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Policy issue brief writing for students

Why policy papers in education?

Why public policy issue briefs as a writing assignment? What are the benefits of such a writing exercise? Unlike a traditional research paper, which is considered to be “academic,” an issues brief, which is used in government and business, is more of a “professional” and “real-life” document tied to a current issue that requires timely action or attention. A good way to size up an issue is to read or prepare an issue brief. The structure of a policy brief lends itself to an analysis of political issues. As a college writing exercise it has an immediacy and value not only as practical (and less theoretical) training for real and hypothetical situations that could be encountered in certain careers in the private and public sectors, but also provides insights for enhanced civic engagement, leadership skills, and political literacy.

Writing a Policy Brief in Political Science and International Relations

What is a policy brief?

Policy briefs are a form of report designed to facilitate policy-making. The core purpose is to succinctly evaluate policy options regarding a specific issue, for a specific policy-maker audience. Policy-makers need to make practical decisions under time-constraints, so the brief should provide evidence and actionable recommendations.

Why write a policy brief?

Students in Political Science and International Relations can expect to build practical skills as well as academic ones, and one way to do this is through writing policy briefs. As this is a common and effective medium, the skills developed may be useful for students who will go on to have careers in the government, non-government or business sectors. A well-presented and clear policy brief could also be an important part of a portfolio for job applications.

What do I need to write a policy brief?

To write a policy brief you need a specific policy problem of contemporary relevance, and a specific policy-maker target (for example Ban Ki-Moon, Secretary General of the United Nations). Student’s will usually ‘play’ the role of special advisor to this person.

What will my policy brief say?

Your policy brief needs to clarify the extent of the policy problem you have chosen, and identify the stakeholders or interest groups concerned. You will need to clarify the existing policy of your chosen policy-maker, and then identify and evaluate a series of policy options in response to the policy problem. Finally, you will need to make and justify a policy recommendation.

What is the style of a policy brief?

Policy briefs need to be widely accessible, and are written for a non-specialist audience. Avoid technical, legalistic, economic or academic jargon! Facilitate readability through images, catch-phrases, layout choices, and the provision of data as graphs or charts. Presentation needs to be professional as suits a public document – use correct grammar and spelling, and appropriate spacing, font, point, headings and sub-headings.

How is a policy brief structured?

We recommend a very simple, 4-section policy brief structure, though in the workplace you may be asked to structure policy briefs differently.
1. Front Page
2. Situation Brief
3. Policy Discussion
4. Bibliography

Front Page

Policy briefs are front-loaded: the conclusions are on the cover page! The front page needs an executive summary, providing a concise (1 or 2 paragraphs) overview of the brief’s aim and core recommendations. The policy recommendation must be clearly outlined!

Situation Brief

You need to provide background information on the selected policy issue and its political implications, including an overview of the stakeholders. Only essential facts should be provided, and this can be done more quickly through images, trend data (graphs or charts), or a chronology of key events, actions and legal or policy decisions.

Policy Discussion

We recommend 3-5 different policy options, which need to be evaluated for strengths, weaknesses and implications, followed by a clear recommendation. To be credible, your policy discussion needs to address the most important policy options, including continuation of the existing policy. Consider the likely social, political, economic and financial consequences of a policy – use bullet-points if necessary. Provide reasoning and justification for your policy recommendation. Making policy recommendations requires you to make an ethical or pragmatic judgement: but this is the role of a policy advisor!

Key Sources

Provide a briefly annotated bibliography of key sources. Anyone who wants to follow up the issue you address in your policy brief will use your bibliography as a starting point. You might use a range of sources, including books, journal articles, interviews or expert witness testimonies, newspaper or news journal articles, government publications, credible on-line information sources, policy documents, or material provided by NGOs, think-tanks or policy advocacy organisations.

Why are policy briefs presented?

When you present your policy brief you are effectively ‘pitching’ it to the policy-maker you have selected as the target for your brief. This is a form of ‘role-playing’, where the policy-maker will be played by your tutor. You should outline and justify your policy recommendations, answer any questions the policy-maker has, and respond to any criticism of your recommendations. This shows that you have background knowledge and a detailed understanding of the policy issues, as well as demonstrating your ability to respond to issues and questions which may be raised by your brief. (Richmond)

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