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How to make a policy brief that has real impact

Ever wondered if, how and why policy briefs made a difference?

There are many guides that will tell you how to write an effective policy brief, but is the wording and design what makes a difference? Well, partly.

This blog is not about writing policy briefs as such. Because if you intend to make an im​​pact, it really is more than that. Writing the brief is just a small part of the work. A policy brief is only worth what you do with it. But don’t worry. This blog will help guide you through the process.

The plan looks like this:

  • Design and planning

  • Writing and feedback loops

  • Distribution

  • Engagement and impact

We will guide you through the process and in our next blog we will review our collection of the 5 best policy briefs ever, with a summary of why each of these were sooooooo effective.

1. Design and planning

You should always start your policy impact journey with a “journey-of-your-mind”: imagine that you are a policy maker yourself! Then ask yourself:

  1. Who am I? This is important because this determines the target group of the policy brief. Are you targeting people within specific Government agencies, who are likely to have a relatively focussed interest in the topic, with a relatively high degree of technical competence? In this case, you will need to include some of the technical detail, so that these specialists can make up their own mind about the credibility of your work. Or are you briefing policy analysts within Government departments who advise Ministers, or MPs and Ministers themselves? In this case, your policy brief should be much shorter, with far less technical detail and much simpler language.

  2. When am I likely to read a policy brief? This might determine when and how and in what format to distribute the brief (e.g. electronic, paper version, when to schedule the email with the brief attached, such as an evening, even a weekends, will it be read over breakfast or on a train/flight?)

  3. How much time do I have to brief myself on research issues? This is crucial to decide on the length of the ‘brief’. If you are aiming your ‘journey-of-your-mind’ towards a high ranking politician, the brief should be as short as 1 page only! Others might spent up to 30-60 min to get a more detailed picture of the science side of things. One approach is to do a ‘breakfast test’, as a policy brief should be read and understood in the length of time it takes to drink a coffee over breakfast.

  4. Why should I pick up a policy brief in the first place? What is likely to grab your attention? How can you make it visual attractive, with a heading that is of interest? What sort of ‘strapline’ or ‘teaser’, perhaps based on a key finding, might encourage the politician to read it?

  5. What do I want to know? What are the most pressing, wider policy issues? Can you link to important and current policy questions and issues? If your work is only one small contribution to a wider issue, can you collaborate with other researchers working in the same area to create a policy brief that includes your research, but that is likely to be perceived as having greater political significance? Is now the right time to put out your policy brief if there are other major issues swamping the policy agenda in your area?

  6. Is this compatible with my overarching goals and ideology as a policy-maker? Many policy actors are looking for research that furthers their own agenda and legitimatises their views and ideology. They are unlikely to change these fundamental values and beliefs on the basis of one policy brief, so make sure you phrase your recommendation carefully, so that they do not instantly provoke a negative reaction based on a presumption of ideological incompatibility. This doesn’t mean you need to make political recommendations or change your findings to fit the views of politicians – far from it. It is surprising however, how far you can adapt the way in which you communicate your findings to make them attractive to different policy actors without altering the research in any way.

  7. Why has the researcher contacted me? Do the targeted politicians have the power to actually change anything from the desired recommendations? Perhaps you should form a trusting relationship with them first to gain credibility (see last section on engagement and impact below).

  8. Who is this researcher anyway? What indicators can quickly re-assure a policy-maker with limited time that you are knowledgeable and credible enough to deliver the message? If you do not have a high profile yourself, what indicators of esteem might make them trust you by proxy, such as your institutional affiliation, the badge of your research funder or more senior academic mentors and supervisors who helps you write the brief?

Are there clear and actionable things I can do as a result of reading this? Is the evidence you provide aligned with the policy problem that the policy maker needs to address? Can you provide solutions to these problems? Are your recommendations SMART (specific, Measurable, achievable, relevant, timely)? Can you make it even SMARTER (Effective, e.g. cost-effective and therefore Realistic)?

2. Writing and feedback loops

After all these questions from a policy makers perspective, come and settle back into your own brain, end the ‘journey of your mind’ and ask yourself:

  • What would you like to get across yourself?

