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What is a policy brief?

The term ‘policy brief’ is used widely to describe a range of different types of documents. For example:

The World Health Organization (WHO) applies this term to a range of documents it produces (see Box 1.1 below). However, it lacks a standard definition of the term ‘policy brief’.

The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) describes its policy briefs as “clear, concise summaries of country economic surveys and today’s global policy challenges.”6

Brookings Policy Briefs are described as “short and informative analyses on some of the nation’s most pressing domestic and foreign policy challenges that bring background and recommendations to policymakers, journalists and the general public.”7

And the Center for Policy Research Policy Briefs are essays on current public policy issues in ageing, health, income security, metropolitan studies, and related research done by or on behalf of the Center for Policy Research at the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs.8

Box 1.1: Examples of WHO policy briefs

A WHO health workforce policy brief describes an issue, and proposes ways to address it, based on experience drawn from different country settings. The briefs are designed to encourage adaptation to local needs and local languages.1

WHR05 policy briefs are summaries of between 2-4 pages that, in conjunction with the 2005 World Health Report “Make Every Mother And Child Count”, are intended to structure dialogue with policy and opinion makers on moving towards universal access to care for mothers, newborns and children. These policy briefs focus on programmatic development and overcoming the main system constraints to scaling up.2

Evidence for Action (E4A) policy briefs are summaries of evidence. In some cases they are recommendations that can be used by policy makers for advocacy purposes, for example, regarding the importance of interventions included in a comprehensive package of interventions for HIV/AIDS and injecting drug users.3

Policy briefs by the European Observatory on Health Systems and Policies emphasise the key policy lessons from Observatory studies in a brief and concise format. They are easy to read and useful to busy policymakers.4

Joint Health Evidence Network (HEN) – Observatory Policy Briefs are commissioned reports that cover and synthesise available research evidence and deliver a message on potential policy options for good practice. HEN–Observatory briefs consist of: key messages delivered in bullet point format; an executive summary; and a core section providing the evidence and substance of the report itself.5

Policy briefs are sometimes viewed as advocacy documents. For example: “The policy brief is a document which outlines the rationale for choosing a particular policy alternative or course of action in a current policy debate. It is commonly produced in response to a request directly from a decision-maker or within an organisation that intends to advocate for the position detailed in the brief. Depending on the role of the writer or organisation producing the document, the brief may only provide a targeted discussion of the current alternatives without arguing for a particular one. On the other end of the scale, the brief may focus directly on providing an argument for the adoption of a particular alternative. Nevertheless for any case, as any policy debate is a market-place of competing ideas, the purpose of the policy brief is to convince the target audience of the urgency of the current problem and the need to adopt the preferred alternative or course of action outlined and therefore, serve as an impetus for action.”9

What is common to all the examples listed above is that policy briefs are concise and brief, and that they are targeted at policymakers (although not necessarily only policymakers). However, the content and format varies widely, they may or may not address a problem, may or may not present policy options, may or may not advocate specific options, and may or may not be based on (or refer to) research evidence.

The term ‘policy brief’, as used in these guides, refers to an “evidence-based policy brief” or an “evidence brief for policy”, which brings together global research evidence (from systematic reviews) and local evidence to inform deliberations about health policies and programmes. The policy briefs in these guides begin with a description of a policy problem, then summarise the best available evidence to clarify the size and nature of the problem, describe the likely impacts of key options for addressing the problem, and inform considerations about potential barriers to implementing the options and strategies for addressing these barriers.10 Examples of SURE policy briefs can be found in the library at the end of these guides.

Workshop materials and a presentation that introduce evidence informed policy-making and workshop materials and a presentation giving an introduction to policy briefs, are also provided.

This page was last updated November 2011.