergovernmental organizations this may (only) require revision of the constitution by member governments. In the case of nongovernmental organizations, this may also require revision of the national law in the country of their secretariat. In some cases, or for some forms of meeting of an organization, only modifications to the bye-laws, or rules of procedure, may be required. Just as some otherwise underprivileged countries have become tax havens to bypass certain restrictions, there is a case for some countries to consider the advantages that they would gain by allowing international organizations to base their headquarters there in order to avoid obligations for face-to-face statutory meetings. This question may be less of an issue if video-conferencing is used, although this then excludes the possibility of extended meetings. 

(b) Authentication: Electronic voting is already a factor on the occasion of face-to-face plenary meetings of many organizations. In such cases the problems of authentication have already been solved. Provision has not as yet been made for electronic votingat a distance for such organizations. Paper-based proxy voting may however be permissable in many organizations and relevant authentication procedures have been provided. Authentication may not be an issue for informal organizations, operating electronically, in which parties achieve consensus on the rules of procedure, unconstrained by outside authorities. The technology for authentication of voting in non face-to-face meetings exists and is used -- as demonstrated in the extreme case of security issues relating to nuclear strike authorization. At a different level, authentication can be provided by use of appropriate passwords. The question is the level of security considered appropriate and the ease with which it can be bypassed. This however also applies to people purporting to be representatives of members of an international organization, where the basis for accreditation may be questionable by some criteria. 

(c) Security: Physical security is a recognized challenge at many international meetings. Security against electronic surveillance is an increasing issue in face-to-face meetings where knowledge of exchanges between certain delegates can provide a strategic advantage. In the case of electronic meetings, it is clear that the physical security problem is almost completely avoided, whereas the electronic challenge is increased, since all exchanges are electronic. Efforts by a single country, or group of countries, to monopolize encryption technology may therefore be seen as a factor severely inhibiting development of politically significant electronic exchanges. How can a group of people communicating electronically be assured that their exchange is not being monitored in some way? How do they achieve that assurance when using the telephone or meeting together in a conference lobby -- given the power of electronic surveillance devices? Because of the increasing cost of effective physical security, electronic communications are readily recognized to have significant advantages. For those offering electronic services, the challenge is how to prove to users that monitoring is not in place. 

(d) Absenteeism: Formal face-to-face meetings normally involve registration of the presence or absence of participants as a basis for establishing whether there is a quorum -- and in some instances of ensuring the right to perdiem expenses. This procedure is subject to widespread abuse. Delegates may register their presence and then absent themselves (at least from plenary sessions), except possibly for discussions or presentations that they consider critical. Even when physically present, delegates may choose to engage in other tasks or to focus their attention on other matters. In an electronic environment analogous challenges exist. Registration for a simultaneous electronic session, does not guarantee that participants are paying attention to the discussion. In non-simultaneous electronic meetings, it is not clear that participants 'read' exchanges which they may however be registered as having 'opened' or 'received'. On the other hand, because participants are free to choose to what communications they give their attention, they are then more likely to choose to participate in some part of the exchange rather than avoid participating in any part at all. They can avoid communications they consider to be of littleconsequence, whether or not they examine them in greater detail at some later time as their significance emerges. Electronic environments allow people with limited time to manage demands upon it more effectively. It should extend the range of activities in which they can effectively participate. The requirements of face-to-face events tend to restrict that range. 

