The art of the policy memo

A policy memo, even one assigned as a classroom exercise, is not an exam. Using the technical vocabulary of policy analysis and the social sciences is generally a bad idea.

This semester I’m teaching a course on policy analysis to some of the MPP students at the University of Maryland. The course has three goals: to tie together the varied strands of economics, political science, statistics, and management the students have picked up in their other courses into a whole called “policy analysis;” to introduce some new material such as decision analysis and the use of Bayes’s Rule to decide about and interpret information-gathering activities in support of decision-making; and to give the students practice in converting their new knowledge into advice to decision-makers, mostly in memorandum form.

I’m now in the process of commenting on a bunch of memos, and found myself making the same comments over and over. So I wrote a note to the entire class. Since the issues the note addresses are general to the project of teaching policy analysis rather than specific to this group of (mostly excellent) students, here’s the note:

These exercises are intended to be simulacra of real-world work assignments: in particular, memos from staff analysts to decision-makers who are generally above them in the organizational pecking order. That makes them very different from exams.

Your goal in an exam is to show that you know the material, and can use the relevant technical vocabulary properly to give precise answers. Your goal in a memo is to help the recipient figure out what to do.

You can’t assume that the decision-maker shares your professional and educational background; indeed, that will seldom be true. He or she won’t thank you for using a bunch of unfamiliar technical terms. Sometimes, there’s no way to put the technical idea in ordinary language without great clumsiness; in that case you will want to introduce the techical term, defining it the first time you use it with some phrase such as “this is what economists call willingness-to-pay.” But frequently you can convey the necessary idea within a normal, non-technical vocabulary; when that is the case, you should almost always do so.

If the decision-maker wants a lesson in policy analysis or economics or statistics, he or she will be sure to let you know. Putting on a great show of how many fancy words you know for fancy concepts will usually offend your reader, who may feel threatened or put down. In the classroom, I have a license to be an obnoxious know-it-all, but as the stunt drivers say, I’m a trained professional; don’t try this at home (or work). Go thou, and do otherwise.

By the same token, be careful about the language you use. Not everyone is emotionally capable of taking advice from a subordinate, and fewer still are willing to take instruction from one. Read your memo over as if you were its recipient (or have a friend do it for you) and be sure it doesn’t sound as if you are putting on airs or trying to dictate the decision rather than trying to inform it.

Yes, Plato’s dream of the rule of the wise is, to some extent, a possibility. But, as the character of Socrates shows, the wise rule by persuading, not by giving orders.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact:

7 thoughts on “The art of the policy memo”

  1. I always hated and dreaded assignments like this, whether it was in first grade or college. I'm not a staff analyst, and have no experience observing how a staff analyst acts when communicating with a decision-maker. I would feel foolish every moment that I spend pretending that I know how to imitate one, and I would be very uncomfortable taking my own statements and mutating them until they might be mistaken for the statements of somebody else.

  2. Ned:
    These aren't college students. They're Master's students in public policy, most of whom have written real-life memos and virtually all of whom will be doing so professionally within months.

  3. I too ask my students (undergrads in Env. Policy) to write a policy memo. It's a very useful exercise.
    The hardest part is giving them an example. Any ideas? My friends in government are reluctant to let me use their memos, even several years after the fact.

  4. Mark:
    Excellent assignment.
    I write 2-5 memos a week doing the same thing. The work of a Master's student is in some ways more difficult than undergrad: you must synthesize your learning and spit it back out in a useful form. Getting good at writing memos means you have received your lessons, reflected on them, understand them, and can now teach others.
    The memos they write are, in effect, teaching the policy-maker something.
    Stick to local issues they can get their arms around: advocating to purchase a conservation easement for a connected habitat corridor, increasing a wetland buffer width to x feet, having the city purchase a 20-ac parcel and keeping 5 of it in habitat, creating a county-wide open space plan, explaining to the Council Chair why wetland mitigation is bad, etc.

  5. Dano,
    I'm especially interested in sample memos, so students can see what they are supposed to look like. It's a very different style of writing from what students are taught.
    Much more useful for them in the long run, however.

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