This November, I had a delicious and duly missed English breakfast in honor of H.E Ambassador Gareth Bayley, the British Ambassador to Egypt - courtesy of the British Egyptian Business Association’s unequivocal hospitality.
Like all Scotsmen I’ve ever met, Ambassador Bayley would not let you enjoy your meal without bombarding you with humorous stories. But one story was, to me, a bit of a dark humor - here it is:
Planning a visit to the Middle East with one of his colleagues, the latter emphasised a series of business opportunities in the UAE, encouraging him to talk to investors here and there, and so on. Then when the conversation came to Egypt, his colleague stressed on the necessity of visiting the pyramids and a few museums - and stopped there – (the end).
I dropped my dearly held sausage-stuffed fork and had no thought in mind but “you bloody orientalists! If only Edward Said was here…”
But upon reflection, it seems counterintuitive that the same person who’d see Egypt (historically the first nation to modernise in the region) in an orientalist light, would not see the UAE in a similar light. It seems, rather, that it is the story told about each nation that matters - and the story of Egypt seems to be yet trapped in history.
Investors, diplomats, and policymakers are not sophisticated academics with the luxury of knowledge, time, and headspace to think critically about the stories they are told. They are busy people who don't have the time to actually learn about things - for they would rather use their time and headspace to create possibilities out of what they already know.
Our job as policy advisors is to simplify knowledge for overwhelmed policymakers; and hence part of what we ought to do as Egyptian policy advisors is to postulate an easily digestible story of Egypt, simplifying its complexities, whereby its heroes are not Sphinx and Cleopatra, but Sayyed and Zeinab.
This story must be scripted now, before it is too late; and it should be told by us, policy advisers with a profound interest in encouraging a diverse and long-term foreign investment portfolio, and not by distant media anchors or business and political leaders overwhelmed by the slew of opportunities to exhaust here and now. When asked about what my job at Moharram and Partners is, from now on my answer will be “rewriting the story of Egypt to both businesses and policymakers.”
An everything guide on writing a brief that is equal parts compelling and concise
More than ever, analysts today are asked to write briefs. The reasons for that are multiple: there’s too much accessible information out there for policymakers to read, policymakers are becoming busier as working hours escalate unprecedentedly, and efficient reviewing of knowledge material is accordingly becoming both essential and trendy.
Unlike our community of analysts, investors, businessmen, politicians, diplomats, and all sorts of people we put under the super-modern label “policymakers” lack the luxury of knowledge, time and headspace that allow them to critically evaluate the stories they are told or deeply dig into its core meanings and implications. We are, therefore, asked to do that for them – and that is, precisely what a policy brief is about: digging into the subject, unleashing its core value and implications, and deciding what it could be used for and how it could be best utilized. The analogy to mining is intended: we are strictly and precisely mining to extract value from the piles of sand, dirt and noise that surround it.
Extracting value is the endpoint, but what is the process? Here, the mining analogy is even more pertinent. As in gold production, the process is four-fold, and each step paves the way for the next:
- Prospecting: We screen all available sources to determine which areas and fields are worth drilling into, and which are irrelevant.
- Drilling: Once we know where the gold lies, we drill as deep as is necessary to reach it. Note that both over-drilling and under-drilling would not help us find the substance we are after. Similarly, a brief should neither be too shallow to provide value nor too sophisticated that it takes up more time and space than the value it provides – aim to strike just the right balance.
- Extracting: Now that you’ve drilled down to the layer where the substance lies, not more and not less, you’ll find the information you need – extract it and run away before its market price goes down. Beware that the information stock market is becoming super time elastic. In an information age marked with cloud sharing, once someone else delivers the information to the cloud, the once invaluable knowledge becomes as cheap and easy as one google-search away. So, once you have the validated resources, take it and create with it.
- Creating the Jewelry: Creating is key. A raw diamond ore is significantly more expensive than a diamond ring; yet we use the latter to propose to our beloved ones for a reason. That is because it is more usable – your beloved one would not be able to wear a diamond ore around, but she’d wear the diamond ring and it will help her fingers shine. She’d also use it to show others she’s engaged to you and to start conversations about your love story. That is what we’re after in a policy brief as well: putting the information together in a way that is usable to the policymaker, that would help her shine, that would show communicable value to others, and that could serve as a starting point for fruitful policy conversations.
So, what is a policy brief?
A policy brief is a concise summary of complex, inter-related issues presented in an order that renders them both understandable and actionable, thereby allowing policymakers to know the subject and act upon it.
A policy brief should have the following:
- A sticky title. Think of the policy brief as an advocacy tool – an advertisement to the solutions you recommend. In advocacy, you want to grab attention. You also want to use the title as a conversation starter, quenching your reader’s thirst about what you have to say.
- Executive Summary: Now that you’ve grabbed the attention of your reader, tell her in a few sentences or bullet points “what is up”; i.e. why are you writing this brief and why they should read it, what problems does it address and what solutions does it recommend. These aspects should be outlined in the summary, then detailed and evidenced in the body of the brief.
- Problem/Rationale: This section should provide details on why the question or problem addressed in the brief is worthy of attention, and contextualizing it vis-à-vis other policy issues and surroundings.
- Background: Seems self-explanatory, but beware of providing too much background. As mentioned earlier, you need to dig to the exact level where the knowledge value is created – not less but also not more.
- Policy Options: What strategies are put to address the problem? This section should include both practiced and unpracticed policy options, including international standards. Make sure to evaluate every policy option, providing its strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats.
- Policy Recommendations: What do you suggest we do? This could be selecting one of the policy options provided or coining a new one. In both cases, it must be evidence-based and could be argued for on proven results, previous experiences, and crude evidence.
- Relevant Illustrations: Provide graphs, stat tables, footage, and images, etc – the more visual, the better.
- List of References: Cite all references that you’ve used and those that could provide more in-depth details into the issues covered in the brief.
- Contact Details: What if the policymaker has been convinced with what you propose and I want to discuss it further? This means that your brief has succeeded – your advocacy campaign is halfway through on the way of influencing policy decisions. But for the next step to take place, the policymaker must be able to contact you. So please, do not forget to put your contact details.
A policy brief should do the following:
- Provide enough background for the reader to understand the problem
- Convince the reader that the problem must be urgently addressed
- Provide evidence to support specific alternatives/resolutions
- Stimulate the reader to make a well-calculated, evidence-based decision
A policy brief should be the following:
- Concise. It should focus on a particular problem or issue. Do not go into all the details. Instead, provide enough information for the reader to understand the issue and come to a decision.
- Based on firm evidence. It should draw evidence from various sources – preferably from different areas, scholars or organisations. It should not be opinionated or too argumentative.
- Relate to the big picture. The policy brief may build on context-specific findings, but it should draw conclusions that are more generally applicable.
- Relevant and timely. It should be written to a specified target audience, addressing an issue they are currently having and answering a pertinent question.
- Professional, not academic. You are not writing to scholars invested in your area of expertise, but to policymakers looking for practical solutions. Give them the problem, the solution, and the evidence that the solution would work - all in simple, straightforward, jargon-free language.
- Actionable. Policy briefs are not meant to be read for general knowledge; they are rather written and read with a policy outcome in mind. Hence, it should be practical, feasible, and in touch with the real world.
Finally, write with passion. You are the expert in the policy field, and you provide a major push to the policy dynamics by briefing policymakers on the course of action you advocate. So act as such, it will show on your work.