Evidence into policy

‘What ifs…’ and worries encountered whilst writing Policy Briefs

By 28/10/2014

Influencing policy can be a tricky business and sitting down to start writing a policy brief can seem like a daunting process. However, important research should have the best possible chance of influencing policy and changing it for the better, which means, that contacting policy actors directly using a policy briefing is a good place to start.

It is all too easy to assume that policy actors will seek out important research or to make up an excuse in order to delay writing a policy brief, but, by seizing the moment and harnessing the originality of recently produced work the chances of positively influencing policy are maximised.

There are plenty of guides and institutional frameworks for writing policy briefs available, but many of them fail to get to the bottom of why researchers, academics and practitioners feel hesitant to simply sit down and write one. Researchers may feel that it is not within their remit to communicate their research findings; but who better to talk about the topic on which they are an expert? The mere mention of a ‘Policy Brief’ can evoke a fear of the unknown or complexity; but writing a one to two page brief is surely simpler and less time consuming than writing an academic paper?

The issue that there are no readily available resources for researchers and practitioners who feel very nervous about writing a policy brief needs to be addressed. Proactive researchers and practitioners who are already convinced of the value of communications churn out policy briefs helped by online guides and by their Communications departments (if they are part of a larger institution). However, for those who are pushed for time, do not have an affiliation to large institutions or who unexpectedly encounter problems during the process, there is no source of advice to enable them to overcome these obstacles.

Many of the perceived problems researchers face when writing policy briefs can be unpacked and even solved with some careful consideration and the right advice. No more ‘what ifs…’ should stand in the way of important research reaching policy.

I will tackle two ‘what ifs…’ that make writing a policy brief feel unnecessarily difficult and offer some suggested solutions.

  1. What if the message from my research findings is opposed to popular narratives, widely held public opinion or the current policy climate?

This is a common problem encountered early on in the process of engaging policy actors. From the beginning, be more strategic and precise with the planning and distribution of the policy brief. Choose policy actors to send the brief to at the start of the process and think about their views on the topic continually whilst writing. Do not overstress statements that are obviously at odds with the current opinion/policy, as the brief may be discarded without being read. Avoid giving concrete policy recommendations, instead, outline alternative policy options as objectively as possible and let the evidence speak for itself. If the evidence is strong enough your preferred option should be clear to the policy maker. People tend to remember or use evidence that is salient with their own views, keep this in mind, and from the outset frame the policy brief in an appropriate manner. It’s also important to remember that policy networks are made up of many different types of policy actors, who share many different views. It’s perfectly possible, even if your research is at odds with the dominant narratives, that there will be someone who is responsive to your research. Look at the actors across a policy community and make sure you start by targeting those that are prepared to listen.

  1. What if my research is collaboratively produced? Is writing a policy brief too tricky?

A collaborative policy brief is tricky to write but it may have a better chance of being able to positively influence policy.

First check with all the authors and institutions involved in producing the research/project that a policy brief can be written and obtain the relevant permissions. Then, start from what is ordinarily the last stage and agree upon the policy implications or recommendations to be drawn from the research. From a point of consensus, divide up responsibilities for planning, writing and distributing the policy brief between the authors and proceed as normal.

The important thing to remember with collaboratively produced policy briefs is to utilise all of the resources available to all of the participants. It will be useful to compile a list of each participant’s contacts within the policy sphere and ideas about how to distribute the brief. Collaboratively produced policy briefs have additional advantages including: shared funding, shared expertise, shared burdens, additional sources of support, more time/effort input, a larger network at its disposal for distribution and a smaller time requirement from each participant. It could also be reasonably assumed that like a collaborative paper with higher citations, a collaborative brief could have a higher readership, enhancing the potential of successfully influencing policy.

For more ‘what ifs…’ and their accompanying suggestions visit R2A’s How to Guide for writing Policy Briefs, or if your worries are not directly addressed there, you can submit questions to the R2A Help Desk.

Image courtesy of Stuart Miles at FreeDigitalPhotos.net