How to Write a Policy Assignment
- What is a policy assignment?
- Types of policy assignments
- Reading and Analyzing Policy
- Writing Policy Assignments
- Research and Writing Process
What is a policy assignment?
Understanding, evaluating, and writing policy documents are important competencies to develop as undergraduate students in a wide range of fields, spanning from Health Care to Environmental Science to Education. Policy is informed by strong research and accurate evidence, often compiled and presented by government and non-governmental organizations. Public policies include formal legislation, official plans, and regulations created by various levels of government. Each of these can act as guiding principles for governmental decision making and program delivery. Non-governmental and para-governmental organizations publish policy briefs, commission reports, and fact sheets to inform policy makers and recommend policy change.
Course instructors often ask students to analyze policy documents to better understand issues and policy alternatives, and students in many disciplines must write policy documents, including critiques and briefs or briefing notes. This guide offers steps to reading policy and keys for effective policy writing.
Types of Policy Assignments
In a policy critique, students are expected to read and critically analyze one or more policy documents that address a common issue. The goal of this assignment is to present an overall assessment of current or proposed policies and their efficacy or potential considering both scholarly theory and real-world, practical application with consideration of environmental, social, or economic contexts.
- Issue: what is the policy in question?
- Background: where did it emerge? What problem does it try to address?
- Application: so far, based on evidence, how effective has it been?
- Limits: what are limits with the policy? How has it been adapted? What questions remain?
- Evaluation/potential: based on concepts and theories from course materials, what is the potential for this policy to address particular issue/problem?
Policy Brief (Briefing Note)
Policy briefs or briefing notes are documents written by governmental and non-governmental organizations to propose evidence-based policy solutions to a well-defined social, environmental, or economic issue. Briefs present findings from academic and grey literature to demonstrate the scope of an issue and to analyze its context and background. The brief is organized with clear headings and short sections, which are supported by figures or tables.
- Executive Summary: similar to an abstract, briefly explains the goal, findings, and recommendations. Although it is placed first in the document, it is written last.
- Issue Definition: identify and explain the key issue and its scope and significance.
- Policy Background: synthesize evidence to explain the context of the issue – its origins, key stakeholders, overlapping issues, and potential barriers – and any existing policy.
- Best Practices: describe relevant policies from other jurisdictions and introduce specific examples of policy and best practices that reinforce the argument your briefing note presents.
- Policy Options: synthesize your research to present a few policy options; for each option, describe the approach and present advantages, challenges, and potential barriers. Present one policy recommendation from these options.
- References: divide references into sections (e.g., academic sources, grey literature, policy documents etc.)
Reading and Analyzing Policy
Each policy document is focused on a specific issue and establishes particular goals; when you read any policy document, you are working to understand and analyze the issue and how the policy addresses the issue. These messages are often presented in different ways. Policy briefs are, well, brief, but other policy documents or commissioned reports can be quite lengthy, so it is important to develop a reading strategy for each new document. Generally, it is best to follow this process: preview, plan, read and take notes, and assess within course context.
Because policy documents vary significantly in form and purpose, it is essential to preview the document prior to reading it: identify its author, its purpose, and its form. Take time to read the executive summary, which presents a short explanation of the issue and purpose of the document. Understand its authorship and the interests of the individual or organizational author.
Make a plan
Identify your goal in reading the document: do you wish to better understand the issue, to identify policy alternatives, to appreciate broader context, or to determine efficacy of policy? How will this document inform your understanding of the issue you are studying? What sections will be most useful or relevant?
Read and take notes
Your preview and plan can direct your reading and notetaking. Read closely to understand the policy or issue, its context, and the evidence used to support it. Identify stakeholders and their interests, the goals of the policy and how those goals are measurable and actionable. You may find it helpful to refer to the table of contents or index (or to use the ‘find’ tool in your browser) to seek out sections that contain relevant keywords in documents spanning more than 100 pages.
Assess policy within course context
Refer to theories, frameworks, and indices that you have discussed in class to assess a policy. Consider whether it follows a particular conceptual framework or achieves particular numerical targets. Compare it to other policies in similar contexts and analyze its parts to assess its adaptability to different contexts. Evaluate its fit to the specific issue and its relevance for various stakeholder needs or values.
