Governments around the world face the daunting task of addressing a downward spiral of economic activity coupled with a growing health burden from the spread of the coronavirus disease. India is no exception, and the government has had to be innovative in both designing policies and deploying resources to cope with the twin challenges.

We believe that two elements can be game-changers in addressing the crisis: the use of data and leveraging partnerships. For almost a decade, CLEAR South Asia has been collaborating with state governments in India to undertake systematic capacity-building efforts on data and evidence use for policy decision-making. 

Policymakers at the state and central levels have to lead the charge on developing data capacity and building strategic partnerships. They will need to think innovatively to respond swiftly to emerging challenges.

It has been gratifying to see the government’s creative use of real-time data and technology for planning containment strategies and service delivery.  We are also seeing an exciting mix of organizations, such as technology enablers, private companies, non-profits and research institutions complementing government efforts to tackle the most difficult challenges and protect the most vulnerable.

For these opportunities to be genuinely advantageous, the government must be able to collate and analyze data from multiple sources to understand fully the nature of problems confronting us and to respond effectively. Strengthened data capabilities of the government, whether independently or by leveraging partnerships, to interpret, absorb, and use data and evidence to make informed decisions are urgently needed.

However, system-level changes take time, and data use capabilities cannot be built overnight. The foundation of a systems change that is conducive and incentive-compatible for governments to internalize a data-driven approach needs to be laid in advance.

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Creating sustainable channels

Leveraging our host institution J-PAL SA’s institutional partnership (now in its sixth year) with the state government of Tamil Nadu in India, CLEAR SA, in collaboration with the state bureaucracy, has developed and executed a multi-pronged, customized capacity-building strategy.  We engage with multiple levels of government to build capabilities across domains, using customized workshops, hands-on training, and advisory.

These efforts have culminated in structural channels that allow for useful feedback loops to inform decisions.  Our capacity-building approach had three key features:

  • First, our long-term, government-wide partnership in Tamil Nadu is founded on a 360 degree, deeply embedded life-cycle approach which forges linkages between research, capacity building, and policy advisory to enable data use for decisions.
  • Second, we now know that knowledge transfer is most effective when combined with live examples. Adoption is greater when demonstrated and allows for learning by doing. Multiple touchpoints and continued engagement have helped build trust and value, and sustain the commitment through elections, transfers of key personnel, and shifts in policy priorities.
  • Third, we recognize that decision-making, especially on the adoption of new ideas or practices can be non-sequential– meaning that what we build and recommend today, could come to use a year or more later. A key strength is in being able to identify and be responsive to an opportunity whenever it emerges. In our experience, this is possible when the groundwork is laid upfront. Thus, when a policy window opens, the only incremental effort needed is to refresh and connect the dots, and not have to start from scratch.

A longer-term systems-driven capacity-building approach can lead to increased sensitivity and reception to data-driven decision-making among governments.

Tamil Nadu is a good example, which has a substantial aging population, and their well-being is an important priority. The Department of Economics and Statistics, in collaboration with leading researchers, launched the first-ever state-wide elderly panel survey in 2016-17.  For almost four years, CLEAR SA provided technical advisory services and training workshops (mirroring activities on the project timeline) on sampling, questionnaire design, and data quality to enable rigorous and efficient data collection.

Our capacity-building efforts led to the adoption of independent backchecks (a standard practice in research) by the department to ensure the quality of data.  Last year, the department completed the baseline survey across five districts. Taking cognizance of a critical finding of a growing proportion of elderly living alone, the government announced in their latest budget, a pilot intervention of elderly daycare centers in the state. In addition to these policy wins, the department also adopted digital data collection for their surveys and plan to conduct a follow-up wave next year.

We are now planning an evaluation of this pilot to inform expansion approaches. Further, during the current crisis, via the use of phone surveys, the government and researchers can track whether the elderly covered in the survey are facing any issues during the Covid-19 lockdown.  

Such a holistic, long-term, and embedded approach was instrumental in creating systems for new and high-quality data collection, use of data for planning, decisions, and increased appetite for further evaluations. It also means that the goal of adopting a systematic approach to designing innovative policies and deploying resources to protect a vulnerable population such as the elderly, is achievable.

Photo credit Shutterstock/ By Myvector