Crafting a clear, concise, and authoritative policy brief requires writers to understand the issue being discussed to the core, as well as calling on writers to be intimately familiar with the culture of the organization on whose behalf they are drafting the policy brief.
In this short guide, we aim to take a broad look at the structure and content of typical policy briefs, as well as the language ordinarily used within these types of documents. This should help students writing mock policy briefs as well as those who were asked to draft a policy brief for the first time forge ahead in their process.
Understanding a Policy Brief
A policy brief can broadly be defined as a short instructional document that summarizes and explains key policy decisions or important problems. These documents are frequently produced at the request of key stakeholders who require further information. However, policy briefs can also serve the purpose of informing members of the press, or members of the general public directly.
Despite the fact that this description accurately sums up most policy briefs, writers who are about to undertake the task of drafting such a document do need to understand that there is no single official definition. Each organization that creates and publishes policy briefs uses these documents for slightly different purposes, and the content offered in policy briefs offers from one organization to the next, as well.
Examples of organizations that may benefit from creating and publishing policy briefs include diverse types of governmental organizations at all levels (such as the CDC or local police departments, for example), international organizations (like the World Health Organization, NATO, or the United Nations), or indeed non-profit organizations and private enterprises that can range from hospitals to corporations.
A policy brief may:
- Offer information on a developing situation — it does not always have to have definitive answers, and may instead offer policy options, the merits and disadvantages can be discussed by stakeholders as a result of the document.
- Succinctly summarize an important issue by highlighting its key aspects.
- Announce the results of statistical or other surveys.
Because policy briefs are designed to be "cliff notes", as it were, rather than comprehensive documents that cover every single aspect and detail of a situation in great depth, policy briefs are almost always relatively short documents. As a general guideline, most policy briefs are between 700 and 2,000 words long, although there are exceptions.
These documents are typically written in formal or academic language. They do not address anyone in particular, allowing any individual or organization to analyze the information found within the brief in a neutral manner.
Policy Brief vs Policy Statement: What Is the Difference?
Some people may hear the term "policy brief" and quickly conclude that it can be used interchangeably with the term "policy statement". This is not the case, and understanding the difference between this two distinct document types is crucial.
A policy statement can be defined as a document that summarizes a policy which was already agreed upon — and policy, here, could be said to be any formal agreement made within an organization regarding a course of action as it pertains to a particular issue. Such statements are not created to provoke further debate, and merely inform the relevant parties of a policy that was already created, oftentimes in great detail. Policy statements are often highly bureaucratic documents that set forth acceptable procedures.
Policy briefs discuss a situation regarding which it is important to form a policy (or, in other words, on which a decision needs to be made), highlighting key facts that relevant parties need to be familiar with in order to generate debate or come to a consensus. Following this basic statement that covers the most essential facts, as seen through the lens of the writers or organization, policy briefs will often offer a brief discussion of possible policy options. The pros and cons of each option may be laid out in the document. If further data or case studies are available, these can be included in a policy brief, too.
It is also important to note that, while policy briefs can sometimes be extremely useful to members of the press, they are not press releases. Press releases focus on emerging news by establishing what happened, but policy briefs are formal documents that exist to spread information about an issue; they are far less riveting and are meant to make further concrete action possible on a policy level.
Types of Policy Briefs
While no official definition exists that would help us narrow down precisely what a policy brief is, and therefore what types of content a policy brief should contain, many organizations use multiple distinct frameworks to denote unique types of policy briefs. These include:
- An information brief, which is a type of policy brief that exists to disseminate information regarding the most up to date statistics, data, or methodologies.
- An issue brief is a short policy brief that merely alerts all relevant stakeholders to the existence of an emerging situation — and these documents always lack detail, because the issue in question is brand new and sufficient data has not yet been gathered.
- An analytical policy brief that takes a closer look at the facts of the problem being addressed, potential strategies for addressing the issue, and recommendations as to how policy decisions to be made in the future could be implemented most effectively.
