How to write effective policy briefings

In today’s blog, Dr Shonagh McEwan, Knowledge Exchange and Impact Advisor, shares insights from a recent workshop on writing policy briefings. Shonagh co-facilitated this workshop alongside Dr Dan Barlow from ClimateXChange.

Our academic colleagues are now often writing, or learning to write, for a range of audiences. If you are used to writing for academic audiences, whether an academic journal article, research paper or book chapter, it may not be the easiest to write for a distinctively different audience such as policymakers.  It takes practice, and with purposeful practice, that probably means effort and making mistakes! Here’s some of what we covered in the workshop to help you.

Knowing your audience and working within the policymaking process

It may seem a basic starting point, but who are policymakers?  Policymakers are not a uniform group; they include politicians (with different roles such as backbench MSP/MP or Parliamentary Committee member or Government Minister), civil servants, Councillors, local authority officials and individuals in public sector organisations and bodies.

The wider policy community is important too, such as third sector organisations, campaign groups, think tanks, the media, and industry bodies. They are all trying to influence the policy process and agenda. You may be writing directly for a particular policymaker or collaborating with a third sector organisation who uses your research evidence within their policy brief. Policymakers are in demand, and so your communication is competing with many other inputs.

Real-life policy is not a linear process. It is complex and dynamic, and so knowing exactly who your audience of policymakers consists of, as well as your policy landscape, is vital before you even start writing a policy briefing. This will also help you to consider the timeliness and relevance of your briefing.

What is a policy briefing?

A policy briefing is one way of communicating with policymakers (hint – learn about other ways by reading our blog on Engaging with policymakers!). It is a short, stand-alone document focused on a single topic requiring policy attention. It should be easily understood without specialist knowledge.

It should include a concise summary of a particular issue, the policy options to deal with it and some recommendations on the best option.  This means a policy briefing is not about telling the policymaker what to do, it is about helping the policymaker to make their decision.

You may be using a policy brief within established relationships you have with your key policy-makers or using it to introduce yourself.

Practical tips: Clear, concise and visual

A policymaker does not have time to do research, and they need you to write your research in a way that is easy to understand quickly and use in practice. Policymakers will not use research evidence when making decisions if that research evidence is time-consuming to read! You can share more detailed information if you are asked, or provide a fuller report on request.

Here are our top tips for writing an engaging, focused policy brief

  • Put your key messages and recommendations upfront
  • Brevity. This includes keeping your sentences short.
  • Frame your research in relation to the policy-maker’s agenda. Answer their question!
  • Have a clear structure and layout
  • Point to specific benefits (and quantify these if you can)
  • Use engaging, accessible language and active verbs
  • Use pull-out quotes, stats and infographics
  • Provide your credentials
  • Get a critical friend/non-specialist to read and review your briefing

And so now it is over to you to practise writing effective policy briefs, hopefully with potential impact and wider benefit.

Further resources and reading:

Engaging with Policymakers Learning Lunch: Blog

Where to start – academic engagement with policy makers

Fast Track Impact: How to make a policy brief that has real impact

Research to Action: How to plan, write and communicate an effective policy brief

K. Oliver & P. Cairney (2019) The Do’s and Don’ts of Influencing Policy

Guidance on writing a policy brief from the UK Parliament’s POST

 

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