So, you’ve decided to write a policy brief but are left thinking, “where do I begin?”. Policy briefs are helpful tools for ensuring that your research has the most impact. They shape opinions and influence decision-makers to change the way that they approach an issue. Policy briefs can be particularly helpful when approaching a complex issue like homelessness, where changes tend to happen more slowly. This is because they provide the government and other decision-makers with the necessary information and confidence to adopt new approaches.
Before you start writing, you must first determine who your audience is. Ask yourself:
- Who am I speaking to? Be mindful of the different orders of Government and the services they are responsible for delivering. For example, if your policy brief deals with preventing youth homelessness, it is important to acknowledge that provinces and territories are constitutionally responsible for child protection, not the Federal Government. Do not address your policy brief to the Government at large because this makes it unclear who is responsible for addressing the issue. Without placing the onus on a specific party, it becomes easier for decision-makers to avoid responsibility.
- What do they need to know? Another thing to consider before you start writing is what you want your reader to take away from your policy brief - what is your call to action? You must also draw a clear relationship between your interests and what is important to your audience and make them appear to be one cohesive idea. For example, if you are addressing the provincial Government department responsible for child protection and are trying to get them to adopt a new approach in dealing with youth experiencing homelessness, you may want to highlight that many young people who exit out of child welfare experience homelessness. This is important because it positions you as a partner in addressing an issue that they already care about.
“If you want to change minds, don’t produce a policy brief that just focuses on criticizing the Government for what it's doing…” - Stephen Gaetz, President and CEO of the Canadian Observatory on Homelessness
Now that you understand your audience, there is one more thing you need to do before you begin: create a “roadmap”.
A policy brief is very much like a research paper - both require a logical narrative arc. The writer needs to tell a story, and take the reader on a journey. You must begin with a broad idea: what is the problem and why is it so bad? Then, shift toward your proposed solutions to the problem. Not only are you providing hope that there is a solution that will yield better results, but you are providing the reader with a concrete path forward based on evidence.
The solutions you develop will be written in the “recommendations” section of the policy brief. In order to have the largest impact, your recommendations should be targeted, specific, and concrete.
Congrats - you are ready to write your policy brief. However, you can’t forget about timing! When you release your policy brief is equally important to what is written within it if you are aiming for large-scale change. Ideally, you want to link the launch of your policy brief with the release of a policy on a similar/related topic. Another good strategy is to release your brief when peoples’ minds are on that subject. For example, if you are writing a policy brief about children, it is smart to launch it in the Fall. This is because Fall marks back-to-school, so the collective society is thinking about youth at this time.
Finally, let your audience know ahead of time that you are planning to release a policy brief on your specific topic. This heads-up allows your intended audience to respond to and action the items within your brief. It also helps ensure that your policy brief is received by everyone who you would like to see it, and that it doesn't get lost in the silos of Government.
To learn more about how to write a successful policy brief, check out our 7-part series on the Homelessness Learning Hub!
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