(d) Public relations, status and personal contact: A major, if unstated, purpose of plenary and other meetings is to provide an occasion at which participants can make a presentation to a captive audience. From this perspective, emphasis is on context, setting, mediatisation, status, and related concerns which serve to position a speaker and an audience in a wider context. There are many unstated dimensions to the process of meeting, and being met, amongst a group of peers and those aspiring to peer group status. Since much of this has less to do with content than with context, any effort to substitute for them electronically may be seen as unsatisfactory, especially by certain cultures and types of personality. Whilst assiduous users of electronic media claim that these dimensions are all present to some degree, or to an even greater degree, this perception would not be accepted by people with other communication styles. Those favouring electronic communications would also tend to make a counter claim that the electronic mode ensures more effective communication, although the meaning of 'effectiveness' would again be subject to challenge. In situations where it is virtually impossible for people physically gathered together to be equally satisfied with the degree of 'access' and personal contact with key figures, it is clear that electronic communication can provide an alternative mode of access. This can be more effective in that much sought out figures can manage their interactions more effectively and therefore undertake more of them. However, as with the transition to the telephone, this may be a generational issue: 'younger' participants may increasingly emphasize electronic communication. A solution increasingly advocated is to make use of video-conferencing facilities over the Internet. Whilst this facility is currently being implemented for the United Nations (New York), it is unclear whether it will avoid the constraints identified here. 

(e) 'Set-pieces': A particular, but highly important, manifestation of the public relations challenge, is the set-piece speech by keynote speakers and delegates. In many respects international gatherings are organized to provide the context for such presentations, notably where the 'home consumption' dimension is important. The main challenge is usually ensuring that speakers respect previously agreed upon time limits, which are often highly restrictive because of the number of such set pieces. The electronic equivalent is the video presentation, often by satellite. Whilst such set pieces clearly have a vital role for some, they are also experienced by others as something to be avoided (often at any cost). For the latter, the electronic solution is to obtain a copy (possibly as a file rather than a cassette) of the video presentation for optional viewing under viewer-determined conditions. An easily implemented alternative is the distribution of set pieces as files which can be selectively read under reader-determined conditions. It should be noted that the electronic environment allows for far more setpieces (of unrestricted length) of potentially far wider distribution. However it offers no guarantee of audience attention, even of a token nature. Web facilities do however offer the significant advantage of being able to offer immediate and detailed indexing and other hyperlink access routes to the content of such communications, thus increasing their usability over conventional speeches. 

(f) Interpretation/Translation constraints: In many genuinely international conferences, the challenge of different languages can only be met at costs which often represent the most important element of the conference budget. Well-established rules govern the period of time a highly paid interpreter works before being relieved by another member of the interpretation team. In conventional conferences, the response to this is to endeavour to limit the number of languages requiring interpretation. Such limitation can be a highly charged symbolic, political and cultural issue that marks and defines the non-universality of the event -- beyond the obvious problems of effective communication. Various electronic solutions exist or are still to be explored in practice. Participants can communicate in a variety of languages, allowing the reader to (partially) understand whatever is possible. Translators (possibly situated in distant locations) can provide accurate translations for selected texts, or on request. Automatic translation software can be used to provide crude translations (which may optionally be improved by translators) -- an off-the-shelf translation package exists for Web documents, for example. The key issue with regard to interpreters and translators is the contractual agreement or convention regarding rates and usage. For example recordings of interpreted speeches cannot be transcribed without infringing interpreter union rules and infringing upon the domain of translators. Both interpreters and translators need to explore ways of reducing the constraints they impose upon communications in an electronic environment. However, if they fail to do so they run the risk of being bypassed by the cruder contributions of automatic translation software. 

(g) Conference gamesmanship: International conferences of any significance are seldom free from 'gamesmanship', often of a very high order. Those with sophisticated meeting skills are valued, and achieve self-esteem, through their ability to out-manoeuvre those with less experience or less skill -- whether or not this is to be considered as undermining democratic processes. Such skills may often be used to compensate for lack of inherent advantages on the part of particular delegations or individuals. For example, a skilled orator, however intellectually incompetent, can often out-manoeuvre one who is unskilled, however brilliant the latter's arguments may be. Gamesmanship involves many skills, including manipulation of the agenda, protocol issues, invitations to receptions, appropriate introductions, recommendations for speakers, spreading rumours and planting (dis)information, etc. Those possessing these skills are likely to resist strongly their loss of competitive advantage in an electronic environment -- although their arguments will not be expressed in these terms. Although analogues to these skills may exist in that environment, as well as others offering different strategic advantage, these are not likely to be distributed amongst potential participants in the same way. Amuch clearer analysis of the skills in both situations is urgently required. 

