Writing a policy brief
What is a policy brief?
A policy brief is a tool to present research and recommendations to a non-specialised audience.
Policy briefs distil relevant research evidence and bring important findings to the attention of policy makers. They draw out implications and recommendations for policy.
It is a standalone document that usually focuses on a single topic of interest.
A policy brief is not a summary of research. It is an interpretation of the research for policy.
What are the advantages of making a policy brief?
Policy makers are often busy and may not have time to read every academic paper. Policy briefs can be read or scanned quickly so that policy makers become aware of key issues.
Policy briefs do not replace journal articles or research reports – they supplement them. Through suggested further reading and links to journal articles, they can be a gateway for policy makers to access and (hopefully) act on relevant research.
Because policy briefs are succinct, they are accessible and easy to share. We know that a good policy brief will get passed around. A policy brief may therefore reach a wider audience than an academic article alone.
When would a policy maker use a policy brief?
Policy makers may use policy briefs in several ways:
- When they need rapid access to key points (e.g. for briefing up)
- To share with stakeholders
- For background/ to inform a discussion paper or briefing note
- To inform a presentation
- To respond to media
What makes a good policy brief?
We understand that factors improving the chance research will be used by policy include:
- Interaction with researchers
- Highlighting key information
- Allows rapid scanning for relevance
- Graded entry to research – succinct key messages; brief executive summary; full report or journal article
Before you begin
Define the purpose
Why are you writing this policy brief?
Your purpose could be:
- To inform the audience of a new issue
- Canvas different policy options
- Make recommendations
- Provide evidence on a specific problem or issue you know they are tackling
Tip: Write down your purpose and refer back to it often. Only include information in the policy brief that serves this purpose.
Define your audience
The nature of your policy brief depends on the audience.
Knowing who you are targeting will shape your language, the information you include and the purpose of writing the brief.
There may be different policy briefs for different audiences. For example, a research finding about active travel may need to be expressed differently for policy makers working in transport to those working in population health.
Considering your audience, what information needs to be included in the policy brief?
- What is their role in changing policy? The information should be targeted according to what the policy maker can realistically act upon
- How much do they already know about the issue?
- What new information would give them greater insight?
- What evidence do they need to make a decision or change their behaviour?
Consider your recommendations
A policy brief should have a clear and specific purpose, supported by the evidence. It is best to concentrate on just one issue or argument.
Considering the evidence:
- Is there a specific action you would like this audience to take?
- Is there something new and important you would like them to know?
- What do you want them to do with your findings?
Now consider your policy recommendations. Use your research and other data to formulate your advice for policy.
While you may feel strongly about your recommendations, make sure your advice is based on evidence. Your role is to inform rather than persuade.
Think about the benefits that your recommendations will have for the policy maker, the system and society. Use this to describe why should the policy maker should act.
Recommendations should be:
- Precise and easy to understand
- Credible (backed by your evidence)
There are different ways of structuring a policy brief. The main consideration is that it should take the audience from a problem to a solution.
Make sure the most important information is displayed prominently on the first page.
The length can vary, but generally try to keep a policy brief to two pages and no more than four pages.
Tip: Don’t try to cut down an existing report – write from scratch.
Key messages are the first thing the reader sees.
The purpose of the key messages is to impart the most important information even if the reader doesn’t read anything else.
Summarise your main findings and their implications in three to four dot points.
Try to make these messages accessible to everyone. If you must use technical terms, define them.
Don’t forget to target the key messages to the audience.
Tip: Consider writing the key messages last. They may become clear as you write the rest of the brief.
Background and context
The aim of this section is to give the reader a clear sense of why they should continue reading. It sets up the problem and promises them a solution.
In one or two paragraphs, define the policy issue. Express the urgency and importance of the topic to your audience.
Explain the purpose of this policy brief – what is the context for telling policy about your research? Why are you providing the audience with this policy brief now?
Details of the research
Present your findings in a way that is accessible for non-experts.
Limit the description of your research methods, unless these are particularly relevant to your recommendations. Write just a sentence or two to indicate to the policy maker that your recommendations are robust and based on evidence.
Briefly include limitations of the research, if relevant.
Implications of the research
Summarise the implications of the research. How does your research relate to the realities your audience is facing? Avoid theoretical or abstract concepts.
Clearly link the research findings to the policy advice you are giving.
List your policy recommendation/s.
Often a policy brief will only have one policy recommendation. If you have more, list them as bullet points and keep them very succinct.
The purpose of this section is to provide the evidence base for your recommendations and direct your reader to extra reading.
Not every statement needs to be referenced. Stick to important and timely papers. It is OK to include grey literature as well as academic literature.
About your organisation
A very brief summary to support your credentials, with contact details for more information.
Include here any acknowledgements, author details and disclaimers.
Make sure you write succinctly and in plain English (no jargon, regardless of the audience).
Use catchy headings and sub-headings to break up the text. These help when the reader is scanning the document and entice them to read on.
Consider making the headings active sentences with verbs, so they are more compelling. Or make the headings questions, to spark the reader’s curiosity.
Use short, active sentences. Make sure every sentence is succinct and relevant to the audience.
Use terms your reader will be familiar with.
Write in a clear, logical way that is easy to follow – break up the text into short paragraphs for easier reading.
Avoid acronyms and abbreviations. Define any technical terms (or avoid them altogether if possible).
- Make sure the policy brief is presented professionally. Be consistent with fonts and headings.
- Consider your organisation’s branding requirements (ask your communication team for a template, logo and style guide).
- Consider boxes, figures, charts or diagrams to help illustrate main points or key messages (and save on words).
- Consider dot points/ lists to highlight key information.
- Proofread carefully for spelling and grammar.
Sample policy briefs
Why invest in prevention in the first 2000 days?
Physical activity surveillance in Australia: Standardisation is overdue
Large retailers’ pricing practices are diluting the effectiveness of tobacco tax policy in Australia
Reforming planning laws to reduce overweight and obesity in Australia
20% sugar-sweetened beverage tax is best for reducing Australian child obesity
More from the CERI User Guide
This chapter of the User Guide is one in a series available from The Australian Prevention Partnership Centre website. It was prepared by members of the Collaboration for Enhanced Research Impact (CERI) Coordinating Group to provide practical tips on knowledge mobilisation and science communication for researchers working in the prevention of chronic disease.
The Collaboration for Enhanced Research Impact (CERI) is a joint initiative between the Prevention Centre and several NHMRC Centres of Research Excellence, established in June 2020 to enhance the profile and impact of chronic disease prevention in Australia. We are working together to find alignment in the policy and practice implications of our work and to develop shared communications across our various projects and participating centres.