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This list from the main lessons learned from implementers of e-participation, will be used as one basis for discussion at the Geneva Engage Conference.

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1. Preparation and planning (never enough)

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Careful and timely planning is the key for successful remote participation. Planning for e-participation should start with building and communicating the event in a timely manner. For example, ICANN starts preparations with remote hubs at least four months prior to its main annual event. This involves individual remote participants, but even more, preparation for the remote hubs. Remote hubs in open multistakeholder processes are most effective when they have had sufficient time to generate informed engagement by interested actors around the upcoming event, carry out local or regional discussions, articulate relevant positions, and prepare questions and statements.

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Assessment of suitable technology to use for a given context, preparation, and then extensive testing are prerequisites for successful events that gather a varied and broad audience (e.g. the IGF Secretariat). Remote participants also need to prepare for online participation. In addition to installing software that is required for a particular event, and testing and resolving any technical issues, they should be aware of the basic guidelines related to their audio and video interventions (such as how to minimise background noise or how to avoid backlight for video).

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Reflection questions: When should preparations for e-participation start? What are the main preparatory activities?

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2. Moderation and facilitation

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Moderators of e-events need a specific set of skills and tools. ICANN and Diplo have obligatory training for remote moderators prior to their actual involvement.

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It remains up for discussion, whether subject-matter expertise is essential for efficient remote moderation. According to ICANN, moderators with expertise are preferred. In any case, each conference/event session should have a clearly designated person in charge, one who has strong ownership of the remote participation space and has the actual means to influence the meeting in the room and connect the physical and online spaces.

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This has two main sides: moderation of the proceedings in the room in such a way that online participants are included in the activities as fully as possible in the given set-up. The other side is the moderation of the online space, including moderation of a live text chat (if available), facilitation of speaking order, etc.

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The level of experience of the members of the group with the chosen media affects their ability to engage. For instance, typing speed may affect the ease of participation in a chat-based communication. This is especially true for people who speak English as a foreign language.

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Reflection questions: In good face-to-face events (e.g. social, cultural, or sports events) there are activities designed for people to do together, and they play an important role in connecting people and facilitating substantive discussions. Can we replicate/redesign such activities for remote participants? What skills are essential for effective e-participation (e.g typing, technical skills)?

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3. Selection of technical platforms and media channels

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While technology is an enabler of remote participation, it is becoming clear that it is not sufficient or even ‒ contrary to what may seem intuitively clear ‒ a critical factor for effective remote participation. The experience of Geneva-based organisations practising some form of remote participation shows that different forms of technical platforms can be used to facilitate inclusive remote participation, if the events are designed with remote participation in mind. In other words, technology can be less or more sophisticated, but in the end, it is the event design itself that represents the critical factor.

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This does not mean that technical aspects do not need to be carefully planned. For example, bandwidth is still an issue, even in developed countries, where most people buy set connection packages that include an established number of Gigabytes of download and upload; they can run out of their quota when doing audio and video participation.

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Surprisingly, email is still used either as one of the regular channels for remote participation (with participants following the broadcast and intervening with the moderator by email at some events), or as a backup channel in case high-tech audio and video channels fail or bandwidth is insufficient for their use.

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4. Protocol and procedures at events

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E-participation poses some challenges for traditional intergovernmental bodies when it comes to protocol, transparency and overall procedures. For example, preserving the safety of victims of human rights violations may require meetings to be closed. However, even in this case, the value of remote participation ‒ even to closed and small meetings ‒ is excellent for inclusivity of the involved actors.

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Chairing of traditional meetings with e-participation requires the chairperson to handle dynamics both in the room and in the online space. The IGF and ITU have introduced the function of remote moderator as assistant to the chair of the physical meeting. E-participation adds a new complexity to the way participants request the floor, or make a statement, for example.

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In some cases, formal rules of procedures of intergovernmental bodies do not provide an explicit solution for e-participation. New solutions are developed by practice. For example, even in situ speakers at ICANN meetings register via Adobe Acrobat to make interventions in face-to-face meetings. The order of all speakers is maintained in Adobe Acrobat.

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Reflection questions: What existing rules of procedure are likely to be challenged by e-participation? Would e-participation require the introduction of amended rules of procedures?

