Policy briefs

Policy briefs are becoming a common form of assessment in areas of political science, sociology, security studies, public health, and public policy. Writing a policy brief is quite different from essay or report writing. Emphasis is placed on the clarity and succinctness of the brief, which is essential in persuading the target audience of your key message. Policy briefs aim to be practical and well-researched in order to make timely evidence-based recommendations.

A policy brief should:

  • Have a clear and specific purpose or focus-a policy brief should have a particular audience in mind. This could be the person making the decision, an advocacy group, or the media. It is important to keep this audience in mind when evaluating what information needs to be included in the brief. What do they know about the issue already? What new information would provide insight to the issue? The brief should be limited to one issue or problem.
  • Be practical and based on evidence-a policy brief aims to be persuasive and a big part of convincing the target audience of your key message is supporting your ideas with evidence. Evidence should be used to indicate that there is an issue with existing policy and to make recommendations. A policy brief is a practical tool that has real world implications.
  • Be accessible and succinct-a policy brief uses language that is familiar to the target audience in a clear and simple manner. It should also be logical and be easy to follow. The assumption should be made that the target audience does not have time to read a lot of text, so the brief should be formatted clearly with descriptive headings.
  • Include a list of references or acknowledged sources-this is so information or statistics can be found and followed up on, if necessary.

Structure

A policy brief can be structured in different ways, depending on the discipline or purpose or audience of the brief. A policy brief will generally contain the following elements:

Executive Summary

This section of the brief, also known as the overview, aims to provide a short summary of the brief and makes its significance (the "why") clear. It should include a description of the issue being addressed, a key message stating why the current policy needs to be revised, and any recommendations. The executive summary should be one or two paragraphs maximum. 

Purpose

This section aims to convince the target audience of the importance of the issue being addressed and why it requires action. It usually will include a brief description of the issue, a short overview of the causes, and a clear statement of the implications as it relates to current policy. The length of this section will depend on knowledge of the target audience and complexity of the issue.

Critical Analysis

This section provides a discussion of the current policy being implemented, emphasising its strengths and limitations. This is where you make your case. It should be made clear what aspects of the policy needs to be changed. Include a short overview of the policy being critiqued and illustrate why this policy is inadequate. Address how different stakeholders are implicated in the issue. This will typically be the longest section since this is where the bulk of your analysis occurs. 

Recommendations

This section is where you detail what changes need to be made to existing policy in light of the limitations you outlined in the analysis. It will usually contain a list of practical steps or actions that need to be taken, and by whom, to address the issue. This might contain a concluding statement that reiterates the key message and suggests the significance of the proposed recommendations. 

General Tips

  • State your key message at the start and end with why it is important;
  • Avoid using any academic or discipline specific jargon;
  • Use headings and sub-headings to break up large blocks of text and ensure clarity;
  • Use figures, charts or diagrams to help illustrate main points or key message;
  • Presentation needs to be professional. Use appropriate fonts and headings; 
  • Make sure you proof-read your brief to avoid any spelling or grammar mistakes.