How to get policy work done

The best policy projects succeed because of skill as well as brainpower.

04 September 2021

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I’ve done policy work in government, in think tanks and nonprofits, and in the private sector. This post is the director’s cut of a thread I posted recently, in which I suggested some tips for getting policy work done effectively and producing things policymakers find helpful.

There is, of course, much more to good policy work than the things listed here. I think they’re a good place to start though, and I hope you find them a useful and thought-provoking contribution to whatever you’re working on next.

1. Define the question

A good problem definition is specific, measurable, action-oriented, relevant and time-bound (SMART). Think “How do we eliminate carbon from surface transport in London by 2030?”, not “I wonder what we should do about cars” or “Let’s fix cities”.

2. Apply structure

Use issue trees, driver trees and hypothesis trees to separate out the different logical components of the problem and understand how they relate to each other. Good structure is MECE: mutually exclusive, collectively exhaustive.

3. Be hypothesis-driven

Faced with a difficult problem, it’s easy to hope that if you just read enough and think hard enough the answer will eventually reveal itself. Don’t do this. Form a testable hypothesis, break it down and work smart to validate or refine it.

4. Analyse, don’t just summarise

Simply describing the issues - even in forensic detail - won’t change anything. You need to grapple with the shape of the problem, unpack all its different dimensions, understand the nature of the tradeoffs and provide a framework for resolving them.

5. Be evidence-based

Anyone can give their opinion on a topic. Great policy work goes beyond the “shoulds” and the “oughts” to assemble the data, evidence and insights that support an argument. Do this well and you can enter any debate confident you are on firm ground.

6. Think first, write later

If you know what you think with crystal clarity then writing the report / deck / speech is easy. Track changes is for copy editing; if you find your team doing substantive problem solving via track changes then the only certainty is you messed up.

7. Build a tight narrative

Great policy recommendations have a sense of purpose and urgency running through them. Put in the effort to sharpen your governing thought - the short, punchy statement that articulates what needs to happen - and build your narrative out from there.

8. Learn to let go

Some of the analysis you do during a policy project will ultimately be peripheral (or even irrelevant) to the final story. It’s tempting to load it all in anyway, so that everyone sees how hard you worked – but try not to. Your audience will thank you!

9. Make it practical…

People in power need to know in straightforward terms what you are asking them to do. “Government should recognise the inherent complexity of this important issue and create a holistic strategy to respond to it” = instant bin. Say something real.

10. …and politically actionable

Recommendations that amount to “government should just do the right thing” will never survive contact with reality. It’s essential that you understand why something hasn’t happened already, and show how your way will succeed where others failed.

11. Involve people

Policy affects people, so find ways to include a range of voices and perspectives as the work progresses. Doing this will bring more knowledge and capabilities to bear on the problem, and will also help build consensus around the best way forward.1

12. Be humble

The biggest policy challenges are, by definition, hard. Pay close attention to the class of problem you’re investigating. Be honest about the limits of your knowledge – and about how much control policymakers can really exert over complex systems.2


Postscript: Two heads are better than one

These tips are mostly about what to pay attention to at the beginning of a policy project (make sure you grip the question you’re trying to answer) and toward the end (make the conclusions easy for your audience to do something with).

The bit in the middle of a project is much harder to pin down. Exactly what you need to do to explore, interrogate, analyse and iterate on a problem has more variations than there are policy questions waiting to be answered.

One thing is for sure, though: no matter how smart you are, problem solving is best done as a team sport. Find people that you can do your best work with, build on and challenge each other’s ideas, be generous giving and receiving feedback, and keep an open mind.