This page is designed to help students who are writing a policy report for a major assessment, for example for a capstone subject.
What is a policy report?
A policy report presents what is known about a particular issue or problem. It assembles facts and evidence to help readers understand complex issues and form a response. It might aim to be neutral, or it might aim to persuade readers in a particular direction.
Knowing how to write an accurate, clear and influential policy report is a vital craft for many graduate roles.
Who uses policy reports?
Government ministers and decision makers, private sector leaders and non-government organisations (NGOs) all rely on reports with accurate, up-to-date, evidence and arguments from researchers and specialists to inform their policies and decisions. Often, the good decisions that are made or not made depending on the quality of the reports they receive.
How is a policy report different from other writing?
The writing style of a policy report is plain English rather than academic English. However, the writing is still formal.
Even if intended to persuade, the body of the report uses neutral language to convince the reader of the urgency of a current problem and the need to act. While it might contain powerful statements after all the evidence has been presented, it does not use polemic or emotive language.
Do say: “If no government action is taken, analysis of population data has confirmed that this species is likely to become extinct within five years. Urgent intervention is required.”
Don’t say: “If the government doesn’t respond, there will be yet another tragic extinction event, in a shameful indictment of this administration’s callous neglect of the environment.”
Polemic is best avoided in assessments, with a few exceptions:
- comments in media releases, interviews and debates
- quotes from community members who are affected by the policy or event
- a strongly felt statement by a respected expert or chair of a peak organisation can be persuasive if included in a foreword or conclusion.
Even in these exceptional cases, writing shouldn’t harangue its readers.
The presentation is designed to make it easy for the reader to navigate complexity. Contents pages are always be provided, as well as a list of figures (eg diagrams) and tables. Headings and subheadings are typically numbered. Visuals are included as a powerful way to convey facts, for example charts, graphs, maps, diagrams and tables.
While structure can vary, it is conventional to begin with an executive summary. One feature of a policy report that makes its content different from an essay is that it includes recommendations, for example to change the law or fund a program.
How is a policy report like other writing?
Like an essay, a policy report is the result of extensive research. It offers painstakingly gathered evidence, careful argument and thoughtful analysis of the available literature. All facts and figures have been thoroughly checked. It acknowledges all sources including stakeholders who have provided comments or feedback, is fully referenced and has a comprehensive bibliography.
How should I structure a policy report?
Please check your assessment requirements carefully for specific guidance about the structure and content expected. Some typical sections are suggested here. These are indicative only. The actual headings used would vary with the topic and field of study.
Some members of your audience will not have the time to read the whole report. The executive summary must, therefore, be able to communicate the report’s key points in two or three pages. A good executive summary will:
- Provide a brief description of the current situation and issues
- Offer a few compelling examples or statistics
- List your findings and recommendations for future action.
The opening section is important to clearly set the scene. It will:
- Explain the question or topic and why it is important
- Identify the research objective (eg "this report aims to evaluate the effectiveness of current policy ... and to recommend …")
- Give an overview of how the report is structured
- Provide any definitions needed of terms or concepts (eg "in this report, ‘low-socioeconomic status’ means …")
- Identify the scope (eg "within Australia")
- Clarify who prepared the report (group member roles and contributions) and who is the intended audience.
Background (or "Context")
This covers areas such as:
- The sources or origins of the issue
- The history of the law or policy in the area
- The factors which have influenced government, community or industry responses.
Body of report
Using headings or chapters, the main body of the report sets out your research in detail. Crucial aspects of the topic are discussed, and you might consider:
- Extent and impact: the scale of issues and who/what is affected
- Findings from previous studies
- Scientific evidence, data and/or modelling
- Stakeholders or interest groups
- Case studies
- Trends and implications
- Options for the future. These could be evaluated, for example by considering benefits, risks, costs, and likelihood of success.
- Conclusion – a summary of your findings.
These are your proposals for change. They can either be in a separate section or highlighted within the body of the report. Recommendations are always numbered. You also indicate how the recommendations will resolve particular issues.
“Recommendation 1. All recycling should be carried out within approved facilities within the state. This will ensure that recycling facilities meet Office of Environment standards and will restore the trust of the community in recycling programs.”
Referencing and bibliography
All sources used, including all figures, maps and data, should be fully referenced. Referencing should use the academic referencing conventions for your discipline unless you are advised otherwise.
The bibliography should list all of the sources drawn upon to write up the final report.