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Organizing Your Social Sciences Research Paper: Writing a Policy Memo

The purpose of this guide is to provide advice on how to develop and organize a research paper in the social sciences.

Definition

A policy memo is a practical and professionally written document that can vary in length from one page to over one hundred pages. It provides analysis and/or recommendations directed to a predetermined audience regarding a specific situation or topic. A well-written policy memo reflects attention to the research problem. It is well organized and structured in a clear and concise style that assumes the reader possesses limited knowledge of, as well as little time to conduct research about, the issue of concern. There is no thesis statement or overall theoretical framework underpinning the document; the focus is on describing one or more specific policy recommendations and their supporting action items.


Davis, Jennifer. Guide to Writing Effective Policy Memos. MIT OpenCourseWare, Water and Sanitation Infrastructure Planning in Developing Countries, Spring 2004; Pennock, Andrew. “The Case for Using Policy Writing in Undergraduate Political Science Courses.” PS: Political Science and Politics 44 (January 2011): 141-146.

How to Approach Writing a Policy Memo

Policy memo writing assignments are intended to promote the following learning outcomes:

  • Help students learn how to write academically rigorous, persuasive papers about a specific “real-world” issue;
  • Learn how to choose and craft a document’s content based on the needs of a particular audience [rather than for a general readership];
  • Prepare students about how to write effectively in non-academic settings;
  • Teach students to be client-oriented and to better anticipate the assumptions and concerns of their targeted readership; and,
  • Enable students to create original work that synthesizes their research into a succinctly written document advocating change or a specific course of action.

You should not approach writing a policy memo like you would an academic research paper. Yes, there are certain commonalities in how the content is presented [e.g., a well-written problem statement], but the overarching objective of a policy memo is not to discover or create new knowledge. It is focused on providing a pre-determined group of readers the rationale for choosing a particular policy alternative or specific course of action. In this sense, most policy memos possess a component of advocacy and policy advice intended to promote evidence-based dialog about an issue.


Given these intended learning outcomes, keep in mind the following:

Focus and Objectives
The overall content of your memo should be strategically aimed at achieving the following goal: convincing your target audience about the accuracy of your analysis and, by extension, that your policy recommendations are valid. Avoid lengthy digressions and superfluous narration that can distract the reader from understanding the policy problem.

Professionally Written
Always keep in mind that a policy memorandum is a tool for decision-making. Keep it professional and avoid hyperbole that could undermine the credibility of your document. The presentation and content of the memo should be polished, easy to understand, and free of jargon. Writing professionally does not imply that you can’t be passionate about your topic, but your policy recommendations should be grounded in solid reasoning and a succinct writing style.

Evidence-based
A policy memo is not an argumentative debate paper. The reader should expect your recommendations to be based upon evidence that the problem exists and of the consequences [both good and bad] of adopting particular policy alternatives. To address this, policy memos should include a clear cost-benefit analysis that considers anticipated outcomes, the potential impact on stakeholder groups you have identified, clear and quantifiable performance goals, and how success is to be measured.

Accessibility
A policy memo requires clear and simple language that avoids unnecessary jargon and concepts of an academic discipline. Do not skip around. Use one paragraph to develop one idea or argument and make that idea or argument explicit within the first one or two sentences. Your memo should have a straightforward, explicit organizational structure that provides well-explained arguments arranged within a logical sequence of reasoning [think in terms of an if/then logic model--if this policy recommendation, then this action; if this benefit, then this potential cost; if this group is allocated resources, then who may be excluded].

Presentation Style
The visual impact of your memo affects the reader’s ability to grasp your ideas quickly and easily. Include a table of contents and list of figures and charts, if necessary. Subdivide the text using clear and descriptive headings to guide the reader. Incorporate devices such as capitalization, bold text, and bulleted items but be consistent, and don’t go crazy; the purpose is to facilitate access to specific sections of the paper for successive readings. If it is difficult to find information in your document, policy makers will not use it.

Practical and Feasible
Your memorandum should provide a set of actions based on what is actually happening in reality. The purpose is never to base your policy recommendations on future scenarios that are unlikely to occur or that do not appear realistic to your targeted readers. Here again, your cost-benefit analysis can be essential to validating the practicality and feasibility to your recommendations.

