Policy Paper

What is a policy paper?

Policy papers are different from the standard research papers in several respects:

  • They are usually addressed at a non-academic audience, such as a particular official, agency, or organization
  • They often focus on prescriptive questions. They may begin by diagnosing a particular issue or situation, and typically argue for a solution that will address that issue or situation
  • Often, policy papers are focused on being persuasive. The intention is to convince the target audience that your position is the correct one.
  • Evidence in support of a position is crucial. This is also important for research papers, but it tends to be absolutely critical in policy papers.
  • Policy papers are written efficiently. The audience often does not have much time and does not want to read a book on the subject. Indeed, often policy papers are accompanied by policy briefs which summarize the papers in a page or less.

Policy Paper Components

As with research papers, there is not just one way to write a policy paper.The University of Texas has a nice website with a detailed model, “Suggestions for Writing Policy Analysis”.

The basic elements of a policy paper include:

  • Description of the context and importance of the problem.
    • It is helpful to careful define the problem and frame it as a specific question to be answered.
  • Discussion of a range of policy options.
    • These are the choices for addressing the policy problem.
  • Criteria for judging policy choices.
    • This is the step that often is missed in policy analysis. Writers often fail to be explicit and may even assume that everyone shares the same ideas of what the criteria for making a choice should be. This is a mistake. Indeed, it is an important service to the reader (and to the decision-maker) to know the reasons for recommending one policy (or set of policies) over others. There often is major debate about criteria that should be used.
    •  In his book, A Practical Guide for Policy Analysis, Eurgene Bardach helpfully notes that such criteria are best thought of as applied to “the projected outcomes” of a policy choice. He makes the useful distinction between evaluative criteria, such as efficiency and fairness, and practical criteria, such as legality and political acceptability.
  • The policy recommendation.
    • Ideally, the policy recommendation should flow from the logical application of your criteria to your policy choices. This is illustrated in the hypothetical example (see table) below.
    • In this example, the researcher was able to make clear outcomes about how the policy choices met some criteria (Policy Choice A fails to meet the first criteria of legality). However, it there is some uncertainty about others. For instance, it is unclear how Policy Choice B would affect the criteria of inclusiveness, or how to judge the cost effectiveness of Policy Choice C. In the real world, we may need to incorporate such uncertainty into our policy judgments. But it is important for the policy analyst to be clear to readers and decision-makers where that uncertainty exists.
    • Another thing to note is that not all criteria are equal. It may be useful to rank the importance of criteria. Many of us would likely consider legality a necessary criterion. This would allow us to immediately remove Policy Choice A from our list of choices without any further consideration.
    Policy Question: What should our town do to improve voter participation? Policy Choice A: Pay people to vote Policy Choice B: Schedule local elections on days when few people work Policy Choice C: Increase spending on public messages encouraging voting
    Criteria 1: Legality No Yes Yes
    Criteria 2: Cost effectiveness No Cost neutral Probably
    Criteria 3: Inclusiveness (policy affects the broadest range of voters possible) Yes Probably Yes
    Recommend? No Yes Yes

    Policy Paper Examples


updated July 12, 2017 – MN