3 checklists to help you write better public policy writing

If you want to learn to write public policy well, or improve your existing public policy writing, get Catherine F. Smith’s ‘Writing Public Policy’.


The author shows you how to:

  1. Write clear public policy
  2. Provides good written examples
  3. Checklists to help you prepare policy memoranda, position papers, briefings
  4. Helpful insights



The  11 Chapter, 226 page book, is worth it for the checklists alone.


I have copied 3 of checklists.

1. Checklists


Checklist 1: General method of communicating in a policy process


Step 1: Prepare

First, ask questions about the policy process.



  • To what policy action does the communication relate?
  • Does a policy already exist?



  • What conditions are problematic?
  • What problem do these conditions present?
  • How do I define the problem?
  • How do others define the problem?
  • What narrative does my definition suggest?
  • How do I frame or characterize the problem? What is it like, metaphorically?
  • What stories, frames or metaphors are apparent in other definitions of the problem?



  • Who are the actors?
  • What are their roles?
  • What are their interests?
  • Who else has a significant role interest in the process?



  • What are the major disagreement or conflicts?
  • What are the major agreements or common interests?
  • Which actors are most likely to influence the process?



Step 2: Plan

Second, ask questions about communication.



  • Why is this communication needed?
  • What do I want to accomplish?



  • What story do I want to tell?
  • What is my message?
  • How does my message differ from that of others on the topic?
  • What argument will I make to support my message?
  • How does my argument relate to that of others on the topic?



  • What is my role in this process?
  • What is my interest in the outcome?



  • Whose name will be in the document(s)?
  • For whom does the communication speak?



  • Who is the named recipient(s)?
  • Who will use the information?
  • How do I want the information to be used?
  • Will the document(s) be forwarded? Circulated?



  • What will the recipients know after reading the document?
  • What all the users you use of its information do?
  • What is likely to happen as a consequence of this communication?


Setting and Situation

  • What is the occasion?
  • What is the time frame for communicating?
  • Where, when, and how will this communication be presented?
  • Where, when and how will it be received and used?

Form and Medium

  • Is there a prescribed form or do I choose?
  • What is the appropriate medium for presentation and delivery?


  • What information will support the message?
  • Where will a succinct statement of the message be placed?
  • How will the contents be arranged to support the message?
  • How will the document’s design make information easy to find?


Tone and Appearance

  • How do I want this communication to sound?
  • What attitude do I want it to convey?
  • How do I want the document to look?


Document Management

  • Who will draft the document?
  • Will there be collaborators?
  • Who will review the draft?
  • Who will revise it?


Step 3: Produce


Write the document in 3 phases: (1st) draft, (2nd) review, and (3rd) revise.


Do not mix the 3 stages.



  • Produce a complete working draft in accordance with your preparation and plan



  • Compare the draft plan and highlight any differences
  • Get additional review of the draft by others, if necessary
  • Referred to the checklists shown next to assess the draft’s effectiveness and quality and to highlight the need for revision


  • Make the changes called for by the review


Checklist 2:  Features of effectiveness


  • Address a specific audience about a specific problem.
  • Has a purpose related to a specific policy action?
  • Represents authority accurately
  • Uses appropriate form
  • Is designed for use


 Checklist 3: Measures of excellence

  • Clarity
  • Correctness
  • Conciseness
  • Credibility

Can you write and say it?

Smith says, “In policy work if you can’t write it, and say it, you can’t do it.”  A lot pf public policy practitioners can do neither.

So, if you don’t turn up to the public consultation, you can’t be surprised if you position is ignored.  If you do not turn up the comment, or don’t raise the key issue, or go into gobbledygook overdrive, you will miss the chance to contribute. It is a lot more common than you would think.  Few civil servants are telepaths, so if the reader does not understand what have put down in writing, they will ignore it. Only you are to blame.




Few Surprises

Smith notes most procedures are regular and the players tend to be established.

For example, once a year the European Commission prepare a Work Programme.  A limited group of people determine the main legislative and policy cycle for the Commission for the next 12 months. Despite the regular cycle, many interests just ignore it.

The preparation of legislative proposals, the passage of ordinary and delegated legislation, all have, more or less, common steps.  Whilst there are certain procedures that are less frequent, or where vagaries turn up, around 90% of your day to day work will be regular.

This has an advantage. You know most of the steps and key players in advance. More importantly, with Smith’s book, you will get to present your case in the best way possible. Her book will help you write out many public briefing letters, briefings and memos months in advance.

How to know if you don’t want to win?

It is clear that not many people want to genuinely influence public policy writing. First,  many interests do not want to positively persuade and influence. Too many interests are in the business of points scoring.  Second, you are involved, whether you like it or not, in the business of change. If you are against change, the chance of success is limited.

A guarantee to be ignored is to misrepresent your position. Along with showing you don’t your argument and issue, both will have your position being ignored and locked out of the public policy making process. Policy makers are busy and time is too limited.



Signs you want to win?

You want to persuade and want to win over key decisions makers over to your side.

