Writing for Policy: A Beginner’s Guide
Sarah Mancoll, SPSSI Policy Director
In late March, SPSSI hosted a webinar in partnership with APA Division 15 (Educational Psychology) on the topic of policy writing. Division 15 had reached out to us about hosting the webinar after seeing one of SPSSI’s sessions at the 2019 APA Convention in Chicago. During this one-hour webinar, I took attendees on a whirlwind “tour” of the policy writing space. Although it’s not exhaustive, I hope that this webinar provides psychologists and psychology students a good introduction to what policy writing looks like, what can be accomplished through policy writing, and how to get started. To watch the webinar, please click here. You’ll be asked to type in your name and email address, and will then be directed to the recorded webinar.
Important things to know about policy writing and communication
Choi et al. (2005) noted in their paper Can Scientists and Policymakers Work Together? that scientists differ from policymakers in many important ways. Scientists and policmakers often have different goals, time scales, conceptions of what constitutes “evidence,” attention spans, priorities, and people to whom they are accountable. They even speak different languages, with scientists often requiring “translation” for a policy audience.
At the same time, it can be difficult for scientists to communicate with policymakers because they lack access to policymakers. This is where “intermediaries” come in. As Tseng (2012) writes in The Uses of Research in Policy and Practice, “When confronted with questions about a program or reform, agencies and legislators often turn to trusted peers and intermediaries.” Intermediaries include (but are not limited to): Scientific and professional societies like SPSSI and APA; think tanks like the Center for American Progress and the American Enterprise Institute; advocacy-focused coalitions like the National Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Coalition and the National Coalition to End Homelessness; universities and university-based departments, centers, and institutes; the news media; funders (federal agencies, foundations); and other associations, like the National School Boards Association and AARP.
As you embark on policy work, or expand your scope of policy work, seek out intermediaries. These organizations already have established channels of communication with policymakers and often have a finger on the pulse of the policy issues they cover. Intermediaries can help you fine-tune your message and will be invaluable in sharing and amplifying what you have to say.
Know your message, audience, and medium
With policy writing, you want to start with your message. What is it that you want to share with policymakers? For example, do you want to share that housing insecurity is a major stressor for local families? That your university needs a new approach to preventing sexual violence on campus? That ageism continues to be a problem in many workplaces? That the forcible separation of families can leave behind multigenerational scars? That we need more public investment in pre-K?
Next, which audience should be the target of your message? If you’re like me and you live in Maryland—a state that does not yet have universal public pre-K—and you want to advocate for public pre-K, your primary audience might be state legislators. If you work on a university campus and the policy issue that you care about pertains to your campus, then your university administrators might be your target audience. If your focus is ageism in the workplace, and you’re looking to help educate a broad swath of people—including public and private actors— then your target audience might be the general public.
Last, knowing what your message is and who your audience is, ask yourself what communication medium best fits your purpose. Policy briefs and fact sheets are often used on Capitol Hill because they are able to capture key points in 1-2 pages. White papers, public comments, and public testimony can also be a good vehicle for researchers, especially when they are looking to do more of a “deep dive” into an issue that is of interest to the legislative or executive branches of government. Researchers can also contribute to amicus briefs; APA regularly works with psychology content experts to draft briefs that are pertinent to major cases before the federal courts. Policy writing can also come in the form of practice guides (e.g., translating research for teachers or doctors), open letters, op-eds and letters to the editor, blogging, and tweeting.
In the webinar on Writing for Policy, I go through each of the above points in greater detail and give examples of each kind of policy writing. Please check out the webinar, share it with colleagues and students, and let me know what other kinds of skill-building webinars SPSSI might produce next! My email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
A final note: As our world grapples with COVID-19 and its ramifications, and as vulnerable people and institutions struggle that much more than they used to, it’s more important than ever that SPSSI members use our voices to inform public discussions and decision-making. As Kurt Lewin famously wrote in JSI more than seventy years ago: “Research that produces nothing but books will not suffice.”