How to write a policy brief
Policy briefs are a key tool to present research and recommendations to a non-specialized audience. They serve as a vehicle for providing evidence-based policy advice to help readers make informed decisions.
A strong policy brief distills research findings in plain language and draws clear links to policy initiatives. The best policy briefs are clear and concise stand-alone documents that focus on a single topic.
Planning your policy brief
Purpose, audience, content, and structure are the vital elements of an influential policy brief.
A policy brief should inform readers of a particular issue, suggest possible policy options, and make recommendations. Be up front about your purpose from the start, maintain a laser focus on your direction, and link every paragraph back to your purpose. Given the conciseness of most policy briefs, do not discuss tangential information. A convincing policy brief should communicate the urgency of the issue and focus on the benefits and advantages of following your policy advice.
- Write out your purpose before drafting a brief, refer to it often, and ensure that everything you write serves that purpose.
- The intention of policy briefs is to offer your readers advice on how to solve a specific problem, so stay focused on this target alone.
Policy briefs should be accessible and targeted to a specific audience. Before you begin writing, establish whom your prospective readers are, their interest in and level of knowledge of the subject, the information they will need to make a decision, and how open they are to your recommendations.
A policy brief should be clear, succinct, and focus on a single topic.
- Do not exceed 1,500 words or two pages in length. Define the purpose of your policy brief up front.
- Include only essential information. Avoid tangents or being overly descriptive about methodology.
- Clearly identify the salient points that support your goal.
- Draft a new purpose-driven policy brief instead of summarizing or cutting down an existing report.
- Use plain language.
The structure should lead the reader from problem to solution. Clearly structure your policy brief before you start writing and use section headings to guide your content. Be clear about your policy recommendations and how they are supported by evidence.
The structure should be audience-specific and reflect each audience’s interests. For example, a focus on evidence is relevant for researchers, but a government official may value brevity and clear analysis of policy impacts.
- Some typical section headings are summary, context, analysis/discussion, considerations, conclusion/recommendation.
Policy brief template
There is no one-size-fits-all approach to writing policy briefs because the topic and audience will shape each one. However, effective policy briefs tend to contain the same key elements and therefore have similar structures: an executive summary, an introduction, an overview of the research or problem, an examination of the findings, and a concluding section that explains the policy recommendations and implications of the research.
Review the elements of an effective structure (in detail below) before writing your policy brief. Examples drawn from IDRC’s GrOW policy briefs are included throughout to help you gain a better understanding of layout and the content requirements of each section.
- Executive summary
Every policy brief should open with a short summary. This overview should be engaging and help busy readers quickly understand your argument. Most summaries take the form of a short paragraph or two, but some authors prefer to structure theirs as a few bullet points. Regardless of which style you choose, an effective executive summary should condense the essence of the brief down to a few sentences.
- The executive summary should always appear on the cover of the brief or at the top of the first page so that it is the first thing a reader will see.
- It can be helpful to write the executive summary last because you will gain clarity on its content as you draft the other sections.
Increasing women’s support for democracy in Africa includes both a written overview and a bulleted list of key results (an executive summary does not need to include both, but each is effective). The overview provides a brief summary of the research while the key results present the findings at a glance.
The introduction should set up the rest of the document and clearly convey your argument. In one or two paragraphs, define why you are writing the brief and express the urgency and importance of the topic to your audience. A good introduction should contain all of the relevant information for your argument. Describe the key questions of your analysis and your conclusions. The goal is to leave your readers with a clear sense of what your research is about while enticing them to continue reading.
”What’s at Stake?”, the introduction for Increasing women’s support for democracy in Africa, vividly presents the issues and relevance of the research in only a few short paragraphs. A succinct summary of the brief’s goals gives the reader a firm understanding of the shape of the rest of the paper.
- Research overview
This is one of the most important sections of the brief because it explains the reasoning behind your policy recommendations. In effect, this section describes the problem that your policy recommendations intend to solve.
Provide a summary of the facts to describe the issues, contexts, and research methods. Focus on two main elements: the research approach and the research results.
- Research approach: explain how the study was conducted, who conducted it, how the data was collected, and any other relevant background information.
- Research results: paint a general picture of the research findings before moving on to the specifics.
Present the results in a way that lends them to your analysis and argument, but do not interpret them yet. By the end of this section, the reader should have a firm understanding of the research and be primed for your argument. The goal is to take them on a journey that ends with them seeing the facts from your perspective.
- Avoid jargon and overly technical language.
- Focus on highlighting the benefits and opportunities stemming from the research.