Explicit Transparency
Provide specific criteria to assess either the success or failure of the policies you are recommending. As much as possible, this criteria should be derived from your cost/benefit analysis. Do not hide or under-report information that does not support your policy recommendations. Just as you should note limitations in an original research study, a policy memo should describe the weaknesses of your analysis. Be straightforward about it because doing so strengthens your arguments and it will help the reader to assess the overall impact of recommended policy changes.

NOTE: Technically, your policy memo could argue for maintaining the status quo. However, the general objective of policy memos is to examine opportunities for change and describe the risks of on-going complacency. If you choose to argue for maintaining the current policy trajectory, be concise in identifying and systematically refuting all relevant policy options. Summarize why the outcomes of maintaining the status quo are preferable to any alterative policy options.


Herman, Luciana. Policy Memos. John F. Kennedy School of Government. Harvard University; How to Write a Public Policy Memo. Student Learning Center. University of California, Berkeley; Policy Memo. Thompson Writing Program, Writing Studio. Duke University; Policy Memo Guidelines. Cornell Fellows Program. Cornell University; Memo: Audience and Purpose. The Writing Lab and The OWL. Purdue University; Policy Memo Requirements and Guidelines, 2012-2013 edition. Institute for Public Policy Studies. University of Denver; Thrall, A. Trevor. How to Write a Policy Memo. University of Michigan--Dearborn, 2006; Writing Effective Memos. Electronic Hallway. Daniel J. Evans School of Public Affairs. University of Washington; Writing Effective Policy Memos. Water & Sanitation Infrastructure Planning syllabus. Spring 2004. Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Structure and Writing Style

The contents of a policy memo can be organized in a variety of ways. Below is a general template adapted from the “Policy Memo Requirements and Guidelines, 2012-2013 edition” published by the Institute for Public Policy Studies at the University of Denver and from suggestions made in the book, A Practical Guide for Policy Analysis: The Eightfold Path to More Effective Problem-Solving [Eugene Bardach. 4th edition. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 2012] . Both provide useful approaches to writing a policy memo should your professor not provide you with specific guidance. The tone of your writing should be formal but assertive. Note that the most important consideration in terms of writing style is professionalism, not creativity.

I.  Cover Page

Provide a complete and informative cover page that includes the document title, date, the full names and titles of the writer or writers [i.e., Joe Smith, Student, Department of Political Science, University of Southern California]. The title of the policy memo should be formally written and specific to the policy issue [e.g., “Charter Schools, Fair Housing, and Legal Standards: A Call for Equal Treatment”]. For longer memos, consider including a brief executive summary that highlights key findings and recommendations.


II.  Introduction and Problem Definition

A policy memorandum should begin with a short summary introduction that defines the policy problem, provides important contextual background information, and explains what issues the memo covers. This is followed by a short justification for writing the memo, why a decision needs to be made [answering the “So What?” question], and an outline of the recommendations you make or key themes the reader should keep in mind. Summarize your main points in a few sentences, then conclude with a description of how the remainder of the memo is organized.


III. Methods

This is usually where other research about the problem or issue of concern is summarized. Describe how you plan to identify and locate the information on which your policy memo is based. This may include peer-reviewed journals and books as well as possible professionals you interviewed, databases and websites you explored, or legislative histories or relevant case law that you used. Remember this is not intended to be a thorough literature review; only choose sources that persuasively support your position or that helps lay a foundation for understanding why actions need to be taken.


IV.  Issue Analysis

This section is where you explain in detail how you examined the issue and, by so doing, persuade the reader of the appropriateness of your analysis. This is followed by a description of how your analysis contributes to the current policy debate. It is important to demonstrate that the policy issue may be more complex than a basic pro versus con debate. Very few public policy debates can be reduced to this type of rhetorical dichotomy. Be sure your analysis is thorough and takes into account all factors that may influence possible strategies that could advance a recommended set of solutions.