(h) Participation rights: A major issue in formal international conferences is the way in which degrees of participation are defined and restricted to particular categories of person or representative. Distinctions are reflected in entry to a meeting room, physical seating arrangements, right to speak, length/frequency of interventions, right to vote, etc. Within a larger conference, attendance at specific sessions may be governed by different criteria. Gamesmanship may use the limited size of meeting rooms, and the shortage of time, to manipulate the rules of participation to the disadvantage of some. Clearly the situation is very different in an electronic environment: 

It is possible for very large numbers of people to 'observe' the interactions amongst a very small number of people over an extended period of time -- without in any way 'interfering' as might be the case in a physical meeting. This corresponds to the televising of parliamentary proceedings. The right to observe in this way can easily be restricted by password. This restriction may even govern access to specific communications. 

Many of these facilities are already standard practice in electronic conferences. Possibly the key non-technical factor impeding the substitution of these facilities for those of conventional conferences is associated with the politics and psychology of 'recognition'. Being allowed to stand up and speak in the name of a country or organization may be believed to carry significance in ways in which effective participation in an electronic conference do not.

(i) Hierarchy: Within a complex organization, paper communications are usually required to pass along well-defined routes which determine how and when they pass up or down hierarchic levels, or get transferred to parallel hierarchies. Similar rules may govern telephone communications. In an electronic environment, the potential ease of communication across bureaucratic boundaries can be perceived as very threatening to established procedures and the integrity of an organization. It is a real challenge to ensure an appropriate balance between desirable openness and undesirable communication. The response of electronic enthusiasts that ever more openness is necessarily good is increasingly recognized as misguided and impractical -- those very people tend to build sophisticated filtering rules to exclude a flood of unwanted communications. The challenge in an electronic environment is therefore to improve the design of filtering rules and to relate those more effectively to the desired functionality of an organization or the preferred style of work of the individuals concerned. 

(j) Access: A major aspect of 'participation rights' and 'hierarchy' is the attitude of gatekeepers of various types towards access to key figures and how it should be controlled. Such key figures may be traumatized by the challenge of avoiding contact with troublesome 'outsiders' whilst needing to be seen as being 'open' to feedback and willing to listen. The physical, security and time constraints of the conventional conference environment allow the seemingly legitimate establishment of many 'gates'. The situation in an electronic environment is analogous in many ways, although much more flexible. People can design their environment to prevent overload. Minimal responses can be provided where appropriate. As has been demonstrated, superficial automated responses are even possible where thousands of people are allowed to interact (as in the case of White House responses to public communication by e-mail). The challenge for many intergovernmental organizations is to find flexible and sensitive ways of using the power of electronic communication in responding to external parties of varying degrees of accreditation and credibility. There are many software solutions, once the challenge has been clearly defined. The major advantage of an electronic environment for international organizations is that it permits communications with bodies at distant locations, where conventional approaches tend to introduce heavy biases in favour of those with the resources to be physically present. This bias is most clearly evident in the case of the many thousands of lobbyists encamped in Brussels, New York and Washington, for example. The question is whether electronic facilities would be used by insiders as a means of diverting external parties into tokenistic exchanges in order to continue to privilege those with the resources to pursue face-to-face interaction. With the advent of video facilities, even 'face-to-face' contact by lobbyists may take on a new meaning.

