Academics are increasingly writing outside their specific discipline and for much broader readership. This change can be attractive as it enables academics to expand their readership and to have an impact beyond the narrow confines of their expertise. Prime examples of these are writing blogs and sharing content on social media. More “serious” forms of such “outward-facing writing” are op-eds and policy briefs, both of which can have considerable practical impact.
Significance of policy briefs – for authors and their institutions
A policy brief is a potentially important document and will appear on the writer’s CV under ‘Non-Academic Publications’. Since it is a non-academic document, the academic institution the author works for may not regard the document as particularly important. However, if written for a broader audience, a policy brief can make a noteworthy contribution and have considerable practical impact – and although it may not win many citations in academic publications, it may land important—and more lucrative—assignments for its writer(s) or secure generous funding for the academic institution.
Need for policy briefs
A policy brief often emerges from a policy paper. A policy paper or report (the names are rather fluid) is a long technical document, usually involving a detailed analysis of a specific policy. The policy paper involves not only other academics from a range of fields but also field workers, activists, policy designers and so on. As can be gauged, such a paper is not particularly easy to read. Decision makers or those who pushing for a particular policy will not read such a document. They would prefer something short, clear and easy to understand; in other words, a policy brief.
Types of policy brief
Policy briefs are of different types, each suitable for a different readership.
a. Advocacy policy briefs
Advocacy policy briefs are written for a broader readership, made up of stakeholders. Such advocacy briefs are intended to persuade their readers of the need for a certain policy, to garner their support and eventually to get them to change. For example, a suggested change to educational policy is important to education authorities, but will also be of concern to heads of schools, teachers, parents and even children – because they are the ones who will be ultimately impacted by the suggested change in policy.
Advocacy policy briefs are written by such organisations as the OECD or the Brookings Institute – organisations that usually adopt a typically academic approach to the brief, often having a set structure and format for their documents. You can easily access them online. (A good example on OECD is Building infrastructure compatible with climate change
b. Niche policy briefs
Other types of policy briefs are written for more specific readerships, such as the actual decision makers, and are thus largely unavailable to anyone other than the intended readers. These briefs are most often written by people inside the organisation, but may draw on outside academic support.
Considerations for writing policy briefs
a. Making it more accessible
One of the key purposes and actions when writing a policy brief is to distil a policy paper and make it ‘more accessible’. There are several things to keep in mind when doing this.
· As far as possible, avoid standard paraphernalia of academic writing such as technical language, theory, too much maths and footnotes.
· Refrain from elaborate introductions – and conclusions.
· Make the brief look attractive: it has to be eye-catching, liberally illustrated, interspersed with lists of bullet points and set in generous type with ample line spacing. (Find another good example from the OECD site here.)
b. Balancing accessibility with authority
While the policy brief is intended for specific readers, it may get read more widely if it comes from a well-known institution. For this reason, if written by an academic, the writer will normally be a senior academic whose authority adds to the credibility to the document.
c. Structuring policy briefs
1. While it doesn’t have a fixed structure, a policy brief often starts with an executive summary.
2. This is followed by information on the current policy situation and any specific problem or problems that can arise from that situation.
3. The brief then offers possible alternative solutions, sometimes listing the criteria the specific audience may need to consider before making a decision.
4. Usually, the most desirable policy solution is then identified.