[This article was originally published on the GlobalDev blog on 12 April 2021].
The pandemic imposed many unprecedented challenges on think tanks in the Global South. Amid lockdowns and uncertain cashflows, they found themselves overstretched with policy research and outreach responsibilities. There were increased demands to generate rapid evidence on various aspects of Covid-19, and to engage with government and non-government organizations more closely.
In terms of internal operations and like any other concern, independent think tanks did their best to prevent layoffs, and to continue field surveys to gauge the impact of the pandemic in a manner that did not threaten the lives and health of staff members.
Some staff members found themselves redundant as offices were shut – finding new (often short-term) work for them remained a challenge. Some contracted infections in the field and had to be supported with medical needs. Everyone was asked to adjust in their own way, to think everything in terms of Covid-19.
A transdisciplinary research agenda
The additional demands imposed by the health and economic crisis brought out the best in innovation. While most think tanks already understood the importance of promoting greater transdisciplinary approaches across research, advocacy, and capacity-building interventions, some had never been forced to move out of their usual specialties until the pandemic.
All of a sudden, the development sector understood the true meaning of multi-sectoral and cross-cutting approaches to delivery of the sustainable development goals (SDGs). A key request received by my organization – the Sustainable Development Policy Institute – largely focused on how the government could integrate epidemiological and economic datasets to arrive at more informed forecasts around fiscal sustainability.
Finding and generating evidence under time constraints
Rapid research tools have always been around. But the loss of life and high rates of positive testing for Covid-19 during the pandemic’s first wave meant that existing survey methods would prove inadequate.
Even telephone and online surveys were not very revealing during that period as many respondents were reluctant to reveal the true picture due to fears of being stigmatized or having their information used to pull them from their houses for forced testing and quarantine.
Deep learning methods were now being employed for better triangulation of vast amounts of data and information coming from both citizens and the public sector.
Working with public sector agencies
Most think tanks and research networks came forward to share knowledge and experiences, to provide policy advice, and even to provide their human resources on secondment to support the public sector in averting the initial incidence of the crisis. Since then, they have worked collectively on design thinking to deliver better systems and processes for evidence-use in policy making.
In most countries, the public sector also realized that no one really owned wisdom around Covid-19. More and more data, information, and intelligence would be required in the days ahead to manage the impact and for post-pandemic recovery. SDG-17 – ‘Strengthen the means of implementation and revitalize the global partnership for sustainable development’ – was now getting close attention from all bodies involved in improving global governance, including think tanks.
Embracing digital transformation
The technologies that saved the internal and external operations of organizations during lockdowns were available well before the Covid-19 outbreak. But most think tanks were unwilling to move towards greater use of technology for even mundane tasks such as in-person focus group meetings.
This is no longer the case. As think tanks developed work plans for 2021, they were clear that the shift to digital technologies was permanent. Not only was delivery of research fast embracing digital methods, but internal operations of administration, procurement, finance, and human resources were also being automated. A welcome realization was that this shift towards digital came at a much lower cost than most advocates of the status quo used to claim.
Capitalizing on individual capabilities
The demand for greater transdisciplinary approaches forced staff at think tanks to start thinking about their skill sets, to build on existing capabilities, and to upskill or re-skill in support of ‘building back better’.
At an individual level, as people saw their nearest and dearest affected by the disease, this brought renewed attention to considerations of ‘work-life balance’, the importance of mental wellness, and integrating health and wellbeing as part of individual goals and organizational key performance measures.
In my interaction with various colleagues in the think tank community, I was informed about how creative researchers found themselves more productive during the crisis; some were even promoted to new positions, and others were offered important roles in government. Many diversified away from standard publishing for peer-reviewed journals, instead investing time in disseminating policy solutions through op-eds and Twitter threads.
Resilience in leadership and management systems
We have examples of think tanks whose timely advice was acknowledged by governments and stakeholders. A key characteristic of these organizations was resilient leadership and how those at the helm of affairs could convert this multifaceted crisis into short- and long-term opportunities.
Such leadership was expected to move quickly to address the missing pieces in data and information gaps, and to put in place approaches that could inform the future portfolio of activities. As many organizations were working remotely, it was important to empower teams to take rapid action and even allowing them to make mistakes during this process.
To a large extent, the pandemic has made the business model of most think tanks obsolete. This then became the other challenge for leadership: anticipating change and transition to a more robust post-pandemic future through proactive planning.
Promoting design thinking and fostering agility
This column would not be complete without acknowledging that while some traditional funders of think tanks ended up changing priorities, others moved forward and strengthened global faith in the generation and use of evidence at a time when existing knowledge revealed little.
Think tanks that reacted rapidly already had trustworthy relationships with funders and communities of practice who could see value in investing time and resources in design thinking and moving from tactical questions to strategic questions. Going forward, greater agility is expected from project managers and mid-career staff to deliver new forms of knowledge products and ensure dissemination through non-traditional methods.