The hybrid era: How governments adapt to Covid-19

The wheels of government never stop turning, and in the midst of a global pandemic, the ability to debate and pass legislation safely and transparently has never been more important. Reece Webb explores how institutions around the world can operate in a Covid-secure way.

The start of the pandemic caught many governmental and NGO bodies off guard, especially some politicians whose lack of experience with remote working and meeting solutions led to some gaffes; from Canadian MPs’ repeated failed attempts to unmute, to a chaotic local council meeting in the UK filled with boot outs of attendees which became a viral internet sensation overnight.

It’s safe to say that a lot of governmental and NGO bodies got off to a rocky start when the pandemic first swept the globe. A year later, meeting and working virtually in these institutions has become an everyday part of working life, but can it persist post-pandemic?

Fardad Zabetian, CEO of multilingual virtual meeting platform Kudo, says: “Nobody was prepared for how Covid-19 would completely redefine the ways in which governments councils and NGOs conducted business.

“As they, like the rest of the world, scrambled to shift to a remote work environment, everyone struggled to find the right solutions. Most platforms weren’t designed to meet the different meeting protocols that these types of organisations had, so they needed to tweak their practices and workflows to adapt. The organisations who were able to work with technology providers who could move quickly and be more flexible when developing solutions based on specific needs, were best able to continue their business remotely.”

Alexandre Rouvelet, technical and administrative director at integrator, Projection Nouvelle, worked closely with the UN as the pandemic swept western Europe. Rouvelet explains: “First, at the start of the lockdown in March 2020, all the sessions were cancelled and we very quickly had to make adaptations in the conference rooms to make them compatible with remote interpretation solutions. Some organisations took the opportunity to test different platforms.”

Antoine Haller, director of sales at conference systems provider MediaVision believes that the mad scramble to adapt to the pandemic has led to a rethink in government bodies, providing a long term, futureproof solution for meetings of the future. Haller says: “Councils still need to meet. They need to have some way of meeting, and it was unclear [in 2020] how long this pandemic would last. It started as a short-term strategy. As the year progressed towards summer, the focus changed to a long-term strategy. The equipment and the meetings that they had all needed to change, raising awareness of futureproofing.

“Video has become far more important. In the past, organisations didn’t care so much as everybody could see each other. Now, with remote attendees, video has a whole new importance.”

With a mass adoption of remote working technology, new challenges have arisen in global institutions in fields where experience may be limited; issues such as secure access, voting and above all, cybersecurity have found themselves at the forefront of how countries and organisations are run around the globe today.

“The focus for any company in this space is to create a seamless, hybrid integration with a request to speak list and votes that merges those in the room and outside the room.” – Antoine Haller, Media Vision 

Tools of the trade

Choosing the right system for these organisations is often a question based on tailored needs, be it a need for dynamic voting, high security or live translation. Every organisation will require a differing range of functionality based on the services they are required to provide.

For example, institutions such as the European Union or House of Commons of Canada require intuitive, live translation to serve their citizens effectively and transparently, which in turn narrows down the service options available on the market at the time of writing [May 2021].

Rouvelet believes that while current technology offerings can fill the existing gap, much more can be done to expand into a more connected offering: “We collaborate with different international organisations in Geneva and congress centres. The main need has been to adapt the existing installations to make them compatible with remote system interpretation. But the biggest constraint was to only accept one person per interpretation booth for health reasons, which halved the number of booths available. Sometimes, it was necessary to add mobile cabins and adapt the existing installations.

“The biggest problem today is to be able to guarantee quality communications which is not always the case in some places [due to bandwidth limitations]. This can pose real problems of comprehension in the discussions. We have also seen some great innovations such as the interpreter workstation developed by Kudo and Taiden. We believe that in the future, interpretation centres will be developed where the booths can be linked to conference rooms if necessary.

Comprehensive audio still remains a top priority for many organisations as Antony Lovell, senior global market development manager, Shure, commented: "For those that felt the need to maintain some form of in-person interaction, the ability to set up microphones in a more flexible way provides governments and organisations the ability to quickly configure a meeting room in a socially distanced format. For example, with the Shure Microflex Complete Wireless System, the wireless set up allows for a quick configuration in different, larger spaces like hotel ballrooms or gymnasiums, where additional space for officials to sit and conduct business together is necessary.