- An impact brief addresses the impact of a policy that has already been decided, analyzing its efficacy in great depth and recommending ways to move forward in the future.
What Do Writers Need to Be Aware of Before Drafting a Policy Brief?
Effective policy briefs can only be produced once all the key facts, as they pertain to the problem or situation on which the policy brief is being drafted, are in place. These documents are written after all relevant research has been conducted and is available; the policy brief merely summarizes all the information stakeholders need to have access to in a rather concise format. Sources are typically offered to allow stakeholders to investigate all angles relating to the issue on their own.
Because of their complex nature, any person writing a policy brief will typically need to have access to all of the following before it becomes possible to draft a policy brief:
- A succinct overview of the issue being discussed, including all relevant statistics, data, beneficiaries, stakeholders, and so on.
- A clear overview of the audience, or in other words the people who are expected to read the policy brief. This knowledge will not only determine the language used in the brief (including, for instance, whether industry jargon may be used, or it is necessary to word the document in a way that non-experts are also able to understand), but it will also dictate the types of information that should be included. Common policy questions that readers have should be addressed within the policy brief.
- An understanding of who — within the audience — has which responsibilities in moving forward with determining and implementing future policies or actionable steps.
- Policy options and recommendations, based on the best available evidence.
How to Write a Policy Brief: A Step-by-Step Guide
This look at the process that can be used to draft a policy brief can offer insights for writers who may be writing a policy brief themselves, those who are involved in the process of crafting a policy brief in a supportive position (such as in a research or outreach role), and those who are simply curious about the steps taken to complete these complex documents.
1. Research: Determining What Information Is Essential to the Policy Brief
To be able to present an effective overview of a pressing issue, a policy brief needs to be able to put forward all the most important information in an extraordinarily concise format. As an example, let's say that a team is preparing a policy brief regarding the problem and scope of homelessness in a particular jurisdiction. This policy brief will likely need to offer:
- Key statistics: How many people are homeless in the jurisdiction? Who is most at risk of becoming homeless? What are the barriers to getting people housed? What are the primary causes of homelessness?
- Financial data, such as details of the available budget to address the problem, and the indirect costs associated with not taking further action.
- Case studies from other jurisdictions, which will help highlight what kinds of policy decisions have worked elsewhere, and which policies have been failures (as well as why).
If all this data is not already immediately available, a research team will need to be established to compile the data or to create it, by conducting surveys or other types of research. If data is readily available, a multi-disciplinary team will still likely be needed in order to compile it and disseminate it.
2. Outlining a Policy Brief
Each organization has a differing approach to structuring policy briefs, which is appropriate for their particular audience and the nature of the organization. However, most policy briefs contain similar elements. They are:
- A title for the policy brief. These titles tend to be long and formal, in order to define the scope of the brief very clearly for the audience. Examples would include Credit Rating Agencies and Sovereign Debt: Four proposals to support achievement of the SDGs (published by the United Nations) and Diabetes Policy Brief: Providing Diabetes Self-Management Education and Support For Rural Americans (published by the Centers for Disease Control).
- An introduction, which can be used to highlight key aspects of the issue being discussed in order to inform or offer a succinct overview. This can also be referred to as the executive summary, and it essentially impresses the importance of reading the entire policy brief on the audience, or allows them to decide whether the brief is relevant to them.
- An informative section that details the scope of the problem. This section can range from one or two paragraphs to numerous paragraphs.
- A section that offers insights into a the successes and failures of the existing policy (where applicable), and which discusses policy alternatives.
- Where relevant, case studies may be included.
- A section that puts forth policy recommendations. This may also discuss ways in which implementation could move forward.
- A section that lists references that the audience can peruse to check the accuracy of the policy brief or to further inform themselves about the issue discussed in the document.