Your audience are the policymakers, political advisers, officials, and legislators. I am guessing you know most of them.

The information you communicate is relevant, make things happen, have consequences should be publicly available.

It is intelligible, understandable, applicable, useful and credible. Your reader’s view is the only test for what is relevant, and how they see things the relevant criteria.

All too often, it is too easy for the reader to quickly put the public policy memo aside. You will not copy many of your colleagues.  No cluttered, unintelligible, abstract and confusing memo from you. You will be one of the few whose writing stands out for being clear, easy to read and clear.


The Missing Link: The Policy Entrepreneur

The Missing Link: The Policy Entrepreneur

When you think of the key actors in making laws, most people will mention:

Ministers, Civil Servants, elected Politicians, Political Advisers, Political Staffers, Academics, Consultants, Firms, Lobbyists, Lawyers, the Media, Public Opinion, NGOs, Trade Unions, Think Tanks and Trade Associations.


The Policy Entrepreneur

John W. Kingdom, in his classic “Agenda, Alternatives and Public Policies”, mentions a special class “the policy entrepreneur”.
The policy entrepreneur is hardly discussed in academic literature . It is like they don’t exist.  These are the people who really make things happen. “These are the people who make sure that problems, policies and politics join together at the right time. Only if these three specifics are in alignment can the item be placed on the decision agenda (see p.179)”.

This “confluence of streams”, “things coming together at the same time” does not usually happen by accident. It happens because of policy entrepreneurs. They are “advocates who are willing to invest their resources – time, energy, reputation, money – to return for anticipated future gain.”

They ‘policy entrepreneur’ is unlikely to have that title.  They can be a lawyer, lobbyist, career civil servant, minister.

In Kingdom’s study, he assessed that in 15 out of 23 case studies their role was important to very important.


Who is the policy entrepreneur

I have worked with them.  I learned a lot from them. You’ll know them when you meet them.  Without them, your cause is doomed. You’ll miss the real opportunity to advance your interest, and be blind to what is really happening. In fact, as so very few people know this pivotal position exists, they will be content by not know what is really happening.

Every piece of legislation I have worked on over 21 years has had this individual. They were usually in the background. They did not have a name badge announcing who they were. The people who counted just gravitated to them for advice.  All of them were real experts. They also had the rare gift to communicate to all the players. They were not geniuses, but they all had an uncanny ability to bring the right people together at the right time to secure the right solution.

Kingdom identifies some of the qualities the policy entrepreneur has. This will help you know who they are:

  • ‘They will be listened to by the people who count either because:
    • (1) their expertise,
    • (2) an ability to speak for others, or
    • (3) an authoritative decision-making position’.
    • Some have all 3.
  • They are ‘known for their political connections or negotiating skills’.
  • Their vital ingredient is their ‘persistence’. ‘These are the people who spend a great deal of time giving talks, writing position papers, drafting bills, testifying, having lunch.’ Persistence is the vital ingredient.
  • They lie in wait for a window of opportunity to open.
  • Hook solutions to problems, proposals to political momentum, and political events to the political stream.

Put simply, without the political entrepreneur, the linking of the streams may not take place.  They push the door open at just the right moment.  ‘Policy enterprises try to make linkages far before windows open so they can bring a prepacked combination of solution, problem, and political momentum to the window when it does open.’


How often does the window open up?

My gut tells me every 10 years. Sometimes, I have seen it open up more often. This is based on my own experience.

It is not hard to plan when there is a big sign telling you when things are going to start. First, a lot of European legislation has review clauses. I have found that going in early, framing the debate and solutions a few years out from a mid-term review, can set things up. Second,   the Commission’s Annual Work Programme is an obvious opportunity. This will be firmed up by the end of the summer, outlined on 13 September during the State of the Union, and published on 24 October. Third, after that, work will start for the Work Programme of the next Commission, set to come into office on 1 November, 2019.  The key opportunities are often staring people in the face.

Bringing the streams together

I think the opportunities to change laws should not be taken lightly. This is what should be done if you want to win:

  • You would the tee thinking up, have the reports written, draft bill in hands, and get a flow of think tanks discussion your issue, and put it higher up the policy agenda.
  • You would target the few people in Europe who are taking the key decision on your issue and those who are influencing that. You are not the person to leave that to chance.
  • Too many people think this all happens by chance. If telepathy worked you would use it. Instead, you would go and speak to many of them, ask them how they see things, and give them constructive solutions. Every time I have done this, I find the same ideas repeated back to you in the proposal.


What does this all cost?

Can this all be engineered. It can.  There are no guarantees it will work. Anyone who tells you there is sure thing should return to the snake-oil salesman academy.

It will take a commitment of 10 years. If you, and your funders, are not prepared for the long term, it is better not to start.

I conservatively estimate that a serious effort costs around €150k to €500K a year.  €150K for staff costs and the rest for studies/events, you may need. Again, it is best to be funded up front for the duration.

Some people will think this is a lot of money. I disagree. If you really want to win, these are the basic commitments.

