June 19, 2020

Opinion

Responding to COVID-19 and its spill over effects

Part 14 of  
COVID-19

COVID-19 has changed the world, transforming the way we look at ourselves, and the ways in which we relate to our work, communities and societies. In sum, it has also compelled us to reassess organisational priorities. Those that are nimble footed will recalibrate their strategies and cope better with stress, others will find the new normal daunting. Simply put, these are times when organisations need to re-strategise rapidly. And so that’s what we did at Public Affairs Centre (PAC), Bangalore.

Organisational response

PAC engages with diverse stakeholders in its action research, partnering with governments and engaging the communities. The near total and prolonged lockdown made this process challenging.

Containing the spread of COVID-19 was a priority, so we went into an early lockdown with the entire team working from home. The experience of virtual reality – of communicating online and coordinating across digital platforms – was both challenging and interesting. We needed to make work productive, yet fun. We did it in substantial measure, without compromising on project outcomes.

As with other organisations, the first big challenge was the accumulation of receivables, creating considerable stress on financial liquidity. In consultation with the Board, a series of short-term austerity measures were initiated. The PAC team rose as one and volunteered to take a pay cut. The importance of  esprit de corps, in times of crisis was amply demonstrated by each member of the PAC team.

Once the lockdown became official, some of the staff went back to their hometowns, while some who were staying as Paying Guests had to shift to other available accommodations. The rest of the staff worked from home.

Most processes and modes of engagement were rendered digital. And over the last 10 weeks, as an organisation, through a hard process of crystallisation, we have redefined our priorities.

We now understand better what matters and what matters less so. In practice, this has transformed us. Looking ahead, we will do half the things we did but twice as well.

Strategic shifts

Re-strategising PAC’s activities was important, since COVID-19 is looming large and no one is able to predict when it will be over or what other shape it will take.

The strategic shift is best described as redefining themes, streams, teams and functions that circumscribe work at PAC.

Some of the key points considered included looking at the on-going projects, revisiting the domain/research areas, examining the staff structure, enhancing arrangements and the manner of engaging with key stakeholders.

This exercise takes on greater relevance as we are in our Silver Jubilee year and the strategic changes we make will determine the pace and direction of our journey in the future.

Engagement with stakeholders

As a think tank, engaging diverse stakeholders – senior policymakers, community-based institutions, development agencies, and citizens – we realised how important it was, especially in times of crisis and in matters relating to the pandemic, to communicate in the local idiom.

To ensure that the communities we work with are also our biggest stakeholders, we created short videos (in Kannada, the local language). The messages were on how individuals and households must respond to the pandemic, what safety measures need to be practiced and what symptoms to look out for. These simple but effective videos were disseminated widely through our field-level partner organisations. The video titled ‘Coronavirus-Don’t Panic Be Aware’ conveyed in a simple manner the what, why and how to protect oneself against the virus.

Data Science

If there is just one lesson that we might draw from the COVID-19 pandemic, it is the importance of data analytics in addressing real world problems.

The Centre for Open Data Research (the analytics arm of PAC) developed data analytics based periodic reports, to serve as evidence-based guidance for the Karnataka State Government.

Four predictive analysis reports – three predicting the temporal and spatial spread of the virus and one on the predicted fiscal impact of the prolonged lockdown – were submitted with specific recommendations for action. The reports were well received and some of the recommendations implemented by the Government.

Post-COVID-19

Following the State Government directives, we decided that 33% of staff would resume work in the office, this includes senior staff (who had access to transport), some researchers and support staff.  Staff who have gone home will continue to work from home until the end of June.

In essence crises test leadership decision-making. What might be good for the institution, society, or the country can and does sometimes turn into a negative sum game for individuals. Balancing outcomes needs clarity of vision. This perhaps is the biggest test that COVID-19 has presented to all organisations.

About the author:

Annapoorna Ravichander:  Executive director of the Public Affairs Foundation (PAF) in Bengaluru, India, and On Think Tanks editor at large for South Asia.

Read more from: Annapoorna Ravichander

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