The research overview (entitled “Research approach”) in Reducing child marriage and increasing girls’ schooling in Bangladesh provides an explanation of the research methodology without becoming mired in too much detail. The author favours simple language and a straightforward overview of the numbers instead of using jargon or complex statistics. The research results are discussed in the following section, an effective choice for research that requires a good deal of data analysis to contextualize the findings.
- Discussion/analysis of research findings
This section should interpret the data in a way that is accessible and clearly connected to your policy advice. Express ideas using active language and strong assertions. The goal is to be convincing, but ensure that your analysis is balanced and defensible. Explain the findings and limitations of the research clearly and comprehensively. For example, if the original hypothesis was abandoned, explain why.
- Express research findings in terms of how they relate to concrete realities (instead of theoretical abstractions) so the reader will have a clear idea of the potential effects of policy initiatives.
The “Key findings” section of How to grow women-owned businesses provides a brief overview of the findings before breaking down the results. Each research finding is presented independently and with clear headings. Even if a reader only skims the document, the headings provide a general understanding of the research findings. The graphics in this section quickly convey information from the research findings and they help to visually break up the text on the page.
- Conclusion or recommendation
This final section of the policy brief should detail the actions recommended by the research findings. Draw the link for your readers between the research findings and your recommendations. Use persuasive language to present your recommendations, but ensure that all arguments are rooted firmly and clearly in evidence produced by the research. You want your readers to be completely convinced that yours is the best advice.
Examine the implications and the recommendations produced by the research. Implications are the effects that the research could have in the future. They are a soft but persuasive approach to describe the potential consequences of particular policies. This is a good opportunity to provide an overview of policy alternatives by presenting your reader with the full range of policy options.
Follow up the implications with your recommendations. Beyond being descriptive, your recommendations should act as a call to action by stating precise, relevant, credible, and feasible next steps. It may strengthen your argument to demonstrate why other policies are not as effective as your recommendations.
- Think of the conclusion as a mirror to your introduction: you are once again providing an overview of your argument, but this time you are underlining its strength rather than introducing it.
”Lessons for policy and practice”, the conclusion of Unpaid care and women’s empowerment: Lessons from research and practice, presents a series of broad policy recommendations that are clearly linked back to the research. Each recommendation has its own section and heading to make them easy to identify and understand.
Designing your policy brief
A policy brief should be convincing and interesting to read. The design and presentation of your brief are important considerations and can help keep the reader engaged. Use compelling titles and headings, sidebars featuring interesting details, bulleted lists to summarize your points, and graphics such as charts and images.
- Titles and headings
A title should act as a reference point for readers and entice them to read the brief. A good policy brief should also include sub-titles or headings to break up the text and draw the reader’s attention to the main topic of each section. Using verbs can make headings more dynamic, while phrasing them as questions can spark a reader’s curiosity. The best titles contain relevant information without being too long or cumbersome.
Sidebars add greater depth to the main discussion and hook a reader’s attention. An effective sidebar should be short, descriptive, engaging, and action-oriented. The goal is to add extra detail and depth to help the reader understand and engage with the topic. Sidebars also visually break up the brief and make the document easier to read. Sidebars, like all other content in the policy brief, should advance the main argument.
Lists are an effective and visually interesting way to simplify dense content. They are useful for highlighting important information because they draw the reader’s eye. Lists should be no longer than five to seven bullet points (if lists are too short they may seem pointless, if they are too long they may be daunting). Each bullet point should express complete thoughts (avoid using bullet points that are only one or two words in length).
Visuals are easily one of the best ways to make policy briefs more interesting for readers. Choose effective visuals for the type of information you would like to communicate. For example, pie charts and bar graphs are preferable to data tables to illustrate findings. Include captions for photos and other visuals that explain the content to the reader. Every visual should serve a purpose and help to illustrate your argument.
Revising your policy brief
Once the policy brief has been drafted, reflect once again on its purpose, audience, content, and structure. Will your brief help to achieve your goals? Test it by trying to explain it in a twenty-second elevator pitch and assessing what information stands out. Revise the brief to make it as user-friendly as possible by removing jargon and statistics that make it less approachable. Ask a colleague with no prior knowledge of the issue to read the brief and provide feedback. What points do they draw from it, and do they match your intentions?
Using your policy brief
A good policy brief can play double duty by standing on its own or as an effective accompaniment to a presentation. Tailor any accompanying visual presentation to your brief by focusing only on the key points and answering important questions. Your audience can refer to the document when needed, so avoid repeating all of the brief’s text in your presentation. When distributing your policy brief, it is often a good idea to develop a short question-and-answer package and a section for further reading.