(k) 'Flag-waving' and 'show-and-tell': International conferences are often perceived by participants as providing a unique opportunity for 'flag-waving' and 'show-and-tell' performances, irrespective of the desires of other participants (who may have similar concerns). These functions often compete with other vital functions of conferences, limiting their effectiveness. In an electronic environment, hyperlinks can provide ready access to multi-media show-and-tell websites, without limiting other forms of communication. In fact websites, designed to that end, may be far more effective than the brief performance during a conventional conference. It remains true however that the possibility of briefly attracting the attention of key people in a captive audience during such conventional events may prove of greater value than their questionable ability to seek exposureto a website. 

(l) Privileges and 'perks': A very important reason for physical attendance at conferences lies in the manner in which advantage may be taken of the travel, both for tourism and for dealing with concerns which have little or nothing to do with the conference. In both cases these objectives may be fulfilled in other locations en route to the conference location. 'Juggling' with financial arragnements for conference attendance has been turned into an art form. Participants, notably from poorer countries, may contribute significantly to their income by using a generous conference per diem 'appropriately'. Attendance at a conference is often seen as a perk or reward. It can contribute significantly to the peer group status of the participant, just as any paper presented can be seen as a significant career advancement. There are few equivalents to these factors in an electronic environment. One possible exception is participation in exclusive electronic conferences.

(m) Pre-determined conference agendas: Because of the constraints on time and use of limited meeting rooms, a strong case is easily made for careful pre-structuring of a conventional international conference. Speakers are carefully selected; papers may be subject to approval by a panel. Speakers may even be required to rehearse their presentations before communication advisers. Plenary and specialized sessions are carefully identified. Participation rules are established. Gatekeepers are identified. All these necessary concerns leave immense scope for skilled gamesmanship under the guise of professional conference organization. It is common for the 'final report' to be prepared in draft form in advance of the actual conference. Many conferences are effectively pre-scripted and rehearsed through 'dry-runs'. In an electronic environment much greater flexibility is possible (in support of much greater spontaneity, improvisation and creativity, if these are valued). Where care continues to be required, it may be used. Openness, as identified above, may however also be incorporated into the conference design. At this stage it must however be recognized that many conference organizers want the inflexibility imposed by conventional constraints because there is relatively little understanding of how to work effectively with flexibility and avoid chaos. The experience of many electronic conferences is of little assistance since their participants often have little knowledge of, sensitivity to, or respect for the valued constraints of formal international conferences. In this sense the potential of the electronic environment in substituting for conventional conferences has not been fully and adequately explored. 

(n) Anonymity and abuse: Although abusive letters may well be received by international organizations, abusive heckling is less common in international conferences than in national conferences. In Japan for example, organized crime is activity involved in the disruption of statutory assemblies of major corporations. The possibilities for disruption in an electronic environment have been widely reported. These include abusive communications and flooding a recipient with messages (spamming). The possibility of anonymous communications can also be abused, as it is in paper communication. It is clear that face-to-face communication inhibits such abuse. It would however be a mistake to surrender the many advantages of electronic communication, including the possibility of anonymous feedback, because of the possibility of such abuse. Various techniques are being developed to inhibit it, including 'nanny software' to limit abusive language in communications. 

Conclusion and possibilities

1. Institutional reform initiatives

A number of international institutions are facing up to the need for reform. This includes the United Nations itself, various UN Specialized Agencies, the European Union and its many associated bodies, and other regional intergovernmental organizations. Analogous discussions are also occurring at the national level, notably with respect to parliamentary and ministerial bodies. Whilst there may be recognition of the possibilities of electronic substitution or support in the back rooms, thepossibilities do not effectively emerge into the centre of the debate. 

Little reflection on the role of the electronic environment seems to be associated with exploration of the possibility of a 'Second UN Assembly', for example. This debate seems to focus more on reproducing the face-to-face model of second parliamentary assemblies, whilst those concerned with such assemblies at the national level are seeking to remedy their inadequacies. Similarly reflection on reforming the relationship between intergovernmental bodies and their NGO constituencies is focused more on how to channel and focus such 'consultation' through intermediary bodies (and gatekeepers) of a conventional type (regional conferences, etc). As the size of such constituencies increases into thousands, the belief that consultation through such means can be meaningful and effective is increasingly naive. The possibilities of shortcuts in an electronic environment to bypass intractable communication problems, blockages and political constraints has not been explored. Nor has the advantages of such an environment been recognized as a means of avoiding the often prohibitive transportation costs from distant countries, whether to regional or international conferences. 

