Getting Ahead: How to Write a Policy Brief

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n universities across Canada, scholarly-type papers are the uncontested grading norm in all social science disciplines. Considering the academic context, this is absolutely normal. From the outset, students are expected to master the art of thesis-formulation, literature reviews, citation formatting, etc. However, usually in the later years of their program, students in political science related disciplines often face an entirely new beast: the policy brief.

Unlike its purely academic counterpart, the policy brief is a more practical form of political writing that is popularly employed outside the realm of universities, in the “real world.” A policy brief’s purpose, format, and style diverge significantly from academic papers, which can lead to unnecessary faux pas by unsuspecting students.

What is a Policy Brief?

According to the Brookings Institute: “Policy Briefs are short and informative analyses on some of the nation’s most pressing domestic and foreign policy challenges that bring background and recommendations to policy-makers, journalists and the general public.”  In other words, they are tools that emphasize a particular issue, and offer solutions in order to cope with it. A wide range of institutions, such as governments, international organizations, think tanks, and even some private companies employ them to raise awareness or affect decision-makers.

In the classroom, professors will often ask students to produce policy briefs in classes focused on the practice of political science, usually in the context of a simulation. The student must tackle a particular subject from the standpoint of an organization, adding a role-playing dimension to writing a paper.

What does a Policy Brief Contain?

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Introduction: A policy Brief should begin by providing a concise background summary of the issue, without adding unnecessary clutter. Clearly explain why the matter is problematic, highlighting the consequences of ignoring the issue. A sense of urgency that incites the reader to continue is key.

Recommendations: After the problem has been set, the thesis is replaced by the solution you’re putting forward. It will set the tone for the rest of the paper. Make sure that it’s straightforward (no vague statements), and realistic to the context at hand. If you’re presenting multiple solutions, they must be conspicuously defined and distinguished.

Body: A strong policy brief doesn’t just present abstract solutions; it uses strong evidence to back its claims and provides a framework on how to deal with the issue. The organization can be highly variable depending on the length, and thoroughness of the paper, possibilities include: creating sections based on (i) facets of the issue, (ii) different solutions to the issue, (iii) phases of the framework to deal with the issue, or (iv) a combination of the former. This list is far from exhaustive.

Conclusion: Because of their concise nature, policy briefs will frequently omit conclusions; all the take-away should be in the body of the paper. However, in longer briefs, conclusions are sometimes required or even necessary. In those cases, a short summary can be beneficial to the reader. In addition, if the policy brief is part of a series or if it’s called for- tying the paper to the bigger picture can certainly add value.

How are Policy Briefs Different?

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Format: As opposed to the relatively bland and formulaic scholarly-paper, policy briefs are meant to be attractive and enticing to the reader. They usually have more colourful templates, images, graphs, and creative spatial distribution (that is, unless your prof asks you to submit the brief in the standard double-spaced 12 Times New Roman with 1-inch margins). Also, although they tend to be shorter than scholarly papers, do not shy away from using as many- if not more- subtitles to distinguish different sections.

Writing Style: Policy briefs are made to be simple and accessible, so long academic-sounding sentences are a negative. They must remain professional in their nature, and to the point.

Structure: While transparency is important, long paragraphs about methodology and literature reviews, have no place in a policy brief. All statements must be based on solid data, but how you got there isn’t necessarily relevant. Of course, as in all work submitted at university, make sure everything is properly referenced, and that citations are clearly indicated at the end of the paper.

Narration: Never use the first-person singular pronoun in a policy brief (unless specifically told otherwise). As it was previously stated, policy briefs are almost always meant to represent the views of organizations, so make sure to use appropriate pronouns.

When all is said and done, policy briefs remain well-structured argumentative papers very much like the standard scholarly paper. Although the format can be daunting at first, learning how to write a strong policy brief can be a valuable skill, which can certainly widen your professional horizon post-graduation.

About Mohy-Dean Tabbara

Mohy-Dean Tabbara is a recent graduate from McGill University with a BA (Honours) in political science and a minor in economics. He has previous experience working as a Research Intern at Carnegie Endowment's Middle East Center in Beirut (Lebanon), as well as working as an editor at McGill's Journal of Political Studies. Mohy's interests include security sector reform, institution building, and democratization theory, particularly in the context of the Middle East and North Africa.