Mastering the policy memo
As a reminder, a policy memo is a short document that begins by describing a problem and ends with outlining policy solutions and recommendations. To build your case, the middle of the memo may include data and other evidence about the scope of the problem; examples from other countries, states, or communities; and links to additional resources and research to support your proposed solution(s). Policy memos are drafted for a decision-maker, such as the CEO of a company, an elected official, or an agency director at the local, state, or federal level. As you begin to draft a policy memo, it may be helpful to keep some of these tips in mind:
1. Start with your conclusion. Policymakers have limited time and resources, and sometimes, even reading a short document isn’t feasible. The first two to three sentences of your policy memo should tell the reader what they will learn should they read the rest of the memo. This way, when a policymaker or other stakeholder goes to reference your memo, they can easily see the issue your memo is addressing and the policy recommendation you are making.
2. Tell a story. You might often hear advice to supplement your data with a story, whether writing a blog post, op-ed, or commentary piece. A policy memo is no different. Stories help the policymaker connect your statistics to a person or community. This may be done by weaving a story throughout or including it toward the beginning as part of your problem description.
3. Use common language. Removing or reducing jargon, or words that are specific to your discipline, field, or sector, is one way to make your policy memo more accessible to a wider range of decision-makers and stakeholders. A policymaker will only consider your recommendation if they can understand the case that you’re making. If the topic of your memo is complex or requires specific terms, take the time to define those terms in plain language within the text or using footnotes.
4. Find the right decision-maker. Make sure that your intended recipient (the policymaker to whom you are addressing your memo) has the power and authority to change the policy in question. This policymaker might be a legislator at the state or federal level, or a city or county official. But they might also be a leader of an organization or company, a university official, or an appointed policymaker. Be sure to do the research to ensure that your memo gets into the right hands for maximum impact.
5. Use pertinent data. It is essential in a policy memo to situate data and stories within the jurisdiction of the policymaker to whom you are writing. For example, if you are writing to a state senator in Missouri, use a story about a Missouri community or data points from the state to make your case. You can, when appropriate, use comparison states or communities to illustrate your points, but these examples should be comparable to the region whose policies you are trying to affect. Policies that work in Florida may not be applicable or appropriate in Wyoming.
6. Find allies in advocacy groups or nonprofits. Find advocacy groups or nonprofits that are working on your topic area or in your community or state. They may be able to help you refine your memo, publish it on their website, or connect you with policymakers with whom they have existing relationships.
Thinking about writing a policy memo based on your research? Following these tips will help get your focus and writing on the right track. As you draft your memo, don’t forget to reach out to colleagues and mentors who may have experience communicating with policymakers and other stakeholders to review and provide feedback on your piece. Let us know if you have any other suggestions for successful policy memos by tagging @HPRScholars on Twitter. And if you’re a doctoral student, consider applying to the Health Policy Research Scholars program, where you’ll receive this type of support and more! Applications open January 10, 2020.