Creating an outline before forging ahead in writing the first draft is almost always a helpful way to guide writers as they seek to create a summary that meets the intended purpose of the policy brief. If the organization for which the policy brief is being written already has an established format for policy briefs, this process will be simpler. If not, the team in charge may wish to take the time to create a format now. Maintaining consistency in style and formatting across different policy briefs written on behalf of the same organization makes these documents easier to analyze as well as easier to write.
3. Writing the Policy Brief
Once an outline has been created and all relevant data is available, it becomes possible to get to the work of drafting the document. Depending on the scope of the policy brief and the available personnel, different sections of the policy brief may be assigned to those people who are most qualified to write them.
As a policy brief is in the process of being drafted, those in charge of the writing process can help to create a professional appearance and a document that is clear to readers by:
- Deciding on the specific tone of the document. Policy briefs are worded in professional language in almost all cases, but the precise nature of the tone can be corporate, scientific, or written for laypeople (or more specifically, people who are not subject matter experts as it relates to the specific topic addressed in the brief) such as journalists or board members in charge of financial decisions.
- Working within a specific style guide or style manual. Maintaining a consistent style throughout all documents published by an organization creates a professional appearance, and is also essential when multiple people are collaborating on writing a single document. Only large organizations produce their own style guides, and others can turn to existing style manuals such as MLA or APA to craft their documents.
4. Editing the Policy Brief
Next, other members of the organization will want to review the draft to ensure that it contains all the relevant information and consensus exists regarding the content. It is further crucial to review the content for possible ambiguity; these documents should be worded to ensure that each sentence can only have one single meaning, and there is no space for interpretation.
To ensure that the audience can quickly get up to speed on the matters discussed in the policy brief, it is also always a good idea to see where the document can be shortened without altering the meaning or leaving out crucial facts. The faster readers can get a complete picture of the document, the faster they can move forward with policy discussions or implementation.
Finally, someone, or multiple people, will want to examine the document for possible spelling mistakes, style inconsistencies, and even to ensure that the wording is beautiful, in some cases.
As an addition to that, it is interesting to note that while many policy briefs are strictly text-based, it is becoming more common to include graphic elements in policy briefs now. These can help readers understand the issue at hand even more succinctly. Colors, text boxes, and vector images can all serve a purpose. In some cases, photographs are used to illustrate a problem as well. Where possible, this work should be left to a graphic designer, in collaboration with the writers.
Tips to Propel You to Success
Are you faced with the task of writing a policy brief, or contributing to one? This will seem like a monumental task if you have never done it before — indeed, even if you are drafting a policy brief for a small non-profit, or a mock policy brief for a college class.
Drafting the document, or your section of it, will become more manageable if you keep in mind that:
- First-time policy brief writers can gain insights into the typical anatomy of these documents by reading a selection of different policy briefs published by diverse organizations. They do not have to copy the format, but can learn what appears professional in the context of this type of document, and what is generally best avoided.
- Many policy brief writers fall into the trap of using excessively formal language and packing their briefs with industry jargon. Remember that the ultimate purpose of the policy brief lies in informing the target audience. Policy briefs should be formal, but above all, they should be clear and unambiguous.
- The title of the brief should be clear and precise, defining the scope of the policy brief at a single glance. Brevity works to your advantage here.
- If you are writing a policy brief on behalf of an organization, you won't be alone during the process — seek feedback whenever you feel you need it.
Those who are writing a policy brief for a college class, on the other hand, will want to take a slightly different approach; they won't have to draft a document about a set topic, but will usually have the freedom to decide what they will write about. In this case, it can help to ask yourself:
- What important problems matter to me personally? What do I wish I had a say in? Write about something you are genuinely passionate about.
- Gather data to further understand the scope of your problem. Open your policy brief with the key facts. This should include information about who is affected by the problem, why it impacts wider society too, and why solving it is important.
- Analyze policy approaches and their pros and cons.
- Come forward with a recommendation.
- Cite your sources.