Insight with Nick Sinai, HKS Adjunct Lecturer, Formerly U.S. Deputy Chief Technology Officer

Nick Sinai

Strong policy writers tell a story, and frame the issue in context of where an Administration (or Agency) is trying to go.

The best policy memo:

  •  Assumes reader has zero context and avoids jargon and acronyms                  
  • Is clear about the goals; i.e. is it a decision memo, a briefing memo, or a proposal for a new initiative?
  • Has powerful hooks (e.g. title, summary description, opening sentence, etc.)
  • Uses concrete examples and statistics
  • Uses white space, bullets, bolding, and underlining (without overdoing it) to facilitate scanning, comprehension, and retention
  • Is painfully short

Strong communication skills (including writing sharp memos) are critically important. But if you want to advance new ideas, you also have to understand how policy memos fit into the arc (and the tactics) of policymaking. You have to understand how to get stuff done in large organizations, and sometimes policy memos are not the right tool, or are simply documenting another process. I’d highly recommend reading Policy Entrepreneurship at The White House: Getting Things Done in Large Organizations, by Thomas Kalil