Reading an Official Plan
An official plan is often a lengthy document that covers many topics and issues within a set of overarching goals for an organization, like a university, hospital, or municipality. Your aim should be to understand the overarching goals of the plan and its broader context, which are likely laid out in the executive summary and introductory sections. Then you may need to seek out references to a particular topic, issue, or stakeholder; the index, table of contents, or “find” tool can be helpful for this.
Reading a Policy Brief
The goal of a policy brief is to inform and persuade policy makers, so your aim should be to understand the issue the brief identifies and to analyze the policy it proposes. The structure and design of the policy brief will guide your reading. Take time to understand the context of the issue and the policy: who are the stakeholders, what are the goals, what is the process, and what are the barriers? Analyze the policy within the disciplinary concepts you’re learning in class; how does the policy fit particular frameworks, theories, or indices you’ve discussed? What is unique about this policy? How can this policy be adapted to different contexts? What is its potential to address the issue?
Writing Policy Assignments
Successful policy assignments are focused, well-researched, analytical, organized, and concise. Therefore, it is important to take time to define the issue, understand the context of the issue, and seek out policy alternatives prior to identifying a recommended course of action.
It is essential that you present a focused and clear issue, and that issue must be at the scale of policy action. For example, policy briefs can address ER wait times or agricultural pesticide use, but issues such as access to health care or the sustainability of food production are too complex for you to address in a short policy assignment. Often, course material and core concepts provide useful direction for you to narrow your issue.
In policy assignments, an issue is clearly defined and contextualized with evidence from scholarly and grey literature. It is important for you to explain how scholars, governments, or NGOs have discussed the issue, and numerical data or figures can demonstrate the scale of an issue or its projected trajectory. Provide details about the issue in its context: be specific about place, time, and stakeholders, and acknowledge any overlapping economic, environmental, or social issues.
Example: Effective issue definition1
Age-friendly municipalities foster solidarity among generations within communities and reach out to older people at risk of isolation by making them feel socially included and involved (WHO, 2007). It is well documented that these trends are happening across Canada, and evidence suggests that local governments have a key role in enabling older people to live longer. It is unclear to what degree Aurora’s municipal government is prepared to support its expanding ageing population. It is essential to continue to examine new approaches to housing and transportation infrastructure within Aurora in order to improve public policy matters in regards to their ageing population.
- Issue is grounded by focused concept and evidence; writer demonstrates value of municipal policy to address the issue
- Writer precisely identifies the issue to be discussed in brief and the goals of the report
Example: Ineffective issue definition1
In addition to the infrastructure issue in Peterborough, there is also an issue regarding how spread out the community is. The city is too big for residents to be able to walk the entire city. Amenities are also very spread out; it is unlikely that pedestrians would be able to access the required amenities within walking distance from their house. Ultimately, the main issues surrounding the walkability in the City of Peterborough are the lack of infrastructure and maintenance, as well as the lack of available activities near to peoples’ residences.
- Not grounded in conceptual framework or theory; writer needs to explain why walkability is an issue that a municipality should address
- Lack of precision or evidence to support claims about the size of the city or accessibility to amenities
Policy is informed by evidence from scholarly literature, government data, and research by various stakeholder organizations. Effective policy assignments synthesize evidence from academic and grey literature to create an accurate account of the issue and policy options. Common forms of evidence in policy writing include numerical and financial data, figures such as graphs and maps, excerpts from existing policies, recommendations from NGOs, and conceptual frameworks.
In policy writing, your goal is to present research both accurately and accessibly, as decision-makers in government and business may not be familiar with terminology or concepts presented by scholars. Make efforts to paraphrase the evidence you use and be sure to include citations in the form requested by your professor (footnotes or author-date systems are common).
