I recently completed a series of three policy papers, and noted down the process while it was still fresh in my mind. Please feel free to try this process if you need to write a policy paper (any long-form report with recommendations) for your council.

Why a process sets you up for success

I’m a big fan of having a process to follow when writing a policy advice paper. The three biggest benefits it can give you are confidence, efficiency and a calm mindset.

1.       Confidence – having a step-by-step process to follow makes it easier to say yes to a new project, even when the topic is new to you.

2.       Efficiency – following a reliable process saves you lots of ‘figuring out’ time.

3.       A calm mindset – knowing how you are going to tackle a project will help you to relax, leaving more mental headspace to take on new information without becoming overwhelmed.

Need help with a policy paper?

My process for writing a policy advice paper

  1. Allocate a limited amount of time for reading background documents while keeping the policy question in mind. This is a messy stage, as only some of what you read will make it into the final document, so don’t spend too much time on it. Mark up potentially useful content, and be familiar with what information is available to you, in case it turns out to be useful.

  2. Create a draft structure for your document, which is likely to be a customised version of a basic report structure (background, issue, options and recommendations).

  3. Confirm the draft structure with your manager (or client).

  4. Add relevant content from Step 1 into your draft structure.

  5. Fill the gaps in the draft structure through research and interviews to create your first draft. (This is far more efficient than trying to figure everything out before you have a structure for your document because you can take a much more targeted approach to gathering information.) 

  6. Revise the draft document as many times as is needed, progressively improving it until the overall narrative is in place and is expressed as clearly as possible. (This is the hardest part of the process.) Make notes on recommendations as they occur to you, but don’t try to perfect them at this stage.

  7. Once you are happy with the overall document and can read it through without making significant changes, you are in a good position to write your recommendations.

  8. Write supporting content for implementation your recommendations, for inclusion in appendices. (This feels like a big task while you are in the middle of writing and revising the policy paper, but these appendices come together easily because you are so familiar with the topic by the time you write them.)

  9. Add any other appendices, such as key examples from other councils which are referred to in the policy paper.

  10. Write the executive summary – sum up the issue and the proposed solution in a fresh, concise way. (It needs to be consistent with the policy paper without copying whole sentences.)

  11. Write the introduction – tell the reader what they can expect from each section of the document.

  12. Edit the executive summary, introduction and appendices.

  13. Do one more read through of the whole document to ensure consistency.

Three success factors

  1. A weekly catch up with someone who knows about the project (your manager or client) is extremely valuable, particularly in the first half of the process when you have the most potential to go off track.

  2. Developing a long, complex policy paper is a difficult task. It requires an intense focus to move from a foggy idea to a finished document. It’s better to give the project concentrated attention over a short period of time, rather than letting it drag on in a piecemeal way between ‘business as usual’ activities.

  3. Other councils are an excellent resource. In most cases it will be well worth researching how other councils approach the same issue. Offering to share the outcomes of the policy paper is a good way to thank contributing councils.

No time to write a policy paper?