HB 265 – Victims Of Reform School Abuse

Policy Brief Assignment Overview A 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 position (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, 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 properly tailoring your message to your target audience. The most common audience for a policy brief is decision makers, but it is also not unusual to use the document to support broader advocacy initiatives targeting a wide but knowledgeable audience (e.g. journalists, diplomats, administrators, researchers). In constructing a policy brief that can effectively serve its intended purpose, it is common for writers to ensure the brief is:

• Focused – All aspects of the policy brief (from the message to the layout) need to strategically focus on achieving the intended goal of convincing the target audience of the need to implement your policy. For example, the argument provided must build on what they do know about the problem, provide insight about what they do not 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 are very interested in knowing the writer’s perspective on the problem and their analysis of potential solutions based on the new evidence.

• Evidence-based – The policy brief is a communication tool produced by policy analysts and all potential audiences not only expect rational arguments but will only be convinced by arguments supported by evidence showing the existence of the problem and the consequences of adopting particular alternatives.

• Limited – The focus of the brief needs to be limited to a particular problem or an area of problems to provide an adequately comprehensive but targeted argument within a limited space.

• 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 are succinct (i.e. usually around 3,000 words).

• 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 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.

• 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 recommendations that seem realistic to the target audience.

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 paper to write.



Common structural elements of a policy brief As discussed above, policy briefs directly reflect the different roles that the policy analysts commonly play (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 follows:

1) Title of the briefing paper 2) Executive summary 3) Context and importance of the problem 4) Description and critique of pre-existing policies or programs 5) Policy recommendations 6) Sources consulted or recommended

More specifically,

1) Title of the briefing paper: The title aims to catch the attention of the reader and compel him/her to read on, so it needs to be descriptive, punchy, and relevant.

2) Executive Summary: This should be a short summary of the purpose of the brief and its recommendations. It

typically appears single-spaced on the cover of a brief or position paper. Because you are not really writing this brief as part of your job, please indicate in a sentence who you are and the audience for whom the brief is prepared (e.g., a particular government agency, a legislative committee, a particular NGO, a professional association, etc.). Be as specific as possible. The executive summary aims to further convince the reader that the brief is worth an 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 one- to two-paragraph executive summary commonly includes:

• A description of the issue addressed; • A statement on why the current approach for addressing the issue needs to be changed; • Your recommendations for action.

3) Context and importance of the issue: 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 issue in focus. • A short overview of the background of the issue. Include only the essential facts that a decision maker

“needs to know” to understand the context of the problem. Assume that you have been hired to filter through reams of information on behalf of a very busy and sleep-deprived person. Be clear, precise, and succinct.

• A clear statement of the policy implications of the issue which 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 of the policy process within which your policy issue is currently (e.g. there may be a need to have a much more extensive issue description for policy at the evaluation stage than policy at the formulation stage).

4) Description and critique of pre-existing policies or programs: This element summarizes what has been done (by others and the entity that you represent) about the problem thus far. Depending on your topic, some of the information may have already been presented in #3. The objective of this element is to inform the reader of policy alternatives that have already been pursued, if any. Note that no action may be considered a policy decision. The aim of the description and critique is to recognize existing efforts in the debate of the issue and detail shortcomings of the current approach to address the issue, and, therefore, illustrate both the need for



change and the focus of where change needs to occur.

5) Policy recommendations: The aim of the policy recommendations element is to provide a detailed and convincing proposal of how the failings of the current approach to address your issue of choice need to be changed. This is achieved by including:

• Identification of potential policy alternatives: This section delineates the possible courses of action or inaction

that your organization may pursue. Please provide the decision maker with policy alternatives based on peer- reviewed research or research conducted by credible government entities (e.g., the U.S. Government Accountability Office, USDA Forest Service, etc.) on your topic of interest. For example, if you want to propose a policy alternative that would promote participation among private landowners in carbon sequestration programs, you should discuss the findings in a peer-reviewed journal article or government document indicating that the mechanism presented by the policy alternative increases landowner participation. In other words, your policy recommendation must be supported by research and evidence.

• Advantages and disadvantages of identified policy alternatives: Write this section from the perspective of the entity that you represent. For clarity, you may present the advantages and disadvantages of the alternatives in bullet points or outline format. This may seem like stacking the deck as some alternatives may have only one advantage and several downsides, but it is not always that obvious. These advantages and disadvantages are often framed in terms of the consequences, both positive and negative, of your proposed policy alternatives. The advantages, or positive consequences, are the reasons you want the policy alternatives to be implemented. The disadvantages are the objections other constituencies or policy makers would make against your proposed course of action. A typical strategy used to strengthen one’s argument is to systematically refute the argument that underlies each of the negative consequences you have identified. These refutations should be based on the peer-reviewed research or research conducted by credible government entities that informed your identification of potential policy alternatives.

• Your Recommendation: After prioritizing the relative advantages and disadvantages of the above alternatives, please recommend one alternative to your employer, basing your argument on the feasibility (or some other criterion) of and need for the alternative. Yes, this may require going out on a limb on an extremely complex issue that challenges your ethical instincts. However, if you have agreed to advise a particular agency or organization, then you will be asked to make a recommendation on their behalf.

6) Sources consulted: This is more than just a list of references. It is essentially an annotated bibliography that, in

the event that the decision maker has the interest and time to read up on a specific issue, will allow them to do so.

Specific Assignment Instructions Each student will develop a policy brief that is characteristic of a solid policy brief as outlined above. Specifically, the policy brief should include all of the following elements:

1) Title a. No more than 12 words total b. Appearing at the top of the first page of the policy brief in some fashion

2) Executive Summary

a. Provided as the first paragraph on the first page of the policy brief b. Consisting of at least 100 and no more than 150 words total

3) Introduction Section

a. A thorough statement of the issue/problem that the selected piece of legislation seeks to address b. The narrative in this section should be supported by the academic and/or public media sources




4) Message Section a. A thorough description and critique of existing policies or programs including if they are or are not

working to address the issue/problem b. A statement as to why the selected piece of legislation should be supported/defeated/amended

supporting material for the introduction c. The narrative in this section should also be supported by the academic and/or public media sources


5) Policy Implications a. A brief discussion of alternative options, their effects, pros and cons, etc.

6) Recommendations

a. A direct statement of how you would like the intended reader to act in response to your position on the selected piece of legislation

NOTES: Additional material such as boxes & sidebars, case studies, tables, graphics, etc. may be added as deemed necessary as long as they are illustrative of the problem/issue the selected piece of legislation intends to address or if the additional material supports the student’s selected position. DO NOT add extra material solely for the sake of aesthetics or to take up space! **Each student must include three (3) peer-reviewed academic references (journal articles) and three (3) public media (newspaper articles, op-ed pieces, etc.) that support their position. The references do not need to be cited altogether as in a literature review section. Rather, the references should be used as appropriate and properly cited according to APA format throughout the policy brief to support the student’s chosen position. The reference list does not need to be double-spaced. A reference list should be provided toward the end of the policy brief though not on a separate page. The formatting of references in the reference list should be properly formatted according to APA style with the exception being that the list does not need to be double-spaced. Each student should thoroughly review the information provided above as well as the sample policy briefs before beginning this part of the assignment. The policy brief should be four (4) pages total and should follow the basic format of the sample policy briefs provided on Canvas.


  • Policy Brief Assignment
  • Common structural elements of a policy brief
  • Specific Assignment Instructions
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