With Covid-19 forcing New Zealand to scrap plans for a physical APEC forum in 2021, government officials have been working hard on an all-digital alternative, as Sam Sachdeva reports

Foreign affairs officials are confident New Zealand’s pivot to a ‘virtual’ APEC forum is on track, with just months until the prestigious international event gets underway.

In June, the Government announced it had abandoned plans to host a physical APEC forum in 2021 due to the Covid-19 pandemic, instead moving all events online.

Since then, Andrea Smith – APEC21 deputy secretary at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade (MFAT) – and her team have been rapidly adjusting their plans to account for the decision.

The APEC organisers first started planning digital alternatives several weeks into the Level 4 lockdown, as an initial senior officials’ meeting this December, ahead of the year-long programme in 2021, loomed as an early test of running the event under Covid-19 circumstances.

“We’d already started doing some of the thinking at that point…and as things unfolded, that then became a more substantive need to plan not just around those early initial meetings but actually what it means to host the whole year virtually,” she told Newsroom.

There was no single catalyst for the pivot to an all-digital forum, she said, although the deferral of the Tokyo Olympics and other major events made it clear Kiwi officials would need to start working closely with the Government on the path ahead.

The APEC Secretariat and all member economies also had to be consulted ahead of a final decision, with early clarity for both New Zealand and other countries a crucial factor in the June decision.

Cabinet’s confirmation of an online event was no small matter: the APEC planning team had been working as a standalone unit within MFAT for three years, with venues selected, staff hired, and event-related legislation going through its first two readings and select committee hearings at Parliament.

“Of course there was some disappointment, and various people had different levels of disappointment…because it is a major change from what we had been thinking we were doing.”

“Most international diplomacy is being done by virtual meetings at the moment, but most of those meetings have been, ‘We would have met in person but here’s how we’re going to do it virtually’, whereas we have this opportunity to actually go, ‘We’re doing this virtually right from the outset, how do we create the perfect virtual meeting?’”

But most were “fully understanding and accepting of the situation we were in”, Smith said, with the change due to circumstances beyond anyone’s control rather than any internal shortcomings.

MFAT had gone through a small restructuring as a result of the decision, with a handful of jobs disestablished, while some had been redeployed to new APEC positions and others had chosen to find work elsewhere.

The ministry had been allocated about $184 million for the operations and hosting of the forum, but Smith said the online event would cost “well less” than $100m – including sunk costs for work which had already been carried out but was no longer needed.

While there were challenges to running a fully online APEC forum, she said New Zealand would also benefit from the luxury of time to prepare rather than adjusting their plans on the fly.

“Most international diplomacy is being done by virtual meetings at the moment, but most of those meetings have been, ‘We would have met in person but here’s how we’re going to do it virtually’, whereas we have this opportunity to actually go, ‘We’re doing this virtually right from the outset, how do we create the perfect virtual meeting?’”

Like all New Zealanders, the APEC team had learnt about the pros and cons of online meetings during Covid-19, but they had also been speaking to organisers and participants at similar diplomatic events like the G20 to hear about their experiences.

MFAT deputy secretary for APEC21 Andrea Smith says the move to a virtual APEC summit provides benefits as well as challenges. Photo: Supplied.

While smoothly-operated technology with good connectivity was important, Smith said one of the most crucial factors was what the APEC team called “the delegate experience” – ensuring meeting participants and chairs could do their work as effectively as possible.

Officials would work with the meeting chairs to help them understand how to make proceedings run smoothly and keep people’s attention, while work was also underway on how to offer an online equivalent to the informal conversations and ‘pull-asides’ that are a valuable but (relatively) spontaneous part of physical summits.

“There are technologies that allow you to sort of go into ‘breakout room’ type things – you can message someone who’s on it and then the two of you can have some kind of conversation that’s not necessarily being participated [in] by others…but some of it requires senior delegates to think slightly differently about when and how they engage with each other.”

Rather than attempting to build a bespoke system, MFAT had started a closed tender process to acquire a virtual meeting service supplier to provide not just the platform but the support services for it.

With cybersecurity weaknesses in the headlines following weeks of attacks on the NZX stock exchange and other New Zealand organisations, Smith confirmed strong security protocols would be a priority during the tender process, while there would also be support from the Government Communications Security Bureau and other “colleagues across government who have got experiences in these areas”.

A critical time for APEC

As for the technological capabilities of those outside our shores, Smith said research had indicated there was sufficiently good internet access in each of the APEC economies for meetings to run effectively.

At a more practical level, discussions were still underway about how to account for the 18 or so different time zones across the APEC membership, although it was likely that not all meetings would take place during the typical New Zealand workday.

While the move online meant delegates and international media would not get to experience New Zealand’s landscapes and other attractions first-hand, Smith said organisers were working on how to promote the country through video vignettes and other initiatives attached to the formal meetings.

Although international tourism was off the menu for the foreseeable future, the promotion could “keep the market warm” for when borders reopened, while New Zealand society and businesses could also benefit from exposure to a global audience.

Then there is the benefit of hosting APEC, which Smith said was “at least as significant” as a year ago, if not more so due to the economic impact of Covid-19 in the Asia-Pacific and the need for the region to chart a course to recovery.

“It’s absolutely a really critical time for us to be hosting, in a very critical time for the organisation in terms of its ability to help economies through this next phase.”

Sam Sachdeva is Newsroom's national affairs editor, covering foreign affairs and trade, housing, and other issues of national significance.

Leave a comment