Avoiding the asteroid: being constructive and relevant in the pandemic

26 March 2020
SERIES COVID-19 25 items

COVID-19 could become to many think tanks what the asteroid was to dinosaurs: an extinction level event. It’s likely that sector funding will decrease sharply, both within countries and from foreign donors in developing-country contexts, while other pressing causes take precedence. Moreover, in semi-authoritarian contexts, governments may use the crisis to clamp down on non-obedient civil society organisations.

For that reason, think tanks around the world urgently need to respond to the COVID-19 crisis in their societies, with constructive and relevant policy contributions. And they need to do this right now. Demonstrating relevance is no guarantee that one’s institution will stay around, but at least think tanks will demonstrate the critical role they play in improving decision-making at a dynamic time.

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Here are some provisional thoughts, intended to contribute to constructive discussion on the think tank response.

Pivot onto the issue, based on core competencies

Think tank should swing onto this issue, with full force, based on their existing core competencies. How can it bring that competency to bear on the current crisis?

New data can help policymakers to formulate their responses. For example, the Georgian Institute of Politics, has done an expert survey on the local policy response. Such expert surveys are inexpensive and deliver a quick turnaround. Another, CRRC Georgia, is planning to set up a rolling phone survey to provide decision makers with regular updates on whether the population understands and complies with health and social distancing messages, and with data on the socio-economic impact of the crisis and responses such as lockdowns.

Yet it doesn’t have to be new surveys. Old data (and blog posts) can be mined and utilised in new ways. For example, to answer important questions like: what percentage of the population is vulnerable, without access to savings? How many say that they regularly need to borrow money to pay for food? According to the census, what is the make-up of households? How many people use public transport to commute to work, or are likely to be able to work remotely?

There are economic questions too: the lockdowns have precipitated some strong currency depreciations, as export revenue evaporated overnight. What are the likely impacts? What does one know about the balance sheets of banks with regards to dollarization?

Similarly, in one context we are familiar with, government representatives have instructed supermarkets not to raise prices, without legal mandate but with an implicit ‘or else’. This is well intended, to protect the population, but may well end up generating shortages, as products from abroad are more expensive to procure (due to the exchange rate) and to bring (with more obstacles around borders). Think tanks may be able to explain the counterintuitive downsides of trying to control prices, or devise better mechanisms to ensure that families do not go hungry.

Practically every sector is affected: what do lockdown measures mean for education? How should one deal with exams and university admissions? What are good models for online engagement within a country? Can companies use some of this time for retraining their staff online? What are other countries doing that works well?

Doing something now matters: if there is a practical contribution to be made, but incomplete funding, it may make sense to consider doing as much as one can right now, and to look for follow-up funding based on the self-funded pilot.

Watch the fine print

As governments put assistance packages together, the fine print matters. Not all influential players will be shy about advancing their interests. The Institute for Public Policy Research, a UK think tank, has pointed out that EasyJet was planning to pay a generous dividend, including many millions to its founder, at the same time as asking for a government bailout. They have suggested five criteria for giving bailouts to airlines.

There will be similar challenges in many countries, as the government begins to hand out money. Crises are times of redistribution, and who and how to bail out (or whether to bail out at all) may be decided quickly, with limited competent insight and oversight.

Think tanks that are familiar with complex policy issues – including civil liberties – will want to watch closely. They can reach out to their network to be alerted to any policy concerns. A government’s COVID-19 emergency laws can be analysed in accessible detail, as the Institute for Government has shown.

Empower the team but control the message

Next to taking care of the think tank team’s well-being in the crisis (see also OTT’s recent article), it’s important to empower the full team for the policy response.

Good ideas may come from some of the younger team members, and the institution needs a bottom-up process in which such ideas are encouraged and can be shaped into a substantial contribution. Many think tanks regularly engage in brainstorming, as they recognise that a good team, together, can generate valuable ideas. Now, that process needs to move online.

