• June 16, 2022

How to Write a Policy Brief: Format & Tips for Success

Following a template when developing a policy brief can ensure you are able to get your point across in a way that encourages lawmakers and other policy influencers to drive change.

Policy briefs play a central role in public and government affairs. By developing a concise summary of an issue, along with policy options to solve a problem, government affairs professionals can ensure their message gets across to those responsible for creating and influencing policy. This post will outline the basics of this summary, known as a policy brief, including the format that should be used and tips for ensuring it is written effectively. 

What is a Policy Brief? 

Simply put, a policy brief is a document that outlines a policy in, typically, 700 words or less. It summarizes the details of an issue and provides policy suggestions that might solve it–often with a preferred recommendation. The target audience may be leaders of organizations, lawmakers or other policy influencers

Policy briefs are crafted to address a current issue or highlight an evergreen topic of ongoing interest or concern. Further, they may include images and graphics designed to be as aesthetically pleasing and easy to digest as possible. 

How to Write a Policy Brief: Format & Template

It can be helpful to use a template when putting together a policy brief. Templates can not only guide format, but help focus your ideas in a way that tells a clear and coherent story. Elements to include in your policy brief include: 

  • Title
  • Executive Summary
  • Description of the Problem That Policymakers Should Address
  • Research Overview
  • Current & Proposed Policies 
  • Policy Recommendations 
  • Appendices & Sources 

Below is insight on how to build out these elements in a policy brief. 

Title

A well-chosen title helps capture attention and makes people want to keep reading. Ideally, the title should be short (under a dozen words or so) and memorable. It should also capture the essence of what your brief is about.

Executive Summary

Summarize the key ideas of the brief in three or four bullet points. Each bullet point should concisely describe an important detail or takeaway in little more than a single sentence. Include your policy recommendation. It’s also a good idea to place this summary separate from the rest of the text by setting it in larger font, boxing it in or highlighting it.

Description of the Problem That Policymakers Should Address

Policy makers are less inclined to enact change if they don’t have a clear reason for doing so. This is why the problem statement in your policy brief is important. Summarize the issue in a single sentence, then elaborate on it by filling out a paragraph with statistics and details that illustrate the impact of the problem. Beware of overexplaining the issue, particularly to a pre-informed audience. Save the extra word count for proposed solutions.

Research Overview

Since you are going to provide recommendations in the brief, you want to make it clear that your recommendations come from a place of knowledge and are backed by research. It is essential to include a section in which you describe the data and existing bodies of knowledge that support your proposals. This will go a long way in helping convince readers that your suggestions are the right way to go.

Current & Proposed Policies 

Compare and contrast your ideas with both existing policy and other policy proposals. Point out where other ideas fail, but your suggestions may succeed. It may be worth highlighting the positives of other proposals, as well, to demonstrate that your conclusion is balanced and objective.

Policy Recommendations 

Bring all the information together at the end as you present your policy recommendations. If you’ve done a good job setting everything up, your recommendations should read like the logical conclusion to a fair and in-depth investigation into the problem. They should also be short, to the point and actionable. A reader should set your brief down with a clear sense of what to actually do to start enacting change.

Appendices & Sources 

Include additional data that supports your recommendations in the Appendices. Clearly list all source materials used so that readers can check your work if they so choose and verify your claims.

What to Consider When Writing a Policy Brief

Now that you understand the basic structure and individual parts of a policy brief, here are some additional tips to consider when writing an effective brief. Keeping these factors in mind can maximize your message’s overall effectiveness. 

Who is the Audience? 

By understanding your audience, you can ensure your message is targeted appropriately. Consider the political inclinations of your audience and the efforts they have acted upon in the past. Capitol Canary’s state and federal intelligence suites can provide detailed information on lawmakers and other elected officials, from biographical information to voting records. Adjust your writing to focus on what your reader would find important and compelling. 

What is the Key Message? 

Always know what you’re writing about. You don’t want to go off on multiple tangents that leave the reader unsure of what it is you’re trying to say. This can be difficult sometimes if the problem is broad (like homelessness) and you see all sorts of related issues, but do your best to stay on topic. Focus your writing on data and details that directly lead to your proposed solution.

Why Should the Reader Care? 

Though a reader may never say so out loud, in the back of their mind they are often asking, “Why should I care?” and “Why now?” People don’t take action unless compelled to do so. Therefore, the issue should feel both relevant and urgent. Make sure your brief answers those questions, not necessarily explicitly, but in effect.

What Should the Reader Know? 

Be sure to include enough context so that the reader can understand the problem. Summarize important background information and describe the issue thoroughly enough that the reader can identify contributing factors and get a sense of the broader implications of your proposed solutions. 

What Are the Most Important Stats? 

You may end up with mountains of supportive statistics as you perform your research. While it might seem like including as many numbers as possible is the way to go, overuse can quickly bog down a brief. Instead, weed through the stats to identify which stats are the most significant and best support your solution.

Is the Message Easy to Understand?

Beware of using too much academic language, jargon or excessively long sentences or paragraphs. Make a few editing passes in which you break up long chunks of text and simplify verbiage. You want your message to be as painless to read and interpret as possible. 

Do the Visuals Match the Message? 

Make your image choices carefully and place them where they are most appropriate. The visuals should give a sense of what the overall message is, much in the same way the title does. If there is a conflict between the writing and the pictures, it can confuse the message.

Final Thoughts

When drafting a policy brief, having as much information about an issue as possible is critical to success. News articles and research are helpful. Adding Capitol Canary’s legislative and intelligence data can add even more insight. Definitive sources are important when educating your target audience and providing strategic recommendations to drive policy change.