Policy papers and issue briefs may take two approaches, based on two different functions and intents: present a neutral analysis and overview of an issue for purely informational purposes, or take an advocacy position favoring a particular course of action to solve the problem.
As a neutral information tool:
The issue brief is typically a short, neutral summary of what is known about a particular issue or problem (although it may take another form to advocate a particular position). It is widely used in government and industry. A policy issue brief is about a public problem, one that may or already does affect, or is affected by, government. Analysts prepare such briefs for educated generalists (e.g., legislators, managers), who may know little or nothing about the topic, but need to have a general background, quickly.
The issue brief distills or synthesizes a large amount of complex detail, so the reader can easily understand the heart of the issue, its background, the players (“stakeholders”) and any recommendations, or even educated guesses about the future of the issue. It may have tables and graphs; it usually has a short list of references, so the reader knows something about the sources on which it is based, and where to go for more information. Often, the brief has its own “brief”--a one page “executive summary,” allowing the reader to quickly grasp the essence of the report.
Thus an issue brief is a written report that seeks to answer fundamental questions related to a public policy issue:
•What is the nature and extent of the problem: past, current, and future? •What’s been tried in the past to address it? •What’s being done now? •What are the distinctly different approaches to addressing this issue? (PolicyOptions.org)
As an advocacy tool that argues or recommends a position:
The policy brief is a document that outlines the rationale for choosing a particular policy alternative or course of action in a current policy debate.
It is commonly produced in response to a request directly from a decision-maker or within an organization that intends to advocate for the position detailed in the brief.
Depending on the role of the writer or organization producing the document, the brief may only provide a targeted discussion of the current alternative without arguing for a particular one (i.e. those who adopt the role of ‘objective’ researcher). On the other end of the scale, i.e. advocates, the brief may focus directly on providing an argument for the adoption of a particular alternative.
Nevertheless for any case, as any policy debate is a market place of competing ideas, the purpose of the policy brief is to convince the target audience of the urgency of the current problem and the need to adopt the preferred alternative or course of action outlined and therefore, serve as an impetus for action.
As with all good marketing tools, the key to success is targeting the particular audience for policy message. The most common audience for a policy brief is the decision-maker but it is also not unusual to use the document to support broader advocacy initiatives targeting a wide but
knowledgeable audience (e.g. decision makers, journalists, diplomats, administrators, researchers). (Univ. of Colo.)
The purpose of the policy paper is to provide a comprehensive and persuasive argument justifying the policy recommendations presented in the paper, and therefore to act as a decision-making tool and a call to action for the target audience.
In summarising the ideals and values of the field of policy science, the applied nature of the discipline is central. There are two main factors which differentiate policy science from traditional academia as described below.
Unlike traditional academia which focuses on building knowledge within a group of peers, policy science must address real-world problems, and therefore provide recommendations and a framework for their application within the targeted society. For example, it is not enough to analyse the causes and patterns of unemployment in a particular society in order to contribute to its understanding as a social phenomenon; a policy study must apply this knowledge to the real situation on the ground by understanding the causes, showing that it is a problem within the community in question and suggesting a course of action to address the problem. Hence, the problem-solution relationship must be seen at the heart of the discipline, which means that any analysis undertaken must be driven and targeted on the search for a practical, implementable and comprehensive outcome.
The search for such a practical outcome not only requires a well-elaborated and comprehensive analysis of all available data, but as the issues under consideration are of a societal nature, the policy researcher or analyst will also have to make some value-driven judgements about the outcome that would best address the specific problem. Hence, proposing specific solutions in the highly politicised environment of public policy and to such a broad audience, means that central to the work of the policy specialist is not just the cold empiricism of data analysis, but probably even more important is the ability to convince your audience of the suitability of your policy recommendations. In other words, the presentation of the outcomes of the data analysis will probably not be enough to make an impact in the policy debate on a particular issue, but through the use of these data as evidence in a comprehensive and coherent argument of a position, the work will have the best possible chance of having this impact. (Tsai)