A Brief Look at Policy Briefs

A policy brief communicates information to policy-makers, analyzing a situation for them and advocating a certain course of action. It is a powerful tool, shorter than a research paper, a way of contributing to policy debates and influencing the policy-making process. It is persuasive, evidence-based, and structured. And it is much more likely to be read than a long report.

I. The Elements of a Policy Brief

Your policy brief needs to strike a balance between a problem description that proves the social and political relevance of the topic and an analytical section explaining options and recommendations from your chosen point of view.

The recommendations, while coming from a partisan perspective, must also take into account the current government situation. You must explain why your proposed change in policy would be in the best interests of the decision-makers addressed.

A policy brief should feature five elements, in a total of four to six pages:

  1. It is problem- and policy-oriented:A policy brief is practical. It must focus on the problem and centre on the political dimensions of the issue, as well as practical solutions. Therefore you need to provide a balanced discussion of this issue at the beginning of your brief. This sets the stage for your analysis and recommendations.
  2. It is analysis-driven:Building on facts and evidence, a policy brief demonstrates analytical and balanced thinking on possible solutions. It takes into account the impact and feasibility of alternate policies in a variety of ways – the potential costs and benefits for different stakeholder groups and for the decision-makers. Your arguments will be most persuasive if you also fairly describe your opponents’ best arguments (and then refute them).
  3. It is evidence-based:To convince policy-makers, you must show that your ideas are well-founded and make sense. Cite convincing examples such as data, comparisons, and effects of inactions or policies in other countries. Provide evidence from multiple reputable sources and cite these sources properly.
  4. It offers viable recommendations:To persuade a decision-maker to implement the policy  you have devised, you must not just promote your ideas but also show why your recommendations are in the best interest of policy-makers themselves.
  5. It has an appealing, reader-friendly layout:A professional-looking layout helps make a favourable impression on your target audience. It is well-written and edited, without clichés, jargon, pompous words, long sentences or seas of gray text. It has subheads, white space, bullet points, lists. The layout and polished look serve to catch the eye and draw your audience into reading it. It shows that your views and recommendations should be taken seriously.

II. Structure

A persuasive policy brief requires a specific structure that will guide your target audience through the paper. All sections and arguments must be well-written, logically developed and focused on the topic.

  • A short title: 10 words or fewer. Try to make it memorable, provocative or surprising, so that it sticks in the reader’s mind. It is often best to communicate your key message and the need for change in the title.
  • Summary: a description of the problem and recommendations. Describe the problem that requires attention and action by policy makers. Then offer in a few sentences your suggested response, summarizing the key points of the policy brief.
  • Presentation of the issue. Begin with an unbiased analysis of the issue, including essential statistics that are generally accepted. Graphs and charts can be useful here.
  • Selected policy options and their impact. Present various possible scenarios, numbered if you like, noting which policy changes would be most appropriate and cost-effective, in your view. Don’t forget that you are a partisan stakeholder now. Defend your arguments against contradictory evidence where necessary and provide in-depth analysis aimed at identifying why your proposed policy is the most viable one. Use strong evidence, case studies, comparisons and statistics to support your arguments.
  • Recommendations. Propose from your perspective three to five specific and feasible recommendations to address the issues. Be clear in detail about what policy-makers have to do to adopt your recommendations and why it is in their best interest to do so.
  • Conclusion. Try to ensure that your policy brief feels complete. After completing each individual component, summarize the key message at the very end. Conclude your brief by demonstrating to your readers that your response is logical, relevant and workable.
  • References. At the end of the brief, include a full list of the materials you have cited in the main text. You can also include a list of sources and websites for further information if you like.

III. Citations

What is plagiarism? It is the representation of another person’s thoughts or words as though they were your own. To avoid plagiarism, make sure you always acknowledge (i.e. cite) the work of others in your policy brief. This is especially important when asserting a statistic or fact.

Citations: Use either brief citations in parentheses (author’s last name and date) after each assertion, spelling out the full source in a list at the end, or use formal academic-style footnotes or end notes, giving the complete source citation on first reference.

Always cite the author(s), the title of the article, the title of the publication containing it if any, the publisher, publisher’s location and publishing date, and page number if possible. For websites, give the URL and the last date you accessed the item.