One of the key factors in Municipal Cultural Planning is increasing cross-sectoral strategies by building new partnerships “…between the municipality and its community and business partners” (Municipal Cultural Plan, toolkit, 2011, p.21) for long term sustainability. Therefore, municipal cultural planning “…does not look at policy sectorally” (Gollmitzer, 2008, p.18), but instead strengthens and integrates “…cultural resources across all facets of government planning and decision making” (Municipal Cultural Plan Toolkit, 2011, p.21). Building new networks are supported by leveraging the sense of place within a community. Adopting a place-based planning approach allows “…government, community organizations and citizens to explore, measure and asses the values, resources and assets of the community” (Huhtala, 2016, p.66), in order to leverage them for economic prosperity.
- Writer synthesizes academic and grey literature to demonstrate how concepts are applied in policy.
- Writer also demonstrates analysis of evidence and its relevance to the brief’s focused issue.
- Use of direct quotation can feature the language of a policy if the writer wishes to analyze discourse; however, this excerpt relies too heavily on direct quotation, and it would be stronger if this evidence was paraphrased.
The quality of your policy assignment is closely tied to your analysis of the issue and the policy options you present. It is important to evaluate policy options as you research and to critically analyze how those options address the issue within its particular context. Take time to examine specific factors and parties involved in an issue and consider how these factors may facilitate or challenge each policy option; furthermore, you should also assess the advantages and disadvantages of each policy option and its impacts on these factors or parties.
You may find it valuable to consider theories, concepts, or frameworks from your course to develop your argument and to establish coherence throughout your assignment. If you assess all policy options through the same critical lens or theory, then your message will be clear and consistent throughout your document.
Integrating senior housing into the fabric of the inner core communities could make housing developments viable and situate seniors in settings where they can access these services by foot or nearby transit (Fang, 2013). This concept can allow seniors, who may be considering downsizing, to remain within their community where they can keep active, live within easy access to medical and community services, and stay close to their support network that they have spent their lives establishing. However, the growing demand for these developments could put major pressure on the municipality. City officials would have to amend current zoning by-laws to allow commercial and residential uses to be a part of mixed-use development and appropriate provisions need to be provided to ensure compatibility and to minimize potential negative impacts.
- Writer presents both advantages and challenges of policy option within common concept of healthy aging communities.
- Writer also includes potential impacts and barriers of policy option, which demonstrates their consideration of the issue and its context.
Organized, concise, and clear writing
Policy writing should be well-organized and easy to follow. Use headings and subheadings to create structure and to support your reader. It is common to number sections and subsections to further clarify the order of your ideas. In addition, good paragraph structure also supports organization and clarity, so we encourage you to use specific topic sentences to introduce the main idea of a paragraph.
Well-written policy assignments employ a formal writing style and use third-person voice (e.g., they) rather than first-person (e.g., I, we) or second-person (e.g., you) voice. Further, they avoid jargon, but use specific and clear language. When you revise your draft, take time to consider each sentence and remove repetitive or redundant phrases and words.
Finally, it is important to pay attention to the details. Label any figures or tables in your document; make reference to these figures or tables in the text of your work (e.g., see Figure 1). Also be sure to follow assignment instructions for referencing evidence in your text (e.g., footnotes or author-date system) and in your list of sources, which is often categorized by type of source (e.g., academic, government, NGOs).
Research and Writing Process
There are many ways to approach a policy assignment, but it is important to take time to research and analyze issues and policy options thoroughly prior to writing. Consider the following steps to complete your policy assignment:
- Read assignment instructions closely
- Preliminary research: review course materials, brainstorm, conduct environmental scan or site visit, consider current issues relevant to course concepts
- Define issue: consider questions and frameworks
- Research issue and context
- Research and evaluate policy alternatives in other places
- Analyze policy alternatives and consider fit for current issue and context; select policy options to present
- Outline sections: what evidence goes where? How does evidence work together?
- Write sections (leave Executive Summary until last)
- Revise for organization, analysis, and use of evidence. See Strategies for Revision and Proofreading.
- Edit for clarity, concision, and grammar
- Complete final proof of document
- These examples are not to be reproduced in whole or part. Use of the ideas or words in this example is an act of plagiarism, which is subject to academic integrity policy at Trent University and other academic institutions.