The art of policy briefs

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Presentation at the AERC/GDN Policy Briefs workshop - Accra, Ghana, June 2014.

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  • By the end of this session we hope that you will understand

    What a policy brief is and why are they useful in bridging research to policy divide
    How to plan for policy influence
    That creating policy messages is an art that requires careful consideration of context, evidence, links
    What the structure of a policy brief should look like

    Wrap-up (and examples of policy brief pitfalls)
    Policy brief surgery

  • A policy brief is a tailored message

  • Research findings have been responsible for many improvements in quality of life. Better use of research evidence in development policy-making can save lives through more effective policies that respond to scientific and technological advances, use resources more efficiently and better meet citizens’ needs (WHO, 2004).

    However, too often the linkages between research and policy-making are viewed as a linear process. In reality, the integration of evidence into policy decision-making is a complex process of multiple, frequently competing and / or intertwined sets of influences in which evidence plays just one of many roles (


  • You must think about your audience…
  • Is your evidence credible and ready to be shared at the policy level?

    The way you articulate your message also shapes the way people perceive it’s quality - Don’t waist your hard work by presenting your research poorly.

    Think about how you can demonstrate the legitimacy of your findings.
  • Route to market

    How are you going to get your message heard – 6 degrees of separation.

    Effective policy entrepreneurs – or champions – will make the most of networks but will also use
    connections or negotiating skills, be persistent, develop ideas, proposals and expertise well in
    advance of policy ‘windows’. – Neilson, S. (2001) Knowledge Utilization and Public Policy Processes: A Literature Review,
    Canada: Evaluation Unit, IDRC
    So engage with policymakers early on! (as we saw this morning)
  • Can you position yourself on this graph?

    Think we all agree here that good research alone is insufficient, to have impact it must be communicated to the right people and effectively!
  • A useful way to frame your core message is to start by listing your key findings and the actions that you would like your audience to take. Once you are clear about theses, ask yourself the following 5 questions
  • BUT what does it take to make a message memorable?:/
    It is all about messaging, when a piece of communication is relevant, compelling, appealing, meaningful and straight to the point it moves the listener/reader to action.
  • [Original link available on YouTube at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Hzgzim5m7oU]

    BUT what does it take to make a message memorable?:/
    It is all about messaging, when a piece of communication is relevant, compelling, appealing, meaningful and straight to the point it moves the listener/reader to action.
  • Executive statement [220 words max]
    Introduction [330 words max]
    Methodology [110-220 words max]
    Results: what did we learn? [660 words max]
    Conclusions: what does it mean? [660 words max]
    Implications and Recommendations
    References [220 words max]
  • Executive summary: The core message you outlined above can form the basis for your executive summary. It’s also important, at this stage, to make your brief as policy focused as possible. This can be achieved by stating why the current approach/policy option needs to be changed; and what your recommendations for action are. If you have not thought about your research in this way before, then you need to think clearly about what change your research might be able to bring about, and 2-3 key recommendations that might help achieve this.  

    …______ (when it should happen) ______ (Why it’s important now) (adapted from ODI Rapid)
  • Highlight why the recommendation(s) you described in your executive summary is important, and why people should care.
    It provides a means to convince your audience from the start why your recommendations are worth exploring, and an opportunity to add more weight to the message outlined in the executive summary.

    An opportunity to add a little more context to your message – contextualise your message

  • Policy briefs fall down at the methodology by going into far too much detail

    Don’t lose your audience in jargon.

    Methodology can help highlight the suitability of your recommendations and the rigorous nature of your research but it is not always necessary to include all the details.
  • - More detail of your findings and the issue that needs addressing.

    - This is essentially the meat of your argument, and an opportunity to highlight the quality of your evidence.

    - If some of the findings of your research are not relevant to the overall message do not include them. Only include the details the reader needs to know.

  • Often confusion between implications and recommendations…

    Implications refers to the generic changes or actions that are required (not the specific recommendations) – Which area of policy needs to change?

