PLSC 381 - Public Policy Analysis (Rosenfeld)

Ace the Assignment

Success tip:  don’t just read the assignment, analyze it!

Professors expect students to follow directions carefully, but what do they actually mean by those directions? Figure out what an assignment is really asking, and you have the key to a successful paper.

What is a Policy Brief?

Here are some examples and models of policy briefs.  Note: these examples might not follow the format expected by your professor or employer, so read your assignment carefully!

Selecting a Topic for a Policy Brief

A Policy Brief should address a current social problem, or in Criminology, a problem related to crime or criminal justice. It is important to narrow down the problem to something that can be defined and measured.  Example: starting with the general topic of diversionary programs to reduce recidivism, you might eventually develop a policy brief about community reparations for juveniles.

How to choose a topic:

  1. Consider the lectures and readings in your other courses.  Did something come up that you would like to know more about?
  2. Talk to experienced students about your interests and studies.
  3. Read newspapers and magazines such as:  New York Times (or the NYT Learning Network), Wall Street Journal, New Yorker, Harpers, Popular Science, or similar.
  4. Explore the National Criminal Justice Reference Service (NCJRS)
  5. Explore criminology databases and books such as the Springer Briefs series.

Try to find a topic that is not very common or very typical.  Usually the top topics in a database like CQ Researcher or Opposing Viewpoints are already over-worked.  Dig a little deeper to fnd something fresh.

Once you have some general ideas, it is time to focus.  In order to write a coherent brief, you must focus or sharpen your topic by exploring different aspects and problems, or by addressing a question. 

How to focus:

  1. Ask questions.  For example, if your topic is immigrants as crime victims, ask, what about it?  Ask yourself questions about definitions and characteristics, causes, and influences.
  2. Read to learn.  Later you will be reading for research, but start with reading to get an overview or outline of your topic.  Good places for this kind of reading might include the websites of advocacy organizations, articles or book chapters that give overviews of the topic, and for more advanced students, see the Annual Reviews series for your subject area, such as Sociology or Law & Social Science. Think Tanks and policy institutes are great resources to discover interesting social problems (see the Think Tanks section of this guide).

Even when you have focused your topic, you are still not quite done with this phase.  Now it's time to make sure you have something that is not too general and also not too narrow. 

How to check the focus:

  1. A policy brief is not an opinion paper. If you are simply arguing that something is good or bad, should or shouldn't be done or exist, you're not focused yet.
  2. A policy brief is not a report.  If you are only reporting or repeating information, then you do not have a good focus.
  3. If there is too much information, then limit to one particular part of the problem, a place, time or other aspect. For example, if bullying in schools has too much information, consider one district, one time period, only indigenous people, or similar.
  4. Sometimes people get stuck with questions about which there is not enough information (such as "music therapy for nonviolent adolescent sexual offenders with autism") It is possible that research has not been done or data not collected, and you will find no information.  If this happens, then broaden to question to a wider area or more general problem.

Think Tanks for policy ideas

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Lisa Klopfer
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Email: lklopfer@emich.edu
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