Writing a policy brief

A policy brief is a document which sets out a particular issue with implications for an area of public policy, and makes recommendations as to the course of action to be taken. Policy briefs are typically produced for government ministers and senior civil servants, although the format is also commonly used in private and third sector organisations.

Unlike many academic publications, the sole purpose of a brief is to help solve a problem or issue. Usually, you will produce a brief because an organisation has asked to be briefed on your project/research with a view to its specific potential use, or because you believe your research can help with a specific issue. This should affect how you plan and write the brief:

Before you start writing

  • If you are not responding to a request for a brief, think carefully about which department/agency/organisation to address it to. Do not send it out to multiple agencies unless the issue is clearly cross-agency. Ministers and civil servants will not read material which is not clearly relevant to their portfolios.
  • Contact the relevant agency to advise that you want to brief them, and ask if they will accept unsolicted briefs (some do not). If possible, get the name of the official it should be addressed to.
  • Lastly, and this is most important, ask yourself what outcome you are seeking, and, specifically, what you would like the recipient to do having considered your brief. If you can’t answer this question, they won’t be able to either.

Structuring and writing the policy briefing

Policy briefings are short, compared to academic publications. You may wish to include appendices or reports as attachments, but the brief itself should be around 3 - 4 pages long.

Your aim is clarity and brevity. Keep paragraphs short – one point per paragraph is ideal – and make use of section headings and subheading to aid understanding. As mentioned above, avoid jargon, and write for a layperson.

Your briefing should follow the following general structure:

  1. Title: should be short and clearly indicate the topic
  2. Executive summary: should summarise the issue, the relevance of your research/project/proposal etc., and the recommendations. This should be no more than one or two short paragraphs.
  3. Issue: briefly summarise the issue. Although you should not include substantive background or context, this must accurately communicate the issue to anyone who does not read the ‘background’ section.
  4. Recommendations: the possible solutions you want considered and – importantly – the concrete next step towards adopting them. Where you give a range of recommendations, indicate the preferred option.
  5. Background: summarise the story to date, including any background information which will aid understanding, such as a brief (recent) history of the issue, previous policy decisions and their impact, previous research on the issue, or other contextual information.
  6. Argument: here you set out a more detailed rationale behind your recommendations, explaining the considerations, in light of the background above and your own research, which led you to make them. This is the place to include a more substantive discussion of your research/project and the implications of your findings. This will probably be the longest section, but it should still not exceed two pages.
  7. Appendices: any data, reports, articles or other material you wish to be considered should be attached as an appendix. However, do not assume it will be read: the brief must stand on its own.

This structure varies somewhat, and you can alter it to suit your own needs. However, the basic principle of ‘summary of issue --> proposed solution --> background and rationale’ should always be followed.

For some examples which follow a similar structure, look at the University of Bath’s Institute for Policy Research or Durham University Law School's Policy Engagement site (although be aware these are generally social science briefs). The online resource Civil Servant, which is affiliated with Policy@Manchester, is written for civil servants, but has a wealth of very valuable advice about communicating with ministers, and on working in the civil service in general.

Writing select committee submissions

In general, many of the guidelines for writing a policy brief apply to writing submissions for a select committee enquiry, and you might want to use a similar structure. The House of Commons has its own guidelines for submissions, which is summarised in the Engaging with Select Committees section of this toolkit.