Policy Brief

| April 21, 2014

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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 alternatives 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 your
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,
In constructing a policy brief that can effectively serve its intended purpose, it is common for a
brief to be:
• Focused – all aspects of the policy brief (from the message to the layout) need to strategically
focused on achieving the intended goal of convincing the target audience. For example, the
argument provided must build on what they do know about the problem, provide insight about
what they don’t know about the problem and be presented in language that reflects their values,
i.e. using ideas, evidence and language that will convince them.
• Professional, not academic –The common audience for a policy brief is not interested in the
research/analysis procedures conducted to produce the evidence, but they are very interested to
know the writer’s perspective on the problem and potential solutions based on the new evidence.
• Evidence-based – The policy brief is a communication tool produced by policy analysts and
therefore all potential audiences not only expect a rational argument but will only be convinced
by argumentation supported by evidence that the problem exists and the consequences of
adopting particular alternatives.
• Limited – to provide an adequately comprehensive but targeted argument within a limited
space, the focus of the brief needs to be limited to a particular problem or area of a problem.
• Succinct – The type of audiences targeted commonly do not have the time or inclination to
read an in-depth 20-page argument on a policy problem. Therefore, it is common that policy
briefs do not exceed 6 – 8 pages in length. (PLEASE KEEP IN MIND A LENGTH OF 6-8
• Understandable – 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.

• Accessible – the writer of the policy brief should facilitate the ease of use of the document by
the target audience and therefore, should subdivide the text using clear descriptive titles to guide
the reader.
• Promotional – the policy brief should catch the eye of the potential audience in order to create
a favorable impression (e.g. professional, innovative etc.) In this way many brief writers many of
the features of the promotional leaflet (use of color, use of logos, photographs, slogans,
illustrative quotes etc.)
• 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 recommendation that seem realistic to the target
The policy brief is usually said to be the most common and effective written communication tool
in a policy campaign. However, in balancing all of the criteria above, many analysts also find the
brief the most difficult policy tool to write.
Common Structural Elements of a Policy Brief
As discussed above, policy briefs directly reflect the different roles that the policy analyst
commonly plays, i.e. from researcher to advocate. The type of brief that we are focusing on is
one from the more action-oriented, advocacy end of the continuum. Although there is much
variation even at this end of the scale, the most common elements of the policy brief are as
• Title of the paper
• Executive summary
• Context and importance of the problem
• Critique of policy option(s)
• Policy recommendations
• Appendices
• Sources consulted or recommended
More specifically,
Title of the paper
The title aims to catch the attention of the reader and compel him/her to read on and so needs to
be descriptive, punchy and relevant.
Executive summary
The executive summary aims to convince the reader further that the brief is worth in-depth
investigation. It is especially important for an audience that is short of time to clearly see the
relevance and importance of the brief in reading the summary. As such, a 1 to 2 paragraph
executive summary commonly includes:
– A description of the problem addressed;
– A statement on why the current approach/policy option needs to be changed;
– Your recommendations for action.
Context and importance of the problem
The purpose of this element of the brief is to convince the target audience that a current and
urgent problem exists which requires them to take action. The context and importance of the
problem is both the introductory and first building block of the brief. As such, it usually includes
the following:
– A clear statement of the problem or issue in focus.
– A short overview of the root causes of the problem
– A clear statement of the policy implications of the problem that clearly establishes the current
importance and policy relevance of the issue.
It is worth noting that the length of the problem description may vary considerably from brief to
brief depending on the stage on the policy process in focus, e.g. there may be a need to have a
much more extensive problem description for policy at the evaluation stage than for one at the
option choosing stage.
Critique of policy option(s)
The aim of this element is to detail shortcomings of the current approach or options being
implemented and therefore, illustrate both the need for change and focus of where change needs
to occur. In doing so, the critique of policy options usually includes the following:
– A short overview of the policy option(s) in focus
– An argument illustrating why and how the current or proposed approach is failing.
It is important for the sake of credibility to recognize all opinions in the debate of the issue.
Policy recommendations
The aim of the policy recommendations element is to provide a detailed and convincing proposal
of how the failings of the current policy approach need to change. As such this is achieved by
– A breakdown of the specific practical steps or measures that need to be implemented
– Sometimes also includes a closing paragraph re-emphasizing the importance of action.
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