2. Greater cost-effectiveness 

The amount of work that can be done at a conventional international conference, as represented by the amount of effective communication, is severely constrained by factors noted above. This is perhaps most clearly seen through the similarities to a national parliamentary assembly. Debate and legislative initiatives are severely constrained by lack of time and the ability to schedule and assemble task force meetings with overlapping memberships -- and in the absence of adequate meeting rooms. The question is how much of that communication could be usefully shifted into an electronic environment (as has been done by many multinational corporations). The aim would be to permit many more initiatives to move forward in parallel, allowing participants to intervene in many more debates at their convenience -- and allowing many more external parties to observe that democratic process (or to intervene under controlled circumstances, as noted above). Whether voting is possible electronically, or as the result of convening a final face-to-face meeting, such flexibility would considerably increase the amount of work that could be done. 

It is worth recalling that during a physical conference of (say) 400 people (the size of many parliaments and international plenary conferences), 399 people are passively listening whilst one person speaks. Whilst not true of all, many people are capable of simultaneously listening for significance, reflecting on related matters, and taking notes. The potential of such participant 'multi-tasking' needs to be recognized instead of placing the present degree of emphasis on a semblance of polite, unquestioning attentiveness to verbal interventions whose content may in large part be immediately forgettable. An electronic environment can remedy many of the dysfunctionalities of conventional plenary meetings, whether in parallel with them (allowing participants to used networked notebooks to furthertheir agendas), or as a partial substitute for them. There is at least a strong case for experimentation, offering those who wish to do so the possibility of using electronic access during the course of plenary sessions. Technical issues of keyboard and fan noise should be immediately addressed since these are often deliberately introduced (keyboard) or can be remedied (fan). Other uses can be made of seat wiring and conduits, although infra-red and wireless networking options are currently feasible. Security issues, as noted above, should be immediately explored. 

3. Transferring communication costs to users 

Consumer economics has been strongly affected by a progressive transfer of costs to consumers, as characterized by self-service facilities. A similar transformation may be expected in the case of international conferences. Participants may be expected to pay for their pattern of use of the electronic environment, as is increasingly the case with Internet facilities. 

It is to be expected that those with a heavy investment in provision of face-to-face conference facilities will strongly resist any substitution (even partial) of electronic facilities. This is clearly the case of the airlines, the hotel industry, conference centres, restaurants and tourist facilities, professional conference services, facilitators specializing in face-to-face interaction, interpreters, etc. They will tend to obscure and bias discussion of electronic options, or seek to increase expenditure on expensive add-ons to conventional conferences (notably in the form of satellite video-conferencing) which fail significantly to address many of the communication and behavioral challenges identified above. The conference business would be well advised to seek rapidly more fruitful ways of integrating non face-to-face communications into conventional meetings and to derive increasing portions of their income from the electronic environment process. 

Within large institutions, discussion of increasing use of electronic facilities can be usefully explored in the light of whose salaries and positions are at risk and what forms of retraining are desirable. Failure to do so will ensure that any discussion is biased. 

4. Cultural factors and misinformed enthusiasm

Whilst an electronic environment offers many advantages, it is vital to recognize the validity of some objections formulated by certain cultures and personality types. Women are also increasingly concerned that gender issues relating to information technology are neglected. The often simplistic enthusiasm of computer enthusiasts needs to be set aside, and especially the hype of those with a vested commercial interest in electronic media. 

Especially dubious is the assumption that just because people can be placed in electronic 'communication', meaningful or useful communication will necessarily take place. It is important to carefully explore the nature of meaningful and valued communication in an international context. 