At the same time, institutions have to control the message that goes out to the wider world, especially on social media. If there isn’t already a social media policy, this is the time to remind team members that they may be seen as representative of their institution and they need to be mindful of what they post.

Against a backdrop of unreliable data and a rapidly shifting evidence base, think tanks also need to be extremely careful not to overstate the degree of certainty in their own conclusions and policy recommendations. (Adding a list of ‘known unknows’ might help.)

Increase and improve communications

Many think tanks have a monthly email newsletter. The COVID-19 crisis may be the time to turn it into a weekly feature. Single reports on the issue are great, but as the situation is dynamic, regular updates are particularly valuable.

Such updates can start with key facts. There is so much information floating around that a factual summary of key developments is useful. Has the think tank run indicators on food insecurity, on poverty, or on inflation in the past? What do they say about the current situation? Are there any other indicators or numbers that make sense of what is happening?

Likely, super-short newsletter summaries like this one by Bruegel are useful for diverse audiences including decision makers and donors, as well as the wider public. Branding and brevity will cut through the noise. Brief texts also help to put out messages in different languages for think tanks that operate in diverse contexts. And now, more than ever, think tanks should track newsletter opening rates.

The communications department may need help in getting the message out. In the reality of projectised funding, the communication staff isn’t necessarily experienced with crises. Thus, senior management may want to spend at least two days gearing up the communications team for the current situation, and taking key decisions on purpose/positioning, targeting, updating email lists, and so on. Re-reading OTT’s many pieces on communications may help, too. If in doubt, the board can provide guidance.

Tact, timing and tone

Both timing and tone are more important in times of crisis. Think tanks have to be seen as constructive. There is a time for pressing particular issues. Other things can wait a week or three. Everyone, too, will need time to see how the situation evolves and to understand their policy options.

Well-connected think tanks may want to reach out to decision makers (deputy-minister level and senior civil servants) to identify the questions they need answered, and to offer support to research and planning departments.

Again, leadership through internal consultation is important. As a team, asking oneself weekly what one has learned, in a quick ‘lessons learned’ exercise, is essential to improve one’s response, week by week.

Getting one’s very best editors mobilised also helps to ensure the constructive tone of messages. A breathless and dramatising tone doesn’t help to position a think tank as an authoritative voice. Given the high stakes, quality matters more than ever.

Learn from each other and share

Think tanks have one great asset in this crisis. They are not alone. Think tanks around the world face similar challenges.

For those that don’t already do so, it’s a great idea to follow what some of the world’s most agile mid-sized think tanks are doing. Three that come to mind are the Center for Global Development (global development issues, based in Washington), Bruegel (EU issues, based in Brussels), and the Institute for Government (UK policymaking issues, in London). Subscribing to their newsletters is worthwhile (even if one’s interest is outside their remit) to see which messages they focus on and how they get it across.

To the extent that one sees interesting policy ideas in one’s sector abroad, sharing it with your domestic audience may be a good idea. For good examples of rapid syntheses of policy-relevant and medical information, see the Oxford COVID-19 Evidence Service and Cochrane’s compilations of previous studies relevant for decision-making during the pandemic. On the policy side, Jeremy Konyndyk, a senior fellow at the Center for Global Development, has led an effort to set up Frontline Guide for Local Decision-Makers.

Similarly, cross-referencing good work from other think tanks in the same country is a way of highlighting that this is an effort to share good policy research, not to advance a single institution.

On Think Tanks can do a great service by checking out what various think tanks are doing that is constructive, and flag examples for the policy research community.

Positioning oneself for the aftermath

It is possible that we will find a relatively quick fix to this crisis, and that life soon can go back to normal. At the same time, it is possible that this pandemic will cause a wider and longer disruption. Such a disruption may well vary between countries, economic sectors and even individual cities. At this point, we just don’t know.

If the crisis does cause such a disruption, the first emphasis is on people’s lives. Beyond that, however, quality policy research is needed more than ever, because the standard approach to government may no longer work. To be around to have a positive impact on these debates in the future, think tanks need to adapt, act and evolve right now.