A policy memo is a practical, professionally written document that can vary in length from one page to over twenty-five pages. It provides analysis and recommendations directed to a predetermined audience regarding a specific situation, topic, or issue. A well-written policy memo reflects attention to the policy 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 topic 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; Judge, Andrew. "Designing and Implementing Policy Writing Assessments: A Practical Guide." Teaching Public Administration 39 (2021): 351-368; Pennock, Andrew. “The Case for Using Policy Writing in Undergraduate Political Science Courses.” PS: Political Science and Politics 44 (January 2011): 141-146.
Benefits of Writing a Policy Memo
Writing a policy memo is intended to support the following learning outcomes:
Do not approach writing a policy memo in the same way as 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 to a predetermined group of readers the rationale for choosing a particular policy alternative and/or specific courses of action leading to positive social and political change within society. In this sense, most policy memos possess a component of advocacy and advice intended to promote evidence-based dialog about an issue.
Essential Elements of an Effective Policy Memo
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. Note that your target audience is defined in two ways: by the decision-makers who can advocate for or implement change and by individuals and groups most likely impacted by your policy recommendations should they be implemented.
Always keep in mind that a policy memorandum is a tool for decision-making. Keep it professional and avoid hyperbole and clever or indeterminate language 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 evidence-based and grounded in solid reasoning and a succinct writing style.
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 understand 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 will be measured.
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 this group may be excluded].
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. Do not base your policy recommendations on future scenarios or hypothetical situations that could be interpreted as unlikely to occur or that do not appear possible because you have not adequately explained the circumstances supporting these scenarios. Here again, your cost-benefit analysis can be essential to validating the practicality and feasibility of your recommendations.
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 would note the limitations of your study in a research paper, a policy memo should describe issues of weakness of your analysis. Explain why they may arise and why your recommendations are still valid despite these issues. Be open and straightforward because doing so strengthens your arguments and it will help the reader assess the overall impact of recommended policy changes.
NOTE: Technically, it would not be wrong for your policy memo to argue for maintaining the status quo. However, the general objective of a policy memo assignment is to critically examine opportunities for transformative change and to highlight the risks of on-going complacency. If you choose to argue for maintaining the current policy trajectory, in whole or in part, be concise in identifying and systematically refuting all relevant policy options. Again, it must be rooted in an evidence-based cost/benefit analysis. Whether maintaining current policies is short-term or long-term [and these need to be clearly defined], you must explain concisely why each possible outcome of maintaining the status quo would be preferable to any alternative policy options and recommended courses of action. If your argument for maintaining the status quo is short-term, explain what factors in the future could trigger a policy-related course correction.
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; Mastro, Oriana Skylar. "Teach What you Preach: A Comprehensive Guide to the Policy Memo as a Methods Teaching Tool." Journal of Political Science Education 17 (2021): 326-340; 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.
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 sources provide useful approaches to writing a policy memo in the event your professor does not provide specific guidance. Overall, 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 are being covered. 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.
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 help 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 they will 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 [i.e., "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.
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, social, or other type of contextual climate in which they reside. If not, you should go back and clarify your recommendations and provide further evidence as to why the recommendation is most appropriate for addressing the issue. It does not necessarily undermine the overall recommendations of your study if the limitation cannot be overcome, but you must clearly acknowledge this. 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 South Central Los Angeles].
VII. Cost-Benefit Analysis
This section may be optional but, in some cases, your professor may ask you to include an explicit summary analysis of the costs and benefits of each recommendation. If you are asked to include a separate cost-benefit analysis, be concise and brief. Since most policy memos do not have a formal conclusion, the cost-benefit analysis can act as your conclusion by summarizing the key differences among policy alternatives and recommended courses of action.
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; Sajedinejad, S., et al. From Research to Impact: A Toolkit for Developing Effective Policy Briefs. Toronto, Ontario: Policy Bench, Fraser Mustard Institute of Human Development, University of Toronto, 2021; 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.
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 so that you avoid these common problems. If you identify one or more of these problems, 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 actions are supposed to benefit and identify what groups may be impacted by the consequences of their implementation. Review your memo and make sure you have clearly delineated who could be helped and who could be potentially harmed or excluded from benefiting from your recommended policy actions. As noted by Wilcoxen, this is also important because describing who may or may not benefit 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 benefiting. 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, indeterminate, 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, this could lead the reader to ask numerous questions, such as, why or by what means do you know this, what distance is considered to be too far, what factors contribute to parent's decision about school choice and distance from schools, or what age group does this most apply to. Clarify these types of open-ended statements so that your policy recommendations can be more fully understood and accepted as valid.
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 your 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 your ideas are presented and to avoid writing that uses too many words or excessively technical expressions.
4. Focus on the Results. While it is 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 who has 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 in an appendix.
5. Minimize Subjective Reasoning. Although the memo should be persuasive, 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 their 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 labeled correctly. Examine each in relation to the text, making sure they are described adequately and that they relate to the overall content of your memo. If these elements are located in appendices, make sure references to them within the text are correct [i.e., reference to Figure 2 is actually the table you want the reader to look at].
Bardach, Eugene and Eric M. Pataschnik. A Practical Guide for Policy Analysis: The Eightfold Path to More Effective Problem-Solving. 5th edition. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 2016; 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.
Difference Between a Policy Memo and a Policy Brief
A policy memo and a policy brief share much in common. They both describe the rationale for choosing particular policy alternatives or courses of action, they both contain persuasive language, and both documents are written for non-experts, such as, practitioners, politicians, non-governmental agency workers, lobbyists, and others who work on or regularly make decisions about the issue addressed in the document. Both documents are free of jargon or technical terminology and focus on communicating the practical implications of prior policy research to a specific audience based on available evidence.
Ironically, however, a policy memo is typically shorter in length than a policy “brief.” A policy memo usually ranges from one to twent-five pages, while a policy brief can be anywhere from twenty to more than a hundred pages in length depending on the complexity of the topic. Therefore:
Guide to Writing an Effective Policy Memo. Leadership for Educational Equity, New York; Policy Briefs. The Writing Center, University of North Carolina; Policy Memo. Writing Studio, Duke University; Manny, Karoline. What is a Policy Brief/Memo? Grace Doherty Library, Centra College; Sajedinejad, S., et al. From Research to Impact: A Toolkit for Developing Effective Policy Briefs. Toronto, Ontario: Policy Bench. Fraser Mustard Institute of Human Development, University of Toronto, 2021.
Policy memos generally do not include extensive 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.
Using Non-Textual Elements
Policy memos are not just text-based but frequently include numeric tables and charts or other non-textual elements, such as photographs, maps, and illustrations. However, it is 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 policy problem.
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 should be included.