    Recommendations refer to the specific changes that need to be made to policy

    Do not be tempted to produce a long list of these – if you have more than three then you have too many!

    Recommendations must relate directly to your research and your message, be actionable and specific.

  • Often confusion between implications and recommendations…

    Implications refers to the generic changes or actions that are required (not the specific recommendations) – Which area of policy needs to change?

    Recommendations refer to the specific changes that need to be made to policy

    Do not be tempted to produce a long list of these – if you have more than three then you have too many!

    Recommendations must relate directly to your research and your message, be actionable and specific.

  • You are producing a brief, and will not be able to include all the relevant information from which policies and decisions can be made. Your brief is a ‘shop window’ to more in-depth information. Try and define the 5 most important pieces of work that support your recommendations. These resources should be robust and from well-respected sources.

  • Don’t forget stand-firsts, headings and pull-out quotes


  • Common policy brief pitfalls to beware of AND AVOID




  • The art of policy briefs

    1. 1. Creating messages for policy: The art of the policy brief Andrew Clappison and Zeinab Sabet June 6-8, 2014 Accra, Ghana
    2. 2. Objectives of this session What is a policy brief? Planning for policy influence Messaging Structure and design Wrap-up Surgery
    3. 3. Policy briefs are short documents that present the findings and recommendations of a research project to a non-specialist readership. They are often recommended as a key tool for communicating research findings to policy actors [who often do not have the time to read long technical research documents] (Young and Quinn, 2007) In simple terms… A policy brief is a clear message tailored for a policy audience. 1.1 What is a policy brief?
    4. 4. 2. Planning for policy Influence
    5. 5. 2.1 Planning: Thinking about your audience • Who are your readers? • How knowledgeable are they about the subject? • How open are they to the message? • What are their interests & concerns?
    6. 6. 2.2 Planning: Thinking about context • Policy makers are not a homogenous group • Needs differ by sector, ministry etc. • Level of position (national vs sub-national) • Role in policy-making process (level of power) • Political and media context: opportunities?
    7. 7. 2.3 Planning: The evidence • How legitimate and credible are my findings?” • Building credibility – Make sure your figures are correct and verifiable – Present your research clearly and convincingly – Look for stakeholder/local involvement – Collaborate with other researchers
    8. 8. 2.4 Planning: Your links and engagement Be pro-active… • “Effective policy entrepreneurs – or champions – will make the most of networks but will also use • connections or negotiating skills, be persistent, develop ideas, proposals and expertise well in • advance of policy ‘windows’”. • – Neilson, S. (2001), IDRC
    9. 9. 3. The art of creating an effective message
    10. 10. Good research merits good communication Qualityofresearch Quality of communication Source: Communicating Food Policy Research, IFPRI (March 2005)
    11. 11. Developing effective messages When communicating your research, you need to respond to the following questions: • Who? • Why? • How? • What?  But what does “key messages” stand for?
    12. 12. How to best craft your messages? • List your key findings and policy recommendations • Think about the following questions: – What is the objective of your message? – Why is this important? – Who are your target audiences? – What do you want them to do? – How exactly should they do it?
    13. 13. What does it take to make a message memorable? • What do you want to say, how and to whom?  Messages should be designed with audiences in mind and tailored to fit their needs – identify your audience  Messages should be memorable, engaging and limited in number – KISS!!  Messages should be simple – avoid jargon and scientific terminologies  Messages may need to answer the question: ‘why do I care?’
    14. 14. Message pyramid Source: Communicating Food Policy Research, IFPRI (March 2005)
    15. 15. What does an effective message look like? The 4Cs model: 1. Comprehension 2. Connection 3. Credibility 4. Contagiousness Make your messages pass the ‘Grandma Test’ “The 4Cs model is a useful tool for objectively evaluating the effectiveness of many forms of communication: what’s working, what isn’t working, and why.”
