Writing policy briefs

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Handout at the AERC/GDN Policy Briefs workshop

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Writing policy briefs

  1. 1.     WRITING  POLICY  BRIEFS   WHAT  IS  A  POLICY  BRIEF,  AND  WHY  IS  IT  IMPORTANT?   A   policy   brief   is   a   short   stand-­‐alone     document,     focused   on   a   single   topic,   presenting     and   unpacking    the  findings    and   recommendations     of   a   research    project    for   an   audience    without     specialist     knowledge,     and   those   who   simply   do   not   have   the   time   to   read   long   research   documents.   The   main   audience   of   a   policy  brief     are     those     involved     in    the     decision-­‐making     process     (i.e    decision     makers)     who    may    know    little    or  nothing    about   the   topic   but   probably     need   to   have   a   general    knowledge    and   background    information    in  order   to   express   an   opinion   or   make   a   decision.   In   simple   terms,   a   policy   brief   is   a   clear   message   tailored   for   a   policy   audience.   Policy   briefs   are   an   essential   tool   for   bridging   the   research   to   policy   divide.   They   are   usually   between   two  to   four   pages   in   length;   between   1000   and   2000   words.   Make   sure   you   are   clear   about   your   audience,  what   they   need   to   know   and   what   action   you   want   them   to   take   based   on   your   policy   brief;   “writing   that   does   not   consider   the   audience   is   unlikely   to   succeed   in   its   objectives”(Datta   &  Pellini,  2011).   IS  WRITING  AN  EFFECTIVE   POLICY  BRIEF  REALLY  THAT  DIFFICULT?   Learning   to   write   effective   policy   briefs   takes   time   and   patience.   Research   may   lose   its   ‘purity’   and   findings   can   be   easily   misrepresented     through   a   poorly-­‐written   policy   brief.   Policy-­‐ makers,   constrained   by   time   and   overwhelmed     by     various     sources     of    information,     are    likely     to    make     a    snap     decision     when     choosing   information     to   inform   their   decisions.   This   means   that   your   brief   must   stand   out   from   the   rest,   in   both   its   presentation   and  the  clarity  of  content.  You  are  trying  to  sell  your   research,  so  be  clear,  and  be  heard!   INGREDIENTS   OF  AN  EFFECTIVE   POLICY  BRIEF   1.   Think   about   your   audience:    Know   who   your   readers   are,   how   knowledgeable     they   are   about   your  subject,   how   open   they   are   to   your   core   message,    and   what   their   interests   and   concerns   are.   Make  sure  you  tailor  your  key  messages  accordingly.  
  2. 2.   2.   Think   about   the   context:   You   need   to   be   aware   of   the   political   context   in   which   your   target   audience   operates.   Remember     that   policy   makers   are   not   a   homogenous     group;   needs   and   priorities   differ   by  sector      and      ministry,      the     level      of     position      (national      vs.     sub-­‐   national),     role     in     policy-­‐making      process     (level     of     power);     and  phase   of  the  policy/decision-­‐ making    process.  In  order  to  be  applicable,   your   policy   brief   needs   to   be   designed   and   tailored   to   the  context  in  which  your  audience  operates.   3.   Evidence   -­‐   Develop   a   persuasive   argument:   Think   about   “what   value   does   this   have   for   the   reader?”   Develop   a   persuasive   line   of   argument   stating   clearly   the   purpose   of   your   brief   and   providing   an  overview   of  your  evidence.   Articulate   your  message   in  a  way  that  demonstrates      the     quality     of     your     research,     legitimacy     of     your  findings     and     transparency      of     the     evidence     underpinning      your  policy  recommendations.   TIPS  FOR  WRITING  A  POLICY  BRIEF   1.   Be    Focused.    All   aspects    of   the    policy    brief    (from    the    message     to   the    layout)    need    to   be   clearly  focused    on   your   target   audience,    (so   ask   yourself   ‘How   can   my   policy   brief   have   the   most   possible  impact   on  this  audience?’).   Your  argument   must  build  on  what  they  already   know   about   a  problem,   and  then  provide  insight  on  what  they  don’t  know,  and  introduce  your  evidence   on  how  the  problem  can  be  tackled.   2.   Keep  the  audience  in  mind  while  writing.  Use  a  professional   as  opposed  to  an  academic  tone.   3.   Ground  your  argument  in  strong  and  reliable  evidence.   4.   Be  Brief.  The  focus  of  the  brief  needs  to  be  limited   to  a  particular   problem   or  area  of  a  problem.   Don’t  try  to  cover  all  elements  of  your  research  in  one  policy  brief.   5.   Get  to  the  point.  Be  succinct  and  to  the  point,  using  short  sentences  and  paragraphs.   6.   Think    about    your   language.    This   not   only   refers    to   using    clear   and   simple    language    (i.e.   not   the  jargon    and   concepts    of   an   academic    discipline)    but   also   to   providing    a   well-­‐explained    and   easy-­‐to-­‐  follow  argument  targeting  a  wide  but  knowledgeable   audience.   7.   Make   the   text   accessible.   Make   it   easy   for   your   reader   to   read   all   the   way   through   by   subdividing   the  text  using  clear  descriptive   titles  as  guides  (i.e.  the  above-­‐mentioned   structure).   8.   Be    creative.     The    policy    brief    should    catch    the    eye    of   the    potential     audience     in    order    to     create    a  favourable   impression   (e.g.   professional,    innovative   etc.).   Think   creatively   about   how   you   present   the  information,   e.g.  use  of  colours,   logos,   photographs,   slogans,   illustrative   quotes,   boxes,  etc.   9.   Be   practical   and   feasible.   The   policy   brief   is   an   action-­‐oriented     tool   targeting   policy   practitioners.   As  such,    the    brief    must    provide    arguments    based    on    what    is    actually    happening     in    practice     with    a  particular   policy,   and   propose   recommendations   which   seem   realistic   to  the   target  audience.   10.     Make   your   policy   brief   travel.   Don’t   expect   your   brief   to   be   read.   Put   some   energy   behind   it,   engage  with  information  intermediaries   (whose  job  it  is  to  access  research  information  and  tailor  it   for  different  audiences),   or  go  directly  to  policy  makers  and  make  them  aware  of  your  policy  brief.   You  could  also  explore   using   social   media   such   as  Twitter,   Social   Bookmarking   to  bring   attention   to  your  policy  brief.  

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