These figures are realistic. I have cross checked this with cases I have directly worked on and examples I know about.

Whilst that may seem a lot, it’s a lot less than many organisations will pay in the passage of legislation. This is despite once the proposal is out the door of the Commission, most organisations are only going to have at best marginal, if any, influence.

I am also reminded that a few € million is a lot less than the bitter taste of defeat.

Further Reading

John W. Kingdom in his classic “Agenda, Alternatives and Public Policies”.


How to run the European Parliament


How to run the European Parliament by Mariyln Political


This concise 93 page pamphlet book is well worth reading. It will take you an hour. It is full of useful gems.


It’s a practical how to get ahead as a MEP guidebook. The firm behind it, http://www.marilynpolitical.com/,  have packed a lot of useful information in.


Even if you don’t want to be a MEP, it’s useful to read to better understand how successful MEPs work. I was lucky to work for two good British Labour MEPs in my late 20s. On every page, I came across passages that resonated with me.


10 things I liked


Everybody who reads this book will come away with different key insights. Here is my top 10:



  1. Showing expertise. Show this by producing free newsletters and briefing notes.


  1. Answer emails from constituents within 24 hours.


  1. Fight for your vision, but avoid wars you cannot win.


  1. Be faster than everyone else. Be the 1st to present and push for compromises. Steer the debate.


  1. Don’t leave any votes to chance.


  1. Regularly lay down short and long-term media action plans.


  1. The news interviews boil down to 10 second sound bites.


  1. Hire good people or better people who know more than you.


  1. Don’t forget back home


  1. Get re-elected – get top on your Party’s list – your constituents won’t vote for your work in Brussels.

Do you sound like a tobacco lobbyist?

Do the Words Give the Game Away

I have just re-read Christopher Buckley’s “Thank you for Smoking” and completed “The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer” by Dr.  Siddhartha Mukherjee Pulwitzer, who is an oncologist (a doctor of Cancer).

I read Dr.  Siddhartha Mukherjee Pulwitzer Prize winning book because I wanted to better understand what caused my cancer. The book reads more like a thriller. I am glad I read it after my treatment.

I re-read the Christopher Buckley’s fictional story of Nick Naylor,  chief spokesperson for Academy of Tobacco Studies, because the book is very funny.

But, both books converge on the use of language by lobbyists in defending their clients’ interests.

Nick Naylor responding to a report in the The New England Journal of Medicine  repeats the tell tale lines:

  • Where is the data
  • This was a double-blind study?
  • And how big was the control group?

“Buerger’s diseas has only recently been dianoses. Ut has a complex, indeed, extremleu complex pathology. One of the more complexy pathologies in the filed of circulatory medine… With all respect, I think further study is warranted before science goes looking, noose in hand, to lynch the usual suspects”

Source Thank you for smoking, pages 20-21.


Is this Made Up

Whilst Nick Naylor’s  language may seem made up, it is likely to been cut and paste from the tobacco industry.

In the “History of Cancer” the work of Clarence Little, from the Council of Tobacco Research, comes up.  The language Nick Naylor uses to defend tobacco has been used for decades.
Umbrellas Don’t Cause Rain
I have quoted the following section direct from the History of Cancer. The words stand by themselves.
“Little was a strong proponent of the theory that all diseases, including cancer, were essentially hereditary, and that these illnesses, in a form of medical ethnic-cleansing, would eventually carry away those with such predispositions, leaving a genetically enriched population resistant to diseases.
This notion—call it eugenics lite—was equally applied to lung cancer, which he also considered principally the product of a genetic aberration
Smoking, Little argued, merely unveiled that inherent aberration, causing that bad germ to emerge
and unfold in a human body.
Blaming cigarettes for lung cancer, then, was like blaming umbrellas for bringing on the rain.
A correlation, Little insisted, could not be equated with cause.
How could scientists so easily conflate a mere confluence of two events—smoking and lung cancer—with a causal relationship?
Persuading mice to chain-smoke was obviously unlikely to succeed.
1. It was strong: the increased risk of cancer was nearly five- or tenfold in smokers.
2. It was consistent
3. It was specific: tobacco was linked to lung cancer—precisely the site where tobacco smoke enters the body.
4. It was temporal: Doll and Hill had found that the longer one smoked, the greater the increase in risk.
5. It possessed a “biological gradient”: the more one smoked in quantity, the greater the risk for lung cancer.
6. It was plausible: a mechanistic link between an inhaled carcinogen and a malignant change in the lung was not implausible. It was coherent; it was backed by experimental evidence
Can you not infer causality by using that list of criteria?”
Smoking Does Not Harm Mice
What about the mice? A recurring theme in the History of Cancer is  whether you need animal testing to establish causality? Some cancers, like asbestos, even tobacco smoke, the most common human carcinogen, does not easily induce lung cancer in mice. Bruce Ames’s bacterial test does not register asbestos as a mutagen. The tobacco  made great play that mice found it hard to get lung  cancer.