“An example is the district council of the Bad Kissingen region in Germany which was unable to meet as usual in the conference rooms of its townhall. In order to comply with social distancing regulations, the officials had to find an alternative for the council’s 60 members. The AV specialist der Kohl ensured seamless communication between council members, as well as clear intelligibility in the press and public visitor areas, in the converted gymnasium with the Microflex conferencing system. It was necessary to ensure free movement of all participants, some of whom had had to leave their positions for voting and to take seats at a central conference table.

Haller added: “The focus for any company in this space is to create a seamless, hybrid integration with a request to speak list that merges those in the room and outside the room, and votes that are also collated inside and outside of the room. A real handshake between the hardware and software is the next level.

“It’s not about the price, it’s about how stable the system is. Good video is essential, but without good audio, you have no videoconferencing. If my mic shuts down, we can see each other but we are unable to have a conversation. Audio remains a core business, not only the quality but how the audio is run into systems such as into networks [analogue and digital]. We have increased our knowledge of integration and this has been an evolution for everybody.”

Keeping secure

The top concern for any organisation of this nature is security, amidst numerous headlines around the world highlighting security concerns. Take for example the British government, which unwittingly compromised its own Zoom security after prime minister Boris Johnson published a screenshot of the meeting in which the meeting ID of a cabinet meeting was visible. The Taiwanese government on the other hand went as far as to take the decision to ban Zoom for government bodies after Zoom traffic was “mistakenly” routed via the People’s Republic of China, a country which does not recognise Taiwanese independence.

Haller says: “In Europe, there are security requirements such as European servers with all data hosted within Europe alongside data protection and retention policies. This is new ground for many governments who haven’t met virtually in this way, because they’ve never really had to deal with it. Many have used agenda management platforms that hold meeting data, but that’s not a means of meeting per se, they can’t speak to one another or vote through it, it just stores data.

“A product such as Virtual Council, which Media Vision has introduced in the US, ensures that everything is end-to-end encrypted on the platform. The architecture in the background ensures anonymity of votes. There’s also authenticity required such as pin codes and adding users manually to ensure only the people who are supposed to be there can be there.”

“We believe that in the future interpretation centres will be developed where the booths can be linked to conference rooms if necessary.” – Alexandre Rouvelet, Projection Nouvelle

Zabetian adds: “Security provisions for these platforms vary, depending on the government and/or region they are working with. While there are universal standards for all governments, some individual governments have additional security requirements. It’s important that remote conferencing platforms consider both security standards when developing their product. For example, a platform that is considered fully secure for US governments may fall short of criteria required by European governments.

“New technologies introduce opportunities for innovation, but also introduce new kinds of vulnerabilities and new attack opportunities. Real-time visibility into the security infrastructure, clear understanding of the platform vulnerabilities, and the ability of the organisation to remediate them quickly is paramount. Platform developers need to develop a clear understanding of the evolving threat landscape and recognise the relevant threats to their platform as a starting point. In general, platform security is best achieved when security is built into the core of the platform, implying security addressed in every tier of the architecture and as early in the lifecycle as possible, in every phase of the SDLC.”

Cyber threats are constantly evolving day after day, driving platform developers to remain permanently vigilant, updating and regularly testing platforms for any vulnerability that could be exploited by malicious individuals and organisations. A platform that does not constantly evolve is doomed to fail to uncompromising cyber threats of the future. Haller adds: “Each platform needs to look at itself regularly, with third party penetration tests to test cloud level infrastructure and also internal processes to check vulnerabilities of the platform and data. Cybersecurity is always changing and the threats are always changing with it. Platforms getting certifications, such as SOC II attestation which virtual council has obtained, really helps them to be at a level where they can recognise threats and proactively counteract them.

Future talk

With many nations still gripped by the uncertainty of the pandemic and when it could draw to a close, organisations will begin to consider the long-term future of remote/hybrid technology. With increased awareness of the environmental impacts of travel, to cost and even future pandemics, the governmental sector is likely to maintain the use of remote working technologies as part of its future, everyday routine. Haller closes: “The buzzword is ‘hybrid’ for every industry, but particularly with governments. Most of the tenders and the bids that have come out since the summer are more ‘futureproofed’. They want the capability to run hybrid meetings whenever they want, therefore, they need the conferencing microphones with professional audio quality and goosenecks and camera tracking. Having this capability in the future is essential as there are so many unknowns.

“With lockdowns gradually lifting and policy makers thinking ahead to a return to council chambers, I think we can expect an imminent resurgence of enthusiasm about in-person meetings. It may nevertheless be short-lived; in the mid to long term, the trends forged by Covid are likely to prompt a conferencing set-up whereby half of the participants are on-site in their place of work while the other half are joining these meetings from home. So begins the era of hybrid." 

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