It’s hard to believe, but yet another year is drawing rapidly to a close. As we look ahead to the New Year, it makes sense to reflect on the twelve months gone by, so I thought I’d assemble a list of the efforts in which the American Mission played a meaningful role that most significantly contributed to positive momentum in U.S. relations with New Zealand and Samoa in 2012. Given the exponential acceleration of our activity, it was not an easy job to create a short list of highlights. After a good bit of thought and revision, here’s my Top Ten countdown:

10. Gold Standard Award for Social Media Communications

Our year started with some unexpected but greatly appreciated positive reinforcement when Public Affairs Asia, the leading regional professional association for corporate communicators, honored us with the Gold Standard Award for Social Media Communications at its annual awards event in Singapore in January. Although the trophy says “2011,” the award is emblematic of a large volume of impactful, innovative, high-quality work performed at the Mission in 2012.

Gold Standard Award.Each year the Gold Standard Awards recognize achievement in the Pacific and Asia regions across a wide range of public affairs and communications activity, including social media.

A panel of leading industry judges narrowed the many nominees in the social media category this year to a short list composed of Research in Motion (RIM), Kraft Foods Australia, Johnnie Walker Black Label, and the American Mission New Zealand (a.k.a. the Embassy).

We were selected as the ultimate winners based on an in-depth, comprehensive review of all four nominees’ social media activities and outcomes.

The award hits my Top Ten list as a proxy for the substantial commitment made by the Embassy to engaging new audiences via the internet and to positioning ourselves as a bit of an idealab for 21st Century diplomatic tools and approaches. In the year gone by, we significantly increased our reach across all of our existing platforms and experimented with new platforms such as Pinterest and Instagram. We also deepened the integration of our “live” and “virtual” activities, moving ourselves closer to the point at which social media will be an organic part of everyone’s work.

Perhaps most exciting, this year we broke ground on our new Digital Engagement Center in the Embassy. A combination of video studio and computer lab, the facility will allow us to create more professional, interactive content for our social media platforms, as well as to link more effectively to web-based collaborations elsewhere. The Center should be fully outfitted and operational by February 1st, so stay tuned for updates.

9. American Ambassador Outstanding Award

Throughout 2012 we continued to expand our already extensive engagement with youth and future leaders at the high school, university, post-grad, and early career stages. Among the many new efforts we launched was establishing the American Ambassador Outstanding Award as part of the Royal Society of New Zealand’s annual Realise the Dream Awards, a nation-wide secondary school science competition.

Me and Sohail after the award ceremony. Photo credit US Embassy, Wellington.

With Sohail Abdulla, the first recipient of the Ambassador’s Award.

The new award will enable an aspiring Kiwi scientist or engineer to attend each year the annual Intel International Science & Engineering Fair (Intel ISEF), the largest pre-university science competition in the world, with more than 1,500 high school students from 80 countries and territories. Intel ISEF provides an extraordinary opportunity for science-oriented students to broaden their horizons, network with their peers, and revel in shared enthusiasm for research and invention.

It was certainly a personal highlight of my year to present the inaugural American Ambassador Outstanding Award to Sohail Abdulla of Mount Roskill Grammar School in Auckland for his work designing and building a glass-cleaning robot that climbs up windows. Sohail will be taking his impressive robot to the next ISEF, scheduled for May 2013 in Phoenix, Arizona. We very much look forward to presenting our award to a similarly promising young Kiwi each year, and to continuing to expand the Embassy’s youth and exchange programs.

8. Connecting Young Leaders Conference

Another Top Ten  highlight drawn from our youth outreach this year was our 2nd biennial Connecting Young Leaders Conference, which brought together my student advisers from around the country for two days of policy discussions, leadership and career skills-building, and networking with special guests from government, business, academic, media, elite sports, and not-for-profit circles.

Jacinda Ardern and Julie Anne Genter attempting to keep up with the questions from students. An entire day devoted to this panel wouldn’t have been enough.

