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Geneva Engage: E-participation for International Geneva

27 January 2016
Geneva Engage: E-participation for International Geneva

Message by Mr. Michael Møller
United Nations Under-Secretary-General
Director-General of the United Nations Office at Geneva

Geneva Engage: E-participation for International Geneva

Wednesday, 27 January 2016, 11:30 a.m.
DiploFoundation, WMO Building, 7bis Avenue de la Paix, Geneva

Delivered on behalf of the Director-General by Mr. Salman Bal,
Senior Political Coordination Adviser, Office of the Director-General,
United Nations Office at Geneva

Dear colleagues and friends:

It is a great pleasure to join you for this important event on E-participation for International Geneva. To many of us, this topic may still sound futuristic. Yet, the technology for E-participation has been available for years. Most of us use skype and similar communication services to keep in touch with friends. At the United Nations, just as in many other organizations and companies, video conferences have long been used to connect different duty stations. The International Telecommunications Union, for example, arranged the first E-participation session with the Secretary-General of the United Nations as early as 1963.

Despite important progress the mainstreaming of these tools into our daily work lags behind. Technological progress needs to be accompanied by a change in working-routines and working culture. This conference is a very welcome opportunity to discover best practices and systematize the use of technology for E-participation to reach a new level of engagement across International Geneva.

What is debated in Geneva affects people worldwide. As we embark on the implementation of the historic agreements of last year including on sustainable development and its financing, climate change and disaster risk reduction, an innovative and more integrated approach is needed. E-participation can play a significant role in facilitating system-wide collaboration and the creation of new partnerships. It can also help to increase accountability through direct participation and observation of meetings and conferences – thus restoring the trust into institutions at all levels that will be essential for measurable progress. And very crucially, E-participation can increase the visibility and inclusiveness of the important work done across International Geneva, raising awareness about its direct impact on people everywhere and enabling us to listen to the voices outside of Geneva. In short, E-participation has the potential to be a major enabler of the change in our way of doing business.

Let me expand on some of the steps that I think we can take here in International Geneva, and some of the issues that need to be addressed along the way, to facilitate this process of innovation in diplomacy.

First, we need to find the right balance between personal interaction and E-participation. To illustrate this with an example: one way in which we at UNOG are enhancing integration of the UN system between Geneva, New York and other duty stations is by the use of Executive Briefings. These are briefings on topical issues by senior UN officials or representatives of our partners and they yield the opportunity for Geneva-based diplomats and representatives to interact directly with heads of agencies and programmes who pass through Geneva. This personal element allows for a certain frankness and at times for important informal follow-up on the side-lines of briefings – elements which cannot necessarily be replicated fully through E-participation.

At the same time, on several occasions, we combined video-conferencing tools with these physical briefings. This showed that E-participation can indeed increase the usefulness of the briefing if it brings additional rather than alternative information to the table. I think this is valid for many other meetings and it underlines the increasingly accepted notion that E-participation is an important addition to current formats, but cannot fully replace personal exchanges which remain critical.

There are additional questions that need to be resolved when it comes to more formal meetings and negotiations. Can an individual connected remotely be accepted as an accredited representative of a Member State or organization – especially when it comes to negotiating and voting on resolutions, for example? This is not just a legal question, but also has practical implications. When some participants are in a different physical location, they may not be familiar with the context in which the discussions are developing. Negotiations can quickly evolve when there is positive momentum and this may not always translate to remote participants via internet connections. Context matters.

All these issues indicate that in some cases, E-participation may unnecessarily complicate things, while in others, it may be particularly helpful by adding perspectives and possible solutions that would not otherwise be considered. Again, the right balance needs to be found and I am sure that these questions and issues will be the subject of the discussions during this event.

A second point that I think we should look into is to tailor E-participation to different users. It is clear that the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and the other major agreements to be implemented in the coming years, are so comprehensive that a wide range of actors need to work together. However, some actors including countries, civil society groups, or academic institutions are not represented in Geneva or may not have enough resources to be present at several meetings at the same time. E-participation can add flexibility and improved division of labour for these stakeholders. To give you an example of my own experience: I recently briefed the 5th Committee in New York on the planned renovations at the Palais des Nations via video-conference as the agenda item was moved several times, making physical travel and the related planning very difficult and expensive.