    16. 16. Top tips for effective messaging • A Attract the attention of the audience • I Raise the interest in the message or evidence • D Encourage a desire to act or to know more • A Prompt action and present a solution
    17. 17. The power of words is also very impressively reflected in this short video which shows the power words have to change radically your message, and their effect on the world.
    18. 18. Remember… All great ideas are simple at heart!
    19. 19. Group work (based on the 4C’s) 1. Did you instantly understand what the brief is about? 2. Did it evoke an emotional response? 3. Was it or the messenger credible? 4. Did you feel the message “stuck” and made you want to react in some way? Apply each of these questions to the policy brief handed to your group and report back during plenary. Also try to rate how well each of the briefs does against these questions on a scale of 1-10 (i.e. On a scale of 1-10 say how well the policy brief was able to convey the messenger as credible).
    20. 20. 4. Policy brief structure
    21. 21. 1. Executive Statement 2. Introduction 3. Methodology 4. Results and Conclusions 5. Implicationsand Recommendations 6. References
    22. 22. 4.1 Executive statement: Top tip: Try to complete this paragraph… ‘The objective of this policy brief is to ______ (action verb – like convince, inform) ______ (target audience(s) – e.g. Ministry of Agriculture) that ______ (what should happen – e.g. they should invest in road infrastructure) (ODI Rapid)
    23. 23. Executive statements examples Copper price and exchange rate dynamics in Zambia re-examined Executive statement: “ The objective of this policy brief is to inform the central bank and the Ministry of Finance that changes in copper price have a significant bearing on the stability of the kwacha exchange rate. Changes in copper price affect income and revenue from the mining sector, and through spending, inflation and consequently the exchange rate. Thus, an appropriate policy response is required to limit vulnerabilities to adverse copper price movements and ensure maximum benefits are derived from copper price booms.”
    24. 24. 4.2 Introduction • Top Tip: • To frame this think about how: • (1)The recommendations you are suggesting could have a positive effect on people’s lives, their environment and wellbeing. • (2) Add context to your work by relating it to news and events that are prevalent within the media.
    25. 25. 4.3 Methodology 3. Methodology • Less is more • Remove jargon • Put yourself in the policymakers shoes
    26. 26. 4.4 Results and findings 4. Results/findings • Details of your findings/evidence • ‘Meat’ of argument • Don’t include findings not relevant to your core message
    27. 27. 4.5 Implications and Recommendations 5. Implications and Recommendations • Recommendations: What specifically do you think should change? (Max 3) • Implications: What general policy changes/actions do the results point to?
    28. 28. Implication and Recommendation examples The objective for this policy brief is to convince policymakers at the State Ministries of Health of the need to increase adolescents and young people ’s (AY P) access to youth-friendly sexual and reproductive health (SRH) services. • Implication: • “Current limited access to youth-friendly sexual and reproductive services could lead to an increase in the number of sexually transmitted infections among youth” Recommendation: “Policymakers at the State Ministries of Health should create an enabling environment to increase AYP’s access to youth-friendly sexual and reproductive health (SRH) services by increasing the number of youth friendly SRH service points available to youth in their states, training existing health care providers to be able to deliver youth friendly SRH services and by increasing the awareness of AYPs about the availability and location of youth friendly services”
    29. 29. 4.6 References 6. References • Don’t include everything • Choose those that most strongly support your recommendations
    30. 30. 4.7 Be visual… “Effective policy entrepreneurs – or champions – will make the most of networks and connections”
    31. 31. Wrap-up: What we have covered What is a policy brief? Planning for policy influence Messaging Structure and design Wrap-up Surgery
    32. 32. 5. Common policy brief pitfalls to beware of • Complicated tables and graphs (that no one understands) • No visuals – pictures can add context and interest • Recommendations not included • Text heavy and too much jargon – keep it simple • Lacks clear message from the beginning • Too much focus on methodology • Policy brief not seen as an opportunity to engage with policy audiences
    33. 33. Creating messages for policy: The art of the policy brief Andrew Clappison and Zeinab Sabet June 6-8, 2014 Accra, Ghana
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