Innovating on public communications during the COVID-19 pandemic

2 July 2020
SERIES COVID-19 25 items

On 25 March, India sealed its borders and implemented a country-wide lockdown to curb the spread of the novel coronavirus. Nobody in our 30-person team could have predicted the immediate disruption that the pandemic and the lockdown brought with it, much less the opportunity to innovate on operations and the way we connected with the world.

Like think tanks and research groups globally, the pandemic upended our existing field-based projects. This meant that much of what we had scheduled for the year had to be put on hold. All our staff (half of whom are located in five Indian states) started working from home. Voice calls and video calls and instant messages became the new norm replacing face-to-face interactions and working out of a shared office space. 

We grappled with obvious challenges of coordination and logistics that come with being a research group that is building evidence on multiple lines of scholarly inquiry related to public finance and administration. 

In those initial days, among our first strategy decisions as a research group, was to accelerate public communications. Our attempt was to bring out information at a time when hardly anything was known about India’s administrative response.  

As an action point, we came up with simple communications solutions to known information gaps among our key audience. Consequently, within three weeks of the lockdown’s announcement, we launched an interview series capturing the experiences, challenges and best practices of officials and frontline workers inside India’s lowest tier of governance – the districts. 

This proved to be a substantial team exercise involving the time and efforts of our field, communications and research staff. In a routine setting, an effort such as this would have spanned months of execution. In this sense, we yielded an opportunity during a crisis. 

Subsequently, in the last three months, we have published informed commentary on topics as diverse as: the Union government’s USD 265 billion economic package and its impact on health, securing daily wage labourers, the basics of a stimulus package, and a reshaping of the political concept of decentralisation during COVID-19. These have complemented the later release of research reports analysing social policy and education financing in India’s major states. 

While it may seem like we pivoted towards pandemic-oriented communications, it is important to note that our effort is partly propelled by our research group’s strategic lodestar of Responsive Governance.

Responsive Governance, or a public system that is truly accountable to citizens in spirit and practice, has been our research group’s driving force even before the pandemic. As I noted in a previous think piece published on this platform, solutions to problems in the public administrative system are an ‘iterative process’ requiring the right insights at the right time

Our vision of Responsive Governance provided us with a direction. Responsive Governance became the analytical framework for which we were able to decide what to look for in the Government’s response (entry points), and capture relevant experiences through stories (like the interviews of frontline administrative responders, published in the Inside Districts series). Since the pandemic is unparalleled for the Indian administrative system, this knowledge will serve as a record of the system’s functioning during a crisis. 

In this way, a strategic decision on investing in a vision (what I call an ‘Idea of Scale’), has offered clarity that has elevated our public communications. It has facilitated the exploration of administrative responsiveness through various angles, capturing insights we can offer others sooner than research outputs.