ECON 378

Policy Paper Guidelines


Sources:  Eugene Bardach, A Practical Guide for Policy Analysis, and Catherine F. Smith, Writing Public Policy; George M. Guess and Paul G. Farnham, Cases in Public Policy Analysis; The International Relations Department at Boston University (web site).


What is a Public Policy Paper?

For students who write a policy paper, it is important to select an issue that meets the following criteria:


What not to do!


Proposal Paper:

Before actually writing the policy paper your first assignment will be to write a proposal paper.  Some of what you write in the Proposal might be used in the final draft of your Policy paper – but not all of it.

A Proposal Paper is similar to a Position Paper in the sense that you will be making an argument for the importance of your policy position.  A policy argument supports a claim that something should or should not be done.  Such arguments have two main components:  a claim and its support. 

Remember, you are writing this to the Head of Public Policy Research at your Policy Institute.  You want to sell your idea – that your purpose and your question are important enough to spend the resources writing a Public Policy analysis.  You also want to be clear as to what point of view you will be writing the paper from – and what other points of views you will consider in the paper.


Outline The Proposal or Petition should include the following information:

·         Desired outcome:  What do you want to accomplish?  Can you describe it as if it were already accomplished in a future you want to achieve?


This is your Purpose from the Checklist for Reasoning (we will discuss next class).


·         Today’s situation:  What’s wrong in the present?  Why is the action you propose needed?  What causes the need?

This is your Question/Problem from the Checklist for Reasoning.

·         Relevant background:  How did the problem arise?  What original assumptions are no longer valid?  What conditions have changed?  You should not have a lot of data or evidence in the proposal except you might want to mention a statistic (just as an example) that helps make your case that there is a problem.  The majority of your evidence will be in the main body of your paper.


·         Available options:  What are the alternative ways of meeting the need?  Advantages and disadvantage of each?  Costs of each?  These should not be discussed in great detail, but should be mentioned.


·         Recommended action:  What is the best alternative?  Can you briefly argue as to why?


·         Point of View:  What point of view are you arguing from?  Briefly mention other points of view you will be addressing in your paper (but don’t go into detail here).


·         Summary:  What are the results (referring to the desired future) if requested action is performed (as per your analysis)?


·         Action items:  Who is asked to do what, when, where, and how?  This might be simply that you are asking the federal government to pass (or repeal) a specific legislation, for example.




Format for the Policy Paper


Assuming your Proposal is accepted - Below are the guidelines to follow while writing a Policy Paper. Some variation may occur depending on the topic of the paper and the research methods being used. The length of the final Policy Paper should be 8 - 12 pages.  Please use a very easy to read font such as Arial or something similar.  I will accept both 10 pt. and 12 pt. font.  Normal margins (don't get carried away).

Of Course you should have a Cover Sheet.


Executive Summary (you will write this last)

At the beginning of the paper, explain who the target audience is (i.e., the decision-maker for your policy proposal) and the main points that the decision-maker should know. It may be best to write this section last because it will serve as a summary of the entire paper.

At a minimum, the summary should include the following:

  1. A statement of current policy
  2. Reasons for initiating changes
  3. Policy options to be considered (your policy might be suggested to take the place of another policy - therefore, make that clear).  If your policy is a new policy and there are no other suggested policies, then you won't need to deal with this.
  4. Pros and cons of each option (or of your policy)
  5. Recommended course of action
  6. Reasoning for selecting that course of action


This section should be brief – and if possible, put as much information in bullet form.  Decision-makers will often read the Executive Summary quickly to decide if the rest of the paper is worth reading.  They want the information in a very easy to follow and readable form.  Keep that in mind.  If you can get it on one page - do so!


Body of Paper

The main portion of the paper should be dedicated to establishing the background and discussing the reasoning behind your policy recommendation. Students should include all of the basics from the executive summary, but fully elaborate on each point that the paper is making. Some of the information included in the Proposal will also be included here in more detailed form.  The outline for this section is similar to the outline for the Proposal.

The following is an outline describing what the main body of the paper should include.


Overview / Background (Purpose and Question Criteria from the Checklist)

Discussion (Concepts, Assumptions, Inferences and Point of View Criteria from the Checklist) (see below as well)

Evidence (Information Criterion from the Checklist)

·         Discuss any evidence that you have found that supports your policy proposal here.  Make sure your sources are credible and clearly cited.


Recommendation (Implications Criterion from the Checklist)



The following items should be included as appendices to a Policy Paper.

  1. Annexes, if there are any.  These might include a copy of the a current policy law as written, for example.
  2. Endnotes, if end notes are used rather than footnotes.  You can use either.
  3. Graphs, tables, charts, maps, etc. These can also be placed within the body of the paper, if appropriate.  Be careful with graphs.  Economists love them – but remember your audience!
  4. Bibliography - use MLA or APA (we will choose as a class and all use one of these).


Policy Paper Content and Analysis – Discussion Section in More Detail


Viable Alternatives

Policy papers must present other policy alternatives, and they must be serious alternatives. As a general rule, the number should be three but in some cases there might be just two. One serious alternative will often be to maintain the status quo. Even if the status quo seems dangerous and stupid, you might want to take it seriously because in the real world it will often be the most likely outcome (although I don’t care if you would rather be a dreamer). The alternatives presented must not be straw-men arguments that are so ridiculous they only serve to make the recommended policy look good. Of course, you will probably go deeper into the preferred alternative than into the other options, but the other options must be given a fair presentation and analysis.


Cost-benefit analysis

Policy papers should be based on clear cost-benefit analysis. Who loses and who gains from the policy (and the alternatives)?  You should be certain to think through all possible outcomes clearly and thoroughly. The cost-benefit analysis should seriously consider the feasibility of implementation, not only in terms of economic or strategic implications, but also in terms of political feasibility. Moreover, the analysis of likely effects must not be completely one-sided. There are always going to be some benefits and some costs to any policy proposal – there is no proposal so good that it does not have some costs associated with it.


Clear Criteria

You should present clear criteria for evaluating the problem at hand and the policy alternatives to be considered. This will involve prioritizing among a variety of possible values. Trade-offs are the heart of the policy process – if solutions were easy or obvious, the problem would not be around for anyone to analyze. Determining clear criteria from the start will greatly aid the development of a cost-benefit analysis.

For example, if you choose to use the Rules-Incentives-Knowledge-Actions-Outcomes model as your criteria of analysis, just make it clear that that is what you are doing.  Along with any assumptions you are making!


Clear pattern predictions

What are the likely results of the various alternatives? What is the intended outcomes?  What are the unintended outcomes?  Be specific and reasonably detailed. What level of certainty can one have about them?