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Policy Memo Assignment Topics

Policy Memo Guidelines


DATE:     20 May, 2011

TO:           POLS 150 Class Members

FROM:     Dr. Brandon Kendhammer

RE:           Guidelines for the Policy Memo Exercise


I. Policy Memo Assignment

The policy memo is meant to give students a means of summarizing what they have learned and Students, working in groups of 5-6, will choose a significant “current world problem”—and create a (13-15 page, double spaced, 10/12 point font, 1" margins) memo that describes the problem (including who is affected and why), summarizes the arguments surrounding the issue, and provides recommendations for US governmental action.

An A policy memo will need to convey a sense of why the issue is of importance to the US and its citizens, summarize (and possibly explain the failures of) current policy efforts, and take a side in the debate by offering concrete and feasible recommendations for future action. The policy memo must also contain both an “executive summary” (a two paragraph summary of the issue and your finding that guides the reader through the memo’s outline) and 15 or more references to the work of experts in this field (peer-reviewed scholarly sources and policy briefs by government agencies and think tanks being the most common examples) and cited in the text of the memo and listed at the end. Neither the “executive summary” nor the list of references will count in the 13-15 page count.

We will devote one class session, on September 27, to the basic questions of how to write a policy memo. We will discuss what a policy memo is and how to choose a topic and present it to a policy-oriented audience. We will discuss how to conduct academic research for this kind of project, and how to locate and identify appropriate sources.

Lecture will be canceled on September 29 in order for each group to have a short meeting with me, at which time they will present their topic, a preliminary list of sources (at least 5), and a brief timetable for completing the memo, with individual work assignments for each group member (all of which should be presented in a typed, 2-3 page document).  A first draft of the memo is due in class on November 1. The memos will be handed back the next week, and groups may submit revised memos on the day of the final (November 17).

II. What is a Policy Memo?

A policy memorandum is a (often short, especially when compared to scholarly books and articles) piece of writing designed to help decision-makers choose what policies to adopt.  Because decision-makers often face lots of complex issues at one time, they depend on memoranda (like those you’ll be writing) to summarize the problem, to provide relevant background information, to compare and contrast prospective solutions and their costs (monetary or otherwise), and to make an informed, reasoned conclusion about the best course of action.

Because of the complexity of today’s political issues, most decision-makers are unlikely to have specialized expertise on any individual issue.  They rely on you (the memo writers) to show them what’s important, with limited jargon or technical language, and with limited discussion of methodology (how information was gathered).  They are busy, and will not have (or want to spend) the time making sense of convoluted sentences or unclear, rambling explanations.  A good policy memo is as concise as possible, conveying only what information is necessary, in a way that makes it as easy to understand as possible.  A good policy memo doesn’t bury important facts or hide crucial arguments.  It presents a clear introduction that lets the reader know in advance what the conclusion will be.  It highlights important information with clear section titles and headings, and frequently summarizes key points to drive home the central arguments.

Good policy memos are value-laden, rather than objective.  A good policy memo does not equivocate or attempt to present an objective presentation of an issue.  Rather, it seeks to persuade policymakers, through the fair, careful analysis of alternatives, to adopt a particular position favored by the author(s).  In policy memo writing, having an opinion and defending it forcefully is encouraged.  Naturally, this does not mean that counter-arguments or alternatives can be cavalierly dismissed.  On the contrary, an effective policy memo highlights how your preferred course of action will better address the problem than other possibilities.

III. What’s Our Assignment?

Working in groups of 4-5 (chosen by the professor), you will research and compose a policy memo on a “current world problem” of your choice, directed to a relevant decision-maker.  While I don’t anticipate you’ll have trouble finding “current world problems” to choose from (a good look at any major international news source, like the New York Times, the BBC’s news website, or the online or print version of The Economist Magazine will, unfortunately, yield a plethora of prospective problems), here are a few examples:

-The European Financial Crisis

-Iran’s Nuclear Arms Program

-Al-Qaeda's Future After Bin Laden

-Social Security Reform

-Food safety and contamination in the US

-Facilitating Renewable Energy Source (or Oil Dependency)

-US Support for the Arab Revolutions

-Stabilizing the Iraqi State

-Persistent Poverty in Rural Ohio

This may sound intimidating, but a few Google News (http://news.google.com/) searches and a careful look at recent news coverage (perhaps through the Lexis-Nexis Academic service, available to all students free of charge[1]) should turn up a wealth of background information on all of them.