V.  Proposed Solutions

Write a brief review of the specific solutions you evaluated, noting the criteria by which you examined and compared different proposed policy alternatives. Identify the stakeholders impacted by the proposed solutions and describe in what ways the stakeholders benefit from your proposed solution. Focus on identifying solutions that have not been proposed or tested elsewhere. Offer a contrarian viewpoint that challenges the reader to take into account a new perspective on the research problem. Note that you can propose solutions that may be considered radical or unorthodox, but they must be realistic and politically feasible.


VI. Strategic Recommendations

Solutions are just opinions until you provide a path that delineates how to get from where you are to where you want to go. Describe what you believe are the best recommended courses of action ["action items"]. In writing this section, state the broad approach to be taken, with specific practical steps or measures that should be implemented. Be sure to also state by whom and within what time frame these actions should be taken. Conclude by highlighting the consequences of maintaining the status quo [or if supporting the status quo, why change at this time would be detrimental]. Also, clearly explain why your strategic recommendations are best suited for addressing the current policy situation.


VI. Limitations

As in any academic paper, you must describe limitations to your analysis. In particular, ask yourself if each of your recommendations are realistic, feasible, and sustainable, and in particular, that they can be implemented within the current bureaucratic, economic, political, cultural, or other type of contextual climate in which they reside. If not, you should go back and clarify your recommendations or provide further evidence as to why the recommendation is most appropriate for addressing the issue. If the limitation cannot be overcome, it does not necessarily undermine the overall recommendations of your study, but you must clearly acknowledge it. Place the limitation within the context of a critical issue that needs further study in concurrence with possible implementation [i.e., findings indicate service learning promotes civic engagement, but.there is a lack of data on the types of service learning programs that exist among high schools in Los Angeles].


VII. Cost-Benefit Analysis

This section may be optional but some policy memos benefit by having an explicit summary analysis of the costs and benefits of each strategic recommendation. If you include a separate cost-benefit analysis, be concise and brief. Most policy memos do not have a formal conclusion, therefore, the cost-benefit analysis can act as your conclusion by summarizing key differences among policy alternatives.


Bardach, Eugene. A Practical Guide for Policy Analysis: The Eightfold Path to More Effective Problem-Solving. 4th edition. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 2012; Herman, Luciana. Policy Memos. John F. Kennedy School of Government. Harvard University; How to Write a Public Policy Memo. Student Learning Center. University of California, Berkeley; Policy Memo Guidelines. Cornell Fellows Program. Cornell University; Memo: Audience and Purpose. The Writing Lab and The OWL. Purdue University; Pennock, Andrew. “The Case for Using Policy Writing in Undergraduate Political Science Courses.” PS: Political Science and Politics 44 (January 2011): 141-146; Policy Memo Requirements and Guidelines, 2012-2013 edition. Institute for Public Policy Studies. University of Denver; Thrall, A. Trevor. How to Write a Policy Memo. University of Michigan--Dearborn, 2006; “What Are Policy Briefs?” FAO Corporate Document Repository. United Nations; Writing Effective Memos. Electronic Hallway. Daniel J. Evans School of Public Affairs. University of Washington; Writing Effective Policy Memos. Water & Sanitation Infrastructure Planning syllabus. Spring 2004. Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Proofreading the Memo

Problems to Avoid

The style and arrangement of an effectively written memo can differ because no two policies, nor their intended audience of readers, are exactly the same. Nevertheless, before you submit your policy memo, be sure you proofread the document in order to avoid these common problems. If you identify one or more of them, you should rewrite or re-organize the content accordingly.

1.  Acknowledge the law of unintended consequences -- no policy analysis is complete until you have identified for whom the policy is supposed to benefit as well as identify what groups may be impacted by the consequences of implementation. Review your memo and make sure you have clearly delineated who could be helped and who could be potentially harmed or excluded from benefitting from your recommended policy actions. As noted by Wilcoxen, this is also important because describing who benefits and who may not can help you anticipate which stakeholder groups will support your policy recommendations and which groups will likely oppose it. Calculating potential winners and losers will help reveal how much it may cost to compensate those groups excluded from benefitting. By building this compensation into your policy recommendations, you are better able to show the reader how to reduce political obstacles.