Members of Parliament Jacinda Ardern and Julie Anne Genter take questions from the students.

In my travels I meet regularly with my student advisers at New Zealand’s various universities, but there is nothing quiet as energizing as bringing everyone together to brainstorm, socialize, and debate in an intensely concentrated but casual manner. There is no more powerful investment in the future than these kinds of interactive youth programs, and our first experiment with a conference two years ago was such a success that we’ve institutionalized the gathering as a regular event. This year’s conference certainly exceeded my high expectations.

Our all-star line-up of speakers, panelists, and coaches included Olympian (and CEO of Best Leadership Academy) Beatrice Faumuina, Zeenat Rahman (Secretary Clinton’s Special Adviser for Youth), Westpac Bank senior executive Mark Fitz-Gerald, MPs Jacinda Ardern and Julie Anne Genter, Burgerfuel Worldwide executive Alexis Lam, my former youth adviser (and now head of Maori Development at ICEHOUSE) Shay Wright, and many more. It was the kind of event that keeps me jumping out of bed in the morning, and the students seemed to find it valuable as well. We have already started planning for the next conference.

7. Secretary Janet Napolitano’s Visit to New Zealand

Regular circulation of personnel is as important to the health of a bilateral relationship as circulation of red blood cells is to the health of the human body. One of our top priorities at the Embassy has thus been increasing the number of serious working visits by American officials to New Zealand. We hosted a record number of official visitors in 2012 – more than quintuple the number received during the twelve months immediately prior to my arrival as Ambassador – including three senior members of President Obama’s Cabinet.

Minister of Justice Judith Collins farewells Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano

Minister of Justice Judith Collins with Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano during a successful visit to Wellington.

The first of our Cabinet-level visitors this year was Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano, who came for three days of discussions with senior Kiwi officials on a variety of issues including global supply chain security, trusted traveler programs, transnational crime, and human trafficking. The Secretary’s visit easily hits my Top Ten list because of the importance of the topics covered and the tangible progress made on projects of direct benefit to both countries.

In addition to meeting with Prime Minister John Key and Leader of the Opposition David Shearer, the Secretary signed joint statements of intent with Ministers Nathan Guy and Maurice Williamson, launched a study of how New Zealand’s Smart Gate might be synched with U.S. trusted traveler programs to better facilitate two-way business travel, and reviewed ways to extend the world-leading collaboration between the United States and New Zealand on expediting customs processing while increasing container security.

6. Project (R)evolution Social Media Conference

In a sign of just how important it is to our work at the Mission, social media takes another slot on our 2012 Top Ten list, this time for a conference we held in Auckland back in August. Partnering with Auckland University of Technology and Social Media NZ, we brought together more than 200 digital thinkers from New Zealand, the United States, and elsewhere to discuss the current status and future direction of connectivity technology and net-driven change.

Team Project Revolution

At center, Project (R)evolution speakers Alec Ross (Sec. Clinton’s Senior Advisor for Innovation) and Emily Banks (Managing Editor of Mashable), with my colleagues (from left) Laura McNeur, Sean Gillespie, Mike Cousins, and Marie Damour.

Brainchild of my Embassy colleague (and relentless social media czar) Mike Cousins, the gathering was dubbed The Project: (R)evolution and pitched at a 3.0 rather than 1.0 level with research-based sessions and extensive opportunity for discussion. The impressive roster of presenters was assembled from major industry players, change-focused enterprises, entrepreneurial success stories, and seasoned net practitioners.

Approving the seed money to launch the process was perhaps the best decision I made in 2012. The conference attracted an elite cohort of thought leaders and trended globally on Twitter. The proceedings generated vigorous, deep, informed discussion of issues such as innovation, digital ethics, intellectual property, web access, and change management that are too often painted with cartoonish brush strokes. Based on our inaugural experience, we hope to make the conference an annual event with a different cutting-edge focus each year.

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Stay tuned. I’ll continue the countdown tomorrow.