  • What’s your own aim of the policy brief?

  • Does that match the policy maker’s perspective?

To be really frank here, if your answer to the last question is “no”, you should stop right there, otherwise you might waste your time.

If however, you have been able to align your aims with the needs of policy makers, it is now time to write the brief. With the help of the questions above, you will have already decided on length, style and language. You are using common terms without the usual academia slang, and avoid (or if you have to, spell out) acronyms. You are telling a convincing story about why change is needed.

How to set up the brief itself?

On the front page you’ll need:

  • Title - keep it short and powerful - would you personally pick up a policy brief with such a title? You can consider adding a subtitle, if it further explains your main message (again keep it short)

  • Teaser - start with a summary of the brief’s content and its relevance in 2-3 sentences, max 5 lines), state all the main points and repeat them throughout the document

  • Recommendations - in bullet points, perhaps use a side bar or box

  • Picture/photograph - something attractive and positive that describes the research topic well. Make your picture bigger and have less text if possible!

On the next pages, consider:

  • Overview – give a brief overview and state the problem or objective. Embed your research in an important, current issue and explain how the policy brief contributes to that issues and provides useful answers.

  • Introduction - summarise the issue, explain the context (including the political) to explain why the topic is so important and how your research can help to solve/improve the situation. Pinpoint gaps in current policy, link to crisis points that may be windows of opportunity in which new policies may be looked for. Outline a brief history or background, but only if it is relevant to the theme (otherwise leave it out!).

  • Research findings – these are the answers from your research that help to solve the problem (other findings may be of interest to researchers and might look pretty on a graph, but if they don’t help address the policy issue, cut them out). If possible, present your findings in a more visual, clear style, so people can grasp the idea instantly. Include research evidence from the literature and other sources to support your own findings in plain language. Use sub-headings to break up to blocks of text (keep sections of text and paragraphs as short as possible). Any graphs or other figures should be simple, and be labelled with a short description that’s understood without reading the text

  • Sidebars and boxes – highlight most important evidence in sidebars or boxes, so people can easily skim through the key points if they are in a hurry (remember these are for highlighting important things, not for unimportant things (to policy-makers at least) like definitions)

  • White space and photographs – try and break up your text with plenty of white space and photographs to avoid intimidating readers and making your work more attractive to engage with. If you can, engage a professional designer to help with this. If there’s not enough room to fit everything in that you want, don’t make the font size smaller or cut white space and images – cut down your material (the next stage in the process, the feedback loop, is useful to help with this if you’re struggling to work out what you can cut)

  • Additional sources – more (background) information, more detail on the topic, max 4 further sources, including peer-reviewed material by you and your team

Last page:

  • Brief summary statement, concluding with take home message

  • Policy recommendations – clear recommendations aimed at specific policy sector(s) and specific live policy issues, in bullet points, stating why these options are recommended\

  • Authors contact details – including current position, associated institute and funder (remember the credibility issue), Twitter accounts (for key project staff and the project itself if this account exists), websites etc.

  • Acknowledgements

  • Citations – cite in footnotes, if needed

Revise, improve your brief - feedback loops

It is worth asking the some creative people in your team to help with visual design, selection of photos, and also with wording. Also give the brief to a non-academic friend. If he/she cannot understand your message, then you should consider re-writing. If you aim for EU policy-makers (most of which are non-English-native speakers), try to give your draft to non-native English-speaking friends for feedback. Alternatively try Up Goer Six, a text editor that colour codes all words according to how common they are. This helps you to identify jargon. Furthermore if you want to get your message across, avoid dictatorial expression, e.g. telling policy makers they ‘must’ and “have to” to change policy. This can be tough, but psychologically this all makes a lot of sense. Or are you happy being told what to do?

3. Distribution

How should you distribute your policy brief? The options are growing rapidly:

  • Electronically: First you might upload your brand new policy brief to your own and your department/organization’s website. This will provide you with a link to a PDF of the brief that you can include in emails that you send out to your target group.