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5. Building trust

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Trust (and the lack of it) is considered to be one of the main policy challenges for modern society. Trust is built gradually through interaction with communities. The process of trust-building requires transparency and fairness. E-participation could be a powerful tool in building trust by involving communities that already have a high level of trust.

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In order to make events more inclusive, an interesting example is the Internet Society (ISOC). ISOC tries to engage the community before the event and find out what the participants’ interests are and involve community members in setting the agenda. A similar practice is used in e-collaboration in preparations for annual Internet Governance Forum and EuroDIG meetings.

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Reflection question: What are techniques and approaches for building trust in various communication spaces, among e-participants, and between in situ and online participants?

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6. Ensure sustainability

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Sustainability is needed to facilitate the continued impact of e-participation. Participation in a virtual community is not guaranteed and many initiatives fail because they cannot create interest or sustain participation. A vital part of virtual communities is the continuous participation of contributors. Many communities are unable to remain active or meet their outcomes. There is very solid empirical research showing that the virtual environment is overloaded with empty communities or communities where many of the participants are lurkers or free riders (Adar Huberman, 2000). Lakhani and Hippel (2003) found that only 4% of the members of open-source development communities provide 50% of answers on a user-to-user help site.

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Terra (2001) argues that in order to sustain online communities, a strong sense of identity needs to be established for both the community and the online members. Communication is also seen as an essential element in the need for a strong communications plan, rules of engagement, common language, and simplicity of use. A focus on the quality of content is important.

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Reflection question: How can we ensure the long-term impact of e-participation beyond the hype of using the latest tools?

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7. Emotional aspect of e-participation

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Apart from face-to-face encounters, every moderated communication impacts the way emotions are conveyed. Ensuring rich emotional communication is often a make-or-break point for e-participation. Identifying the emotional aspects of e-participation is often a matter of experience. Based on our survey we identified the following examples:

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On the positive side, visual clues save a lot of time that would have been spent on signalling agreement, willingness to speak, poor audio reception and other disruptions that are frequently found in remote participation.

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On the negative side, some organisations have noticed a huge difference in effective participation of their colleagues in small-to-medium group meetings once they have added a video channel.

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Reflection question: What are examples of effective ways of recreating the richness of physical communication in online spaces?

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8. Interpretation in e-participation

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Many UN meetings in Geneva need interpretation in six languages. For events with remote participation, this brings further challenges. Meetings with simultaneous interpretation can be stopped if the audio quality is not sufficient because interpreters cannot work with imperfect audio (example of the ITU).

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One of the good practices, used by the IGF, the ITU, and ICANN, is to provide real-time transcripts. This tool is of a great benefit for both in situ and online participants. It helps non-native speakers to follow the discussion when audio is not perfect or speakers have unusual accents or speak quickly. It also facilitates participation of persons with disabilities.

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Reflection question: Are real-time transcripts changing the nature of interaction in meetings that are transcribed?

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9. Use of social media

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The experience of Geneva actors has confirmed the prevalent practice of using social media in strengthening the remote participation aspects of events. Twitter, for example, is frequently used as an additional channel through which participants can not only follow an event, but also intervene by posing questions or giving comments.

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However, there is increasing criticism that use of social media channels might substantively change the dynamics in the room. For example, the audience could be more involved in following Twitter streams than listening to discussion in the room. Since in situ and online interaction fight for the limited ‘attention pool’ of participants, it remains to be seen how to strike the right balance. Otherwise, we risk a situation where in situ dynamics may become less relevant.

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Reflection questions: Is there a risk that social media interaction will take over the dynamics of in situ meetings? How can we ensure that we benefit from the richness of both in situ and online communications?

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10. Participation of marginalised individuals and groups

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Individuals and groups may be excluded from participation in terms of age, disabilities, geographical distribution, gender, educational levels, or other factors. In designing e-participation initiatives, it is important to consider whether the target groups will be able to effectively participate, and what wider strategies are needed to improve meaningful involvement.

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11. Optimal number of participants in e-participation

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Most studies show that 12–15 people is the optimal size for substantive discussion. Beyond that, events move into ‘megaphone diplomacy’. Here, effective e-tools can also help by aggregating different views and optimizing inclusion of different voices.