2.  Anticipate the reader's questions -- examine your recommended courses of action and identify any open-ended, declarative, or ambiguous statements that could lead the reader to have to ask further questions. For example, you declare that the most important factor supporting school choice among parents is distance from home. Without clarification or additional information, a reader may question why or by what means do you know this, or what distance is considered to be too far? Or, what factors contribute to parent's decision about school choice and distance from schools? What age group does this most apply to? Clarify these types of open-ended statements so that your policy can be more fully understood.

3.  Be concise -- being succinct in your writing does not relate to the overall length of the policy memo or the amount of words you use. It relates to an ability to provide a lot of information clearly and without superfluous detail. Strategies include reviewing long paragraphs and breaking them up into parts, looking for long sentences and eliminating unnecessary qualifiers and modifiers, and deleting prepositional phrases in favor of adjectives or adverbs. The overarching goal is to be thorough and precise in how you present ideas and to avoid writing that uses too many words or excessively technical expressions.

4. Focus on the results -- while it's important that your memo describe the methods by which you gathered and analyzed the data informing your policy recommendations, the content should focus on explaining the results of your analysis and the logic underpinning your recommendations. Remember your audience. The reader is presumably a decision-maker with limited knowledge of the issue and with little time to contemplate the methods of analysis. The validity of your findings will be determined primarily by your reader's determination that your policy recommendations and supporting action items are realistic and rooted in sound reasoning. Review your memo and make sure the statement about how you gathered the data is brief and concise. If necessary, technical issues or raw data can be included as an appendix.

5.  Minimize subjective reasoning -- avoid emphasizing your personal opinion about the topic. A policy memo should be written in a professional tone with recommendations based upon empirical reasoning while, at the same time, reflecting a level of passion about your topic. However, being passionate does not imply being opinionated. The memo should emphasize presenting all of the facts a reader would need to reach his or her own conclusions about the validity of your recommendations.

6.  Use of non-textual elements -- review all tables, charts, figures, graphs, or other non-textual elements and make sure they are labelled correctly. Examine each in relation to the text and make sure they are described adequately and relate to the overall content of your memo. If these elements are located in appendices, make sure references to them within the text is correct [i.e., reference to Figure 2 is actually the table you want the reader to look at].


Bardach, Eugene. A Practical Guide for Policy Analysis: The Eightfold Path to More Effective Problem-Solving. 4th edition. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 2012; Herman, Luciana. Policy Memos. John F. Kennedy School of Government. Harvard University; How to Write a Public Policy Memo. Student Learning Center. University of California, Berkeley; Memo: Audience and Purpose. The Writing Lab and The OWL. Purdue University; Policy Memo Requirements and Guidelines, 2012-2013 edition. Institute for Public Policy Studies. University of Denver; Wilcoxen, Peter J. Tips on Writing a Policy Memo. PAI 723, Economics for Public Decisions Course Syllabus. Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs, Syracuse University.

 

Writing Tip

Referencing Sources

Policy memos generally do not include footnotes, endnotes, further readings, or a bibliography. However, if you use supporting information in a memo, cite the source in the text. For example, you may refer to a study that supported a specific assertion by referencing it in the following manner: "A study published in 2012 by the Eagleton Center for Public Interest Polling showed that public opinion towards China was....” However, some assignments may require a formal list of references. Before writing your memo, be sure you are clear about how your professor wants you to cite any sources referred to in your analysis.


Policy Memo. Thompson Writing Program, Writing Studio. Duke University.

Another Writing Tip

Using Non-Textual Elements

Policy memos are not just text-based but they may also include numeric tables and charts or non-textual elements, such as photographs, maps, and illustrations. However, it is very important that you use non-textual elements judiciously and only in relation to supplementing and clarifying arguments made in the text so as not to distract the reader from the main points of your memo. As with any non-textual elements, describe what the reader is seeing and why the data is important to understanding the research problem.

Yet Another Writing Tip

Including Appendices

The purpose of an appendix is to provide supplementary material that is not an essential part of the main text but which may be helpful in providing the reader with more complete information. If you have information that is vital to understanding an issue discussed in the memo, it can be included in one or more appendices. However, if you have a lot of information, don't write a five page memo and include twenty pages of appendices. Memos are intended to be succinct and clearly expressed. If there is a lot of data, refer to the source and summarize it, or discuss with your professor how it could be included.