In addition to the collaboration among UN entities and with partner organizations, we also need to continue to improve direct participation of individuals from all around the globe. In a world where the poorest households are more likely to have access to mobile phones than to toilets or clean water, E-participation has big potential in this respect.
To communicate directly with individuals from around the world, I have for example held a Q and A session on Twitter with my followers last year. And the UNOG Information Service has been using new ways of engaging people, for example through short Periscope videos that can easily be filmed with a mobile phone from ongoing meetings. E- participation can act as a global two-way megaphone: we can use it to better inform people everywhere about the work we do in Geneva and to listen to their needs.

But we also need to bear in mind, that while access to Information and Communication Technologies is spreading rapidly, not everyone can benefit from them. In fact, four billion people worldwide still lack access to the internet. Broadband availability, which is necessary for many E-participation activities, is even more limited. Others may not be able to use E-participation tools due to a disability. In turn, if calibrated correctly through universal design, ICTs can be very helpful in our efforts to make the United Nations as inclusive as possible for people with disabilities. It is therefore crucial to bear in mind who the end-users will be and what their needs are.

The discussion of the different requirements and benefits of E-participation leads me to a third point that we should be looking at: comparing the costs and benefits of different E-participation tools. I want to emphasize that I would be the first to stress that cost-benefit analysis of innovation in diplomacy should not be based solely on monetary considerations. But the fact is, that the United Nations system and many of our partners face significant budget cuts.

As this reality imposes itself upon us, E-participation really needs to be used where it is most effective. After all, setting up the tools and making sure that they work during a meeting can be quite a challenge – especially with more sophisticated participation which may require additional moderation. Simultaneous interpretation can cause further technological demands. And maintaining a well-functioning website, Twitter account or other social media for online-participation means that someone has to update that account regularly.

If the necessary resources are not mobilized, the internet and social media forums are flooded with outdated and unreliable information. To counter this trend, one of the projects that my colleagues from the International Geneva Perception Change team are working on at the moment is a website for the collection of data from organizations across Geneva. This will improve the accessibility of reliable information that is already available, but of which most people were not aware. Such data-mining is essential to maintain productive, fact-based participation in global governance.

Projects such as this do not necessarily yield a direct financial return, but they can – and I am very optimistic that this data-website will – have crucial and wide-ranging benefits when they result in better-informed policies and projects worldwide. Comparing costs and benefits in evaluating the usefulness of E-participation is therefore not always easy. But it is a critical exercise to justify its use to our Member States, and indeed to those other actors who increasingly scrutinize our institutions partly thanks to E-participation itself.

To answer some of the questions and issues that I have raised, I think a fourth step that we can take here in Geneva is to collect lessons learned on E-participation. While I mention this as the last step, it really is the first one to make, and today’s conference is critical in that regard. I am sure that in International Geneva, we can learn more from countries, International Organizations, NGOs and others that already have good experiences with concepts of E-governance.

The UN Development Programme, for example, has worked with governments and parliaments to introduce E-governance tools. And the United Nations Group on the Information Society continues its work aiming to maintain ICT-related issues at the top of the UN Agenda and to mainstream ICT for Development issues. E-participation has already been used at several big international meetings including the review of the World Summit on Information Society itself, so I am glad to see that the programme of this two-day conference includes the presentation of examples from different organizations and Member States.

I am also very pleased to note that our very own @ungeneva Twitter account was one of the 8 nominees for the Geneva Engage Award. This award not only showcases best practices from the most active social media users across International Geneva. It also encourages Member States, UN entities and NGOs to think outside the box and improve their own strategies for E-participation to win next year.

Geneva has accumulated a wealth of expertise on ICTs and their use in different fields from e-commerce to human rights to give just two examples. This is in no small part thanks to the collaboration between UN entities such as the International Telecommunications Union, multi-stakeholder platforms like the Internet Governance Forum and other partners and facilitators including the Geneva Internet Platform and Diplo Foundation.

In Geneva, perhaps more than anywhere else, I therefore see great potential of E-participation for innovation in diplomacy. To unlock this potential in a meaningful and effective way, reflection on some of the issues I raised is needed: what is the right balance between personal interaction and E-participation? Who are the users of E-participation and what are their specific requirements? What are the most cost-effective ways of achieving the biggest reach and impact through E-participation? The Geneva Engage Conference will be extremely useful to move ahead with discussions on these and other important issues – UNOG is very interested in these questions and participates actively in different parts of this event. I look forward to fruitful exchanges.

Thank you very much.