About POST policy briefings
POST has been producing policy briefings for over thirty years. In this time, we have written over 600 briefings and have honed our technique.
Our flagship briefing, the POSTnote, is just four pages long. It reviews the current research in topical and emerging areas and is a trusted, impartial source of information. Interviews with tens of experts and stakeholders as well as rigorous internal and external peer review, make for an impartial and balanced report. POSTnotes help Members of the House of Commons and the House of Lords and UK Parliament staff navigate complex research.
POSTnotes typically take three months to produce. In this time they go through a systematic literature and extensive peer review. Their topics are a product of horizon scanning undertaken by our team of advisers. Topic proposals are taken to a board of parliamentarians and external experts. They in turn prioritise which proposals will be made into POSTnotes.
POSTbriefs are dynamic and strategic evidence syntheses. They are produced in response to major developments in current affairs or at the request of select committees or the Libraries. POSTbriefs summarise the available research literature, and can be produced in as little as one month.
As POSTbriefs don’t follow a strict four-page limit, they can be more flexible and tailor the content to the needs of the topic. They can provide in-depth analyses of complex research, reactively presenting evidence on various topics. POSTbriefs can be requested by select committees of both Houses to aid in scoping or to provide background reading to Members.
Here we go over the typical production process of a policy briefing.
Choosing a topic
The first step in writing a policy briefing for Parliament is to choose a good topic. A good place to start is emerging research. Has there been a significant change in a scientific field? Is a new technology changing our way of life? Could new technologies, policies or developments in recent research have far-reaching social or economic implications? If the answer is yes to any of these questions, we might have a good candidate for a briefing topic.
We have a pool of topics. Next we assess the evidence base. Some topics have established evidence that parliamentarians can use to make decisions. Other topics might have a weak evidence base; this can be just as important to assess and present to parliamentarians.
A final check is relevance to parliamentarians. Is this likely to be used in Parliament in the next 6 to 12 months? The UK Parliament might already be considering a Bill on this topic. Before a Bill becomes law, it will have to be scrutinised by Parliament, and parliamentarians will need briefings to be able to make informed decisions. Perhaps a select committee is planning an inquiry on this topic and would value more evidence. Or maybe stakeholders have suggested that the UK could introduce regulation in an emerging area.
Research that is shaping society, has an evolving evidence base and is relevant to Parliament, can be a good candidate for a policy briefing. And this work – identifying the emerging research, assessing the evidence base, and ensuring relevance to Parliament – means we now have a scope, which can help guide the rest of the process.
Researching a policy briefing
Policy briefing authors often specialise in broad areas of research, such as energy or health. Policy briefing topics however are usually much more specific. To produce a quality briefing, authors need to identify where the evidence is, assess it, and synthesise it in an impartial, accurate and balanced report. To do this our authors conduct tens of interviews with a range of stakeholders. They will interview experts in academia, industry, government, the third sector and other relevant sectors. These interviews help us to map out the evidence base, and balance the interests of different stakeholders. Alongside these interviews, the authors read relevant academic and non-academic literature on the topic.
Writing a policy briefing
When the interviews and literature review are complete, a policy briefing author should have a good idea of the research landscape and can put together a first draft. Even at the draft stage, an author should consider relevance, clarity and brevity. Parliamentarians are busy and therefore briefings need to be short and easy to read.
Key structural elements of POSTnotes include:
- A summary and a list of key points up front.
- A clear structure with well signposted sections.
- Use of boxes for figures, case-studies, glossaries and other contextual materials
- Accessible language to ensure ease of reading: short sentences, use of common words.
Next, the first draft gets shared and reviewed by two advisers from within POST. At this stage (the internal review stage), the briefing may be restructured to make it clearer. An adviser might request greater explanation, or suggest adding or removing content. Checks for impartiality, accuracy and balance are undertaken. The editor also checks that the briefing reflects POST’s style.
After internal review, the briefing is redrafted and sent out for external review. Key experts from academia, industry, government, the third sector and other relevant sectors are invited to comment on the work. This ensures impartiality, accuracy and balance. External experts might point out more evidence that needs to be taken into consideration. They might suggest edits to improve sections. The author will then review external comments (taking into account differences in opinions between stakeholders) and make appropriate edits. POST is editorially independent.
A pre-publication draft gets sent to the Head of POST who makes all final checks and makes edits to ensure the briefing meets POST’s standards. The briefing is signed off and published.
Tips for writing a policy briefing
- As with all communications it’s important to know your audience:
- Parliamentarians and policy-makers are busy people. Be clear and concise.
- Explain why the topic is relevant to them – why should they care?
- Remember that research is just one type of information that gets considered when making policy decisions. Consider the impacts to people as well as the science. Who is affected? What regions are affected? What are the cost implications?
- MPs are elected to represent a particular constituency – can you connect the topic to local or regional areas that they are likely to be interested in?
- Have a clear structure and make it easy to scan by using headings and sub-headings to break up large blocks of text.
- Start with an overview that outlines the key points of the briefing.
- Use figures, charts or diagrams where suitable to help your briefing be more eye-catching and appealing.
- Chose an impactful headline, something short and descriptive
- Make sure that the briefing is clear, right from the start, about how the issue you are writing about relates to policy.
- What are the timescales and why now?
- Present the evidence for your argument and be explicit about methodological limitations and/or the strength of the evidence you are presenting.
- Include handy facts and figures parliamentarians can make use of.
- Avoid emotive language and let the science speak for itself.
- Don’t assume prior knowledge. Minimise jargon and acronyms.
- Highlight consensus and ongoing debate. Be clear about how you are building on existing knowledge.
- Be clear about where there is uncertainty and what the nature of that uncertainty is. Is there no research in that area or is the system intrinsically uncertain?
- Include your sources of information so that readers can see where the information is coming from, and to offer them further opportunities to explore the evidence. Use open access sources as much as possible.
- And finally provide your contact details and make sure your briefing is dated and you provide contact details for people who might want to get in touch.