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Reflective question: What is the right match between the number of participants and the use of specific e-tools?

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12. E-participation for business continuity in case of disaster and crisis

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Natural and political catastrophes affect both travel and the normal function of our society. For example, volcanic eruptions a few years ago created air traffic interruptions. People could not travel abroad for meetings. E-participation could be an important tool for business continuity in the case of disaster and other crises.

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Reflection question: Do organisations consider e-participation as a technique for continuity of business?

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13. E-participation, in situ meetings and travel

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E-participation is not likely to reduce travel. Through a rebound effect, the use of e-tools is likely to widen participation in international meetings, including physical ones. The history of innovation can teach us that the impact of technology is rarely simplistic (e.g. replacing traditional meetings with e-participation). New technologies offer new possibilities and often results in unplanned developments far beyond those initially envisaged.

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Reflection question: What are the likely impacts of e-participation on traditional meetings?

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14. Aim for video and rely on audio

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Video and audio use should be appropriate to the need. Video is used more for interactive meetings, while audio formats (e.g. podcasts, radio shows) target audiences with a preference for asynchronous communication. Events that use audio only are most likely pushed behind other tabs to be listened to at a later date. Attendees are more likely to revisit the material if there is a video summary.

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However, in the case of problems, it is essential to have high-quality audio as a fall-back option. A conversation can still take place if the quality of the video is reduced or if there are delays, even if this causes some discomfort among participants. But communication is seriously undermined if there is a lack of clarity, a delay, or an interruption of the audio.

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Reflection question: What is your preference in using video and audio communication in e-participation?

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15. Intercultural communication

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Cultural characteristics are of high importance for any e-collaboration. The main classification of different cultures of relevance for e-collaboration divides cultures into Western and individualistic cultures (low-context cultures) and non-Western, communal societies (high-context cultures).

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Low-context cultures tend to convey messages explicitly: going right to the point is much appreciated. Precious time should not be lost with personal trivialities. Achieving results is much more important than building relationships. Refutation is found not to be offensive, but rather, positive, and less attention is paid to non-verbal gestures.

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High-context cultures put high value on face-to-face communication and place a lot of attention on the context of the conversation and on non-verbal clues in communication. Words are weighed much more carefully before a frank exchange becomes possible; mutual acquaintance must be cultivated. Caution is a common approach to dealing with people that have other group affiliations.

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This distinction between the communication styles of low- and high-context cultures is important in designing e-participation. For instance, some media, like chat and audio conferences, make it difficult to capture non-verbal language, which could be particularly uncomfortable and disadvantageous for high-context cultures. In addition, mediated communication affects some other aspects, such as group dynamics, social rapport, and the development of trust among the parties. This may have different consequences for negotiators belonging to high-context or low-context cultures.

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E-participation can face sensitivities in high-context cultures where the observation of hierarchy and seniority has a high value. Hierarchies are also important in diplomacy. Online interactions tend to have an anonymising ‘leveling’ effect, and this may be uncomfortable for high context cultures.

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The effects of mediated communication on the dynamics of interaction need more study, especially taking into account the current context of technological convergence. But, in general, mediated communication tends to be less social and more task-oriented than face-to-face communication, and participants experience a reduced sense of cohesiveness (Wainfan Davies, 2004).

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The effect of the chosen media on the perception of power and status, which can be inferred, for instance, from how participants are dressed, where they sit at the table, etc., adds another layer of complexity. These elements can be regarded as particularly important to some cultures, but are minimised in some online interactions.

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Reflection questions: How does e-participation reflect inter-cultural communication both between different regional (e.g. Asian and European) and professional cultures (e.g. lawyers, diplomats and engineers)?

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16. Budget and support for e-participation

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Most remote participation budgets are still non-existent or very limited. Some support is provided in order to support the participation of persons with disabilities (e.g. providing real-time text transcripts or captioning) or ensuring business continuity in the case of emergency. Internet governance organisations (the ITU, ICANN, the IGF, ISOC) are particularly active in providing a user-friendly space for persons with disabilities.

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Reflection questions: Should events decline to offer remote participation if they cannot offer equal participation facilities to persons with disabilities (e.g. closed captions)? What budgetary best practices can ensure e-participation for events and organisations?