IV. Formatting

The policy memos themselves should be:

- Between 13 and 15 pages
- Double-spaced, with 10 or 12 point standard fonts and one-inch margins.

They should have the standard “memo heading," without frills, bells, or whistles (plastic covers, elaborate title pages, colored paper).  I don’t prescribe any particular internal format, but I recommend you follow closely the organization and format suggested by Professor David Weimer, in his brief statement on writing policy memos.[2] Similarly, David Dill provides excellent advice on “organizing the presentation” of a policy memo in his guide for students.[3]

The memo should contain, in addition to the memo text, a two paragraph “executive summary” (at the very beginning of the memo) highlighting your main argument and key recommendations and bibliography of sources cited in the body of the text.  This bibliography must contain at least 15 sources.  At least 7 of these sources must be the work of experts in the field, typically scholarly articles and policy briefs written by government agencies and think tanks.  Newspaper or magazine articles and websites not clearly published by experts do not count towards this total of 7 (but may count towards the 15).  Neither the executive summary or the list of sources counts towards your page limit.  Please follow standard Chicago Manual of Style format for your bibliography.

V. Schedule and Deadlines

Topics must be chosen by September 29, on which day lecture will be cancelled so that I may meet individually with each group (a sign-up sheet for times will be circulated).  On that day, each group must submit a typed, 1-2 page document outlining their chosen topic (see above).  The final memo is due on Tuesday, November 1 in class.  You will submit a revised policy memo at the time of the final exam.  The revised memos should take into account my comments and any other identified weaknesses.

VI. Group Behavior

I start out from the assumption that each student will contribute an equal share of the groups's effort towards the final product.  I also recognize that, barring some supervision on my part, that this may not always be the case.   Each group member will have an assigned role in managing the group collaboration.  Each group member will assess their own contribution, as well as that of their colleagues, based on a questionnaire each group member will fill out at the end of the project. In addition, each student will provide to me a short (one paragraph) description of their role in completing the memo, which I will use to cross-check  the group’s assessment. In the case of conflicts or disputes about group participation, I am the sole and final arbiter, and I reserve the right to adjust students’ grades up or down depending on my reasoned assessment of their participation and effort in group activities. I also reserve the right to remove group members who are not participating from their groups following each group’s submission of their topic statement and lists of sources. Students removed from groups for a lack of participation will be required to submit their own 8-10 page policy memo individually.

VII. Citing Sources and Plagiarism

As indicated above, I expect each memo to cite at least 15 different sources in the body of its text.  Wikipedia is not an acceptable source for this memo.  I would like you to use standard author-date-page parenthetical citations, i.e. (Kendhammer 2010, p. 3).  For questions about when it is necessary or appropriate to cite sources, please see the extensive resources at the Purdue Online Writing Lab, especially their articles on proper citation practices,[4] paraphrasing,[5] and on avoiding plagiarism.[6]

If you have concerns about whether or not you are citing correctly, please see me before you turn in your memo.  Students are responsible (per the syllabus) for knowing, understanding, and abiding by the OU policies pertaining to academic dishonesty.  If I catch plagiarism in any memo, the group will receive zero credit for the exercise, and I will seek official university sanctions.  This means that you are all jointly and severally responsible for policing plagiarism in you groups.  You should all read over and check your memos before turning them in, and if you have questions or concerns, be sure to come see me before the memo is due.


The contents of a policy memo can be organized in a variety of ways. Below is a general template adapted from the “Policy Memo Requirements and Guidelines, 2012-2013 edition” published by the Institute for Public Policy Studies at the University of Denver and from suggestions made in the book, A Practical Guide for Policy Analysis: The Eightfold Path to More Effective Problem-Solving [Eugene Bardach. 4th edition. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 2012] . Both provide useful approaches to writing a policy memo should your professor not provide you with specific guidance. The tone of your writing should be formal but assertive. Note that the most important consideration in terms of writing style is professionalism, not creativity.

I.  Cover Page

Provide a complete and informative cover page that includes the document title, date, the full names and titles of the writer or writers [i.e., Joe Smith, Student, Department of Political Science, University of Southern California]. The title of the policy memo should be formally written and specific to the policy issue [e.g., “Charter Schools, Fair Housing, and Legal Standards: A Call for Equal Treatment”]. For longer memos, consider including a brief executive summary that highlights key findings and recommendations.