  • Hard copy: Sending a “paper” version to your target audience is important. Do not just send to a department, but make it personal and send it directly to a person. Even better you can hand over your brief directly to policy maker in a face-to-face meeting (be it over lunch, at a conference, during their “office hours” - this might depend on your previous attempts to start a relationship with your target audience).

  • Social media and beyond: Use the PDF link you created for all social media that you have set up personally and within your team, organization, department or institution. That may (for example) include Twitter, ResearchGate, LinkedIn and even Facebook. Make sure to use a picture/photo of the cover (or key photo) of the brief to accompany distribution via social media as this attracts people and increases the likelihood of further distribution by sharing (liking, retweeting etc.) by others in your network. Make sure your profile on social media is consistent with your role as an expert in the field, with a link to your institution or a webpage that clearly links to it. The more times your target audience comes into contact with your material via different channels and people in their network, the more likely they are to perceive that it must be worth engaging with. For this reason you might also ask your PR department, if they can publish a press release (together with the original research paper/research the brief is based on), twitter and so on. Furthermore consider writing a blog post about the brief, that includes the recommendations, and distribute through the channels mentioned above. And finally have fun thinking of another million creative ways to get your message across – and please share in the comments section below. Love to hear them.

4. Engagement and impact

Follow up your email to your targeted people via a phone call. Ask if any further information is needed. Propose a lunchtime meeting or seminar to discuss your research further. Make sure the brief remains in the memory of your target group beyond the mere picking up and reading of the brief. You can also invite them to related conferences and workshops and take a copy of the brief with you at any of these events. Remember that the mere one-way information exchange will get anyone to make a move and act on your recommendations. It is crucial to find ways to

If you are not likely to meet them any time soon in person, you might start following them via Twitter (lots of policy makers are active on this platform nowadays) or subscribe to email lists to know what they are up to and to learn where your work fits in and contributes towards their agenda. Take the time to find out what they think, what sort of language they use, what is on their agenda and see what they believe can help them with their daily tasks. And once you have the chance to meet them in person, your connection via social media will make it easier to build trust. As Onora O’Neill said it so beautifully in her TED talk about how to trust intelligently: "If you make yourself vulnerable to the other party, then that is very good evidence that you are trustworthy ...". Active listening works wonders too.

Perhaps you will find forming trusting relationships so fruitful that you decide to co-produce the policy briefs in collaboration with the people who will use it! That is a particularly effective way to develop the policy brief according to their needs and will ensure that it is used and result in impact.

To be able to achieve impact, the best case scenario is, that you already have a long-lasting trusting relationship with relevant policy makers. But it is not too late. Just start right now! Small talk at events they are visiting. Easy to get their business card, while talking about the last holiday in the same country there are from :-) You might even get an invitation and the private phone number. All of these things have happened to us. Policy makers are just nice people like you and me too. If you find it difficult to start small talk by yourself, ask colleagues to help. They can introduce you. Perhaps they are already trusted by the policy maker. Some of this trust will make your initial contact more trustworthy too. That is all psychological proven.

This a living document. We do not even attempt to know it all or know it better then others. Therefore we would love to hear your stories of how research impacts policy and how it doesn`t. We as a collective brain should gather our brain power and avoid inventing the wheel again and again. It is all there. Lets get together and change the world!

Rosi is doing a PhD on science-policy dialogue while running a knowledge brokerage company in Germany. She has more than 10 years of interdisciplinary experience, split between research and practice. She trained originally as a landscape ecologist in Germany, Iceland and New Zealand. Since then she has worked with a wide range of stakeholders around the world, including NGOs, practitioners, policy-makers and national media. This included time working as a professional knowledge broker in Liepzig, liasing between international science-policy interfaces.

Mark is a recognized international expert in impact research with >100 publications. He has won awards for the impact of his work as a research Professor and Research Manager for an international charity. He has been commissioned to write reports and talk tointernational policy conferences by the United Nations and is a science advisor to the BBC. Mark regularly provides training and advice to Universities, research funders, NGOs and policy-makers internationally, and regularly works with business.

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