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How to Inform Policy Makers in a Briefing Memo or Opinion
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Informing Policy Makers:

During a policy process, authorities receive large amounts of unsolicited information and advice. Often, they ignore it. Instead, policy makers directly seek the information and advice they need.

Policy makers need information for making decisions. They usually prefer it in short, quickly comprehended, summary form. This section helps you to write two forms of summary, a briefing memo and an opinion statement.

What kinds of information or advice do policy makers typically need?

For consideration of an issue, general information might include assessments of events or conditions; arguments and critical analysis of arguments; review of policy options and technical analysis of the options; specialized topic reports; investigative reports; summaries of laws germane to the issue; legal counsel on interpretation of laws; summaries of expert opinion, of public opinion, and of political advocacy.

Beyond these general types of information, any single issue demands its own particular and detailed information.

For example, a municipality that is developing a comprehensive plan for land use will need general assessments of area conditions (environmental, economic, historical, and cultural factors); reports on currents costs of providing services in the area (such as roads, water, and sewage treatment); summaries of relevant state law (such as regulations governing municipal planning), and more.

To apply general information to a specific municipality (such as a township or village), its elected officials might ask county or state government agencies for local population statistics, economic projections, or environmental data. They might ask legal counsel to examine land use planning tools such as zoning ordinances in nearby municipalities, or to review case law on legal challenges to them.

To prepare for public discussion of draft plans and ordinances, the officials will seek political advice. They will want to know the opinion and advice of organized groups as well as individuals living in the municipality.

Who provides information to policy makers?

It varies by level of government. In federal and state government, professional staff might produce much of the needed information. The staff’s know how, or familiarity with the policy process and understanding of the political context, enables them to inform policy makers usefully. Staff members typically write briefing memos. As distinguished from extensive memos such as policy analysis memos, briefing memos are terse and targeted summaries of essentials. They might be composed to update an official on a current topic, for example.

Because municipal governments often have small staffs (or no staff), local elected officials might do their own information gathering. They might utilize a range of information providers including experts (representing subject knowledge), advocacy and stakeholder groups (representing organized interests), legal counsels (representing rules and procedures), other officials and associations of elected officials (representing politics), and citizens (representing the opinion or experience of individuals or groups).

Any of these providers might write an opinion statement or a briefing memo to inform an official’s work of representation.

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Scenario 1

In the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 Trade Center attacks, a government agency begins preparing a briefing memo. Read more...

Scenario 2

A local resident prepares a one-page summary of findings and interpretation of state law setting boundaries on municipal authority regarding concentrated animal feeding operations. Read more...