II.  Introduction and Problem Definition

A policy memorandum should begin with a short summary introduction that defines the policy problem, provides important contextual background information, and explains what issues the memo covers. This is followed by a short justification for writing the memo, why a decision needs to be made [answering the “So What?” question], and an outline of the recommendations you make or key themes the reader should keep in mind. Summarize your main points in a few sentences, then conclude with a description of how the remainder of the memo is organized.

III. Methods

This is usually where other research about the problem or issue of concern is summarized. Describe how you plan to identify and locate the information on which your policy memo is based. This may include peer-reviewed journals and books as well as possible professionals you interviewed, databases and websites you explored, or legislative histories or relevant case law that you used. Remember this is not intended to be a thorough literature review; only choose sources that persuasively support your position or that helps lay a foundation for understanding why actions need to be taken.

IV.  Issue Analysis

This section is where you explain in detail how you examined the issue and, by so doing, persuade the reader of the appropriateness of your analysis. This is followed by a description of how your analysis contributes to the current policy debate. It is important to demonstrate that the policy issue may be more complex than a basic pro versus con debate. Very few public policy debates can be reduced to this type of rhetorical dichotomy. Be sure your analysis is thorough and takes into account all factors that may influence possible strategies that could advance a recommended set of solutions.

V.  Proposed Solutions

Write a brief review of the specific solutions you evaluated, noting the criteria by which you examined and compared different proposed policy alternatives. Identify the stakeholders impacted by the proposed solutions and describe in what ways the stakeholders benefit from your proposed solution. Focus on identifying solutions that have not been proposed or tested elsewhere. Offer a contrarian viewpoint that challenges the reader to take into account a new perspective on the research problem. Note that you can propose solutions that may be considered radical or unorthodox, but they must be realistic and politically feasible.

VI. Strategic Recommendations

Solutions are just opinions until you provide a path that delineates how to get from where you are to where you want to go. Describe what you believe are the best recommended courses of action ["action items"]. In writing this section, state the broad approach to be taken, with specific practical steps or measures that should be implemented. Be sure to also state by whom and within what time frame these actions should be taken. Conclude by highlighting the consequences of maintaining the status quo [or if supporting the status quo, why change at this time would be detrimental]. Also, clearly explain why your strategic recommendations are best suited for addressing the current policy situation.

VI. Limitations

As in any academic paper, you must describe limitations to your analysis. In particular, ask yourself if each of your recommendations are realistic, feasible, and sustainable, and in particular, that they can be implemented within the current bureaucratic, economic, political, cultural, or other type of contextual climate in which they reside. If not, you should go back and clarify your recommendations or provide further evidence as to why the recommendation is most appropriate for addressing the issue. If the limitation cannot be overcome, it does not necessarily undermine the overall recommendations of your study, but you must clearly acknowledge it. Place the limitation within the context of a critical issue that needs further study in concurrence with possible implementation [i.e., findings indicate service learning promotes civic engagement, but.there is a lack of data on the types of service learning programs that exist among high schools in Los Angeles].

VII. Cost-Benefit Analysis

This section may be optional but some policy memos benefit by having an explicit summary analysis of the costs and benefits of each strategic recommendation. If you include a separate cost-benefit analysis, be concise and brief. Most policy memos do not have a formal conclusion, therefore, the cost-benefit analysis can act as your conclusion by summarizing key differences among policy alternatives.

Bardach, Eugene. A Practical Guide for Policy Analysis: The Eightfold Path to More Effective Problem-Solving. 4th edition. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 2012; Herman, Luciana. Policy Memos. John F. Kennedy School of Government. Harvard University; How to Write a Public Policy Memo. Student Learning Center. University of California, Berkeley; Policy Memo Guidelines. Cornell Fellows Program. Cornell University; Memo: Audience and Purpose. The Writing Lab and The OWL. Purdue University; Pennock, Andrew. “The Case for Using Policy Writing in Undergraduate Political Science Courses.” PS: Political Science and Politics 44 (January 2011): 141-146; Policy Memo Requirements and Guidelines, 2012-2013 edition. Institute for Public Policy Studies. University of Denver; Thrall, A. Trevor. How to Write a Policy Memo. University of Michigan--Dearborn, 2006; “What Are Policy Briefs?” FAO Corporate Document Repository. United Nations; Writing Effective Memos. Electronic Hallway. Daniel J. Evans School of Public Affairs. University of Washington; Writing Effective Policy Memos. Water & Sanitation Infrastructure Planning syllabus. Spring 2004. Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

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