Issue Brief

What is an Issue Brief?1

An issue brief is a short summary, usually one to two pages, of the knowledge surrounding an issue or problem.  To write a policy issue brief, the writer should assume that the audience knows little or nothing about the topic.  The issue brief should summarize the issue’s background and stakeholder information quickly and succinctly.  The writer should attempt to keep the issue brief clear, concise, and complete in describing all sides of the issue.  Some issue briefs are expected to include recommendations for action or predictions about the future of the issue.

If it is a general policy issue brief that is intended to be written for readers from any Party or organization, the writing should be neutral.  This means that your personal opinions would not belong in the issue brief.  You may still include stakeholders’ opinions, but make sure to credit those opinions to the appropriate person(s).

  1. Adapted from Penn State University


Separating the brief into sections with “headers” (section titles) will keep it well organized.  Some writers choose to use bullet points in some cases, but these should be limited.  The entire brief should not be formatted in bullet points.  Writers may choose to use a cover page as well as an outline (“Contents”) at the beginning of the brief.  You might check out an assignment from Penn State University to see what a policy issue brief outline could look like.

Please note that all aspects of Penn State’s assignment may not be appropriate for every issue brief.

Nicholas School Issue Briefs – ENV 577

For the issue brief assignment for ENV/PUBPOL 577 Environmental Politics, the following items should be included.  See the assignment guidelines for full information.  Note that the issue brief for this class will be longer than two pages; it should be 1200-1500 words.

  1. Background on the environmental problem. If the problem involves a good (e.g., land, water, fisheries), it may be appropriate to describe that type of good and why there is a controversy or problem surrounding it.
  2. A description of the policy. You should include a summary of the approach that the policy takes in solving or addressing the problem.
  3. Policy context. Give a brief background on the historical evolution of the policy or issue, as well as the agency or body that enacted the policy.  If your chosen issue is not already written into policy, discuss the venue in which the related policy would be enacted.  Keep this section succinct.
  4. Values involved in this issue. This might be related to the type of good involved in the policy.  The values involved will help you paint a picture of why this is issue is a problem.
  5. This section is related to the Values section above.  What are the different interest groups and what are their opinions on the issue?  How have they tried to influence the policy?
  6. A description of public opinion. This is different from the stakeholders’ opinions.  Public opinion is characterized by polls or surveys of large samples of the population involved (e.g., U.S. population for a federal policy or NC population for a state policy in NC).

Please make sure to write clearly and directly.  Proper citations in your style of choice should be used consistently.  This may include either in-text citations or footnotes.

Contact the professor, TA’s, or communications studio consultants for more information.

Brainstorming Issue Briefs

Many issue briefs, especially those relating to policies, could contain the following types of information or sections.  This list might be used for brainstorming, but please note that all sections will not apply to all issue briefs, including those of ENV 577 Environmental Politics.

  • Executive Summary: all the most important points in the issue brief. It may be helpful to write this last.
  • Issue Definition: describe the issue, the problem, the extent of the problem (who is affected? How costly is it? Is the government involved?), and any policy enacted.
  • Context or History: background of the problem. Types of information may include the emergence of the problem in the public sphere, or a timeline of government action relating to the problem.
  • Stakeholders: define each stakeholder group, their position on the issue, their resources, and any policy action they have tried to influence.
  • Recommendations: what should the target audience do about this issue?
  • Trends: how might this issue be monitored in the future?
  • References or Bibliography

List adapted from Penn State University.

Helpful Links

American Association of Colleges of Pharmacy

Penn State University: guidelines for an assignment on issue briefs (please note that all aspects of this assignment might not be relevant to all issue briefs)

Guides to writing certain types of policy briefs from the Women’s and Children’s Health Policy Center at Johns Hopkins University, which some writers may find useful.

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