A number of international conferences now have electronic conferences associated with them, notably for pre- and post-conference exchanges. Often sub-conferences will be organized by theme. Much greater attention needs to be given to how potential participants respond to opportunities to exchange on fashionable themes like: 'peace', 'development', 'gender issues', etc. Again it is naive to assume that defining a place (whether electronic or not) for exchanges, necessarily elicits exchanges amongst those who can most fruitfully contribute -- nor do any resulting exchanges necessarily sustain interest. There may be unexplored factors in face-to-face exchanges which sustain meaningful, valued communication -- and how their equivalent can be elicited in an electronic environment may remain to be discovered. 

5. Interface between old and new

In the rush to criticize and reform the old, and in the rush to implement the new, it is seldom recognized how electronic environments can be designed to provide a bridge between the old and the new. 

The challenge is to provide a communication environment which allows different styles of communication behaviour. People and organizations need to be offered learning environments with different degrees of challenge. An electronic environment is sensitive when it can be configured by the user to mirror preferred, habitual behaviour. The user needs to be able to choose when to explore new or different behaviours. It is the electronic environment which should ensure the interface between users employing it with different degrees of sophistication. It is not a question of each user having constantly to learn a new software language. This is the preferred mode of the computer enthusiast and ensures a disastrous gap in communication processes between those with different communication styles. 

4. Concept management and insight capture

With respect to issues of what might be termed 'concept management' and 'insight capture' international organizations and conferences will probably be judged by the future to be in the horse and pony era. The electronic environment offers the possibility of more sophisticated approaches to challenges such as: 

(a) Complexity of patterns of information: There is increasing agreement on the inherent complexity of the patterns of information which must be considered in current and future decision-making. It is becoming clearer that such patterns are far from being readily comprehensible, even to those most skilled at doing so. The question then becomes whether there are not more appropriate patterns within which to encode such information in order to render it comprehensible. 

(b) Complexity of necessary solutions: Assuming the necessity for solutions of adequate complexity to encompass (and contain) the complexity of the problematique, the elaboration and comprehension of such solutions itself becomes a major challenge. The creative process in uncovering and articulating suchsolutions needs to be sustained by patterns of appropriate complexity. 

(c) Insight delivery: It is one thing for appropriate solutions to be designed by those with the skill and insight to do so, and quite another for such solutions to be communicated to others without the same information background, or kind of skill. There is increasing difficulty in what might be termed 'insight delivery'. Complex insights do not travel well through conventional media. Their necessary complexity is often stripped out leaving what amounts to a simplistic shell. This may be readily rejected or, perhaps worse, implemented in its simplistic and inappropriate form, whilst claiming to honour the level of complexity which inspired it. It has also been argued that it is the attempt to deliver insight 'from the centre' that disrupts social conditions 'at the periphery'. 

(d) Insight capture: Even where there is no problem with 'delivery', the recipient(s) may experience considerable difficulty in 'capturing' the insight within their own frameworks. Even though many insightful proposals may be made in documents and meetings, the participants may experience difficulty in absorbing and retaining the insight. In such contexts, emerging insights compete for attention with one another and with distracting proposals to repeat initiatives which have already proven inadequate in the past. Conferences typically waste the insight forming potential of the assembled participants -- seeds fall on stony ground, swept by windy debates and subject to emotional floods. There is also a natural resistance to insights into new patterns in preference to patterns which may be perceived as having been satisfactory in the past, even though initiatives based on those patterns may be acknowledged as inadequate. More challenging than the recognized problems of information overload and information underuse, is the challenge of insight overload and insight underuse. This suggests the need for more readily capturable patterns. 

Tools for use in electronic environments (including mind-mapping related visual devices) are being actively developed in support of groupware environments. Their potential for international organizations, whether singly or in shifting coalitions, and for international meetings, should be actively explored.


Anthony Judge:

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