Policy Paper Guidelines

What is a Policy Paper?

  • The issue addressed should be a legitimate contemporary policy issue within which the current policy is clearly discernible.
  • There should be clear alternatives to the current policy.
  • There must be sufficient data present to provide the target audience (i.e. the decision-maker) with information to make a decision on the policy proposal.

Examples of Policy Issues

The following are some examples of general policy issues that can be explored in a policy paper. Students are in no way limited to or restricted by the following examples.

  • Economics: Initiation of trade agreements; support for or opposition to protectionist legislation; restrictions on or relaxation of technical transfer restrictions; relaxation or tightening of immigration or customs laws in a particular country or region.
  • Legal Issues: Adherence to or rejection of new facets of international law, space law, maritime law, intellectual property rights, etc.; jurisdictions of international courts; implications for acceptance of or rejection of a proposed treaty or agreement.
  • Political Issues: Matters pertaining to recognition (e.g., after a coup or revolution); participation in international conferences; a newly elected leader’s policy issues; initiation of a new policy involving human rights, environmental standards, etc.
  • Security Issues: New arms transfer control initiatives; security assistance changes or new recipient candidates; renegotiations or an initial negotiation of case rights agreements.

What is Not a Policy Paper?

  • An historical analysis is never an appropriate topic for a policy paper. A policy paper must focus on a current policy issue. For example, an analysis of what George W. Bush should or should not have done in 2001 would work well as a research paper, but it would not be acceptable as a policy paper.
  • Comparative or case studies normally fit better as research papers than policy papers. For example, a comparative study of conflict resolution in South Africa and Northern Ireland, although certainly providing an analysis with contemporary relevance, would work far better as a research than a policy paper.
  • An analysis of how something works should be a research paper. For example, a study of the political economy of the Ivory Coast would not work as a policy paper. Similarly, an analysis of development efforts in Guatemala would not in itself be a policy paper, although one could make a policy paper on a similar topic by analyzing U.S. development policy toward Guatemala.

Format for the Policy Paper

Below are the guidelines for writing a policy paper. Some variation may occur depending on the topic of the paper and the research methods being used. Policy papers should be approximately 30 to 35 pages in length. Follow all of the guidelines on formatting given on the General Guidelines page.

Executive Summary

At the beginning of the paper in telegraphic style, explain who the target audience is (i.e., the decision-maker for your policy proposal) and the main points that the decision-maker should know. It may be best to write this section last because it will serve as a summary of the entire paper.

At a minimum, the summary should include the following:

  1. A statement of current policy
  2. Reasons for initiating changes
  3. Policy options to be considered
  4. Pros and cons of each option
  5. Recommended course of action
  6. Reasoning for selecting that course of action

Body of Paper

The main portion of the paper should be dedicated to establishing the background and discussing the reasoning behind the policy recommendation. Students should include all of the basics from the executive summary, but fully elaborate on each point that the paper is making. The following is an outline describing what the main body of the paper should include.

Overview / Background

  • Statement of purpose – Why is the decision-maker being asked to consider a policy change at this time?
  • Review the Current Policy – What are we currently doing, why are we doing it this way, what is the public’s perception of the policy? Assess how well it is or is not working.
  • Statement on the Necessity for Change – What circumstances (e.g., changes in government, leadership, stability, etc.) have changed that make a new approach advisable or necessary?


  • Discuss the alternatives to the current policy option by enumerating and explaining each policy option in turn.
  • Pros and cons of each policy option should be discussed next. Identify the political, economic, and security implications for each option. Each policy option should be compared and contrasted to the other options as well as to the current policy. This is the most important part of the paper.


  • Clearly identify which option will be recommended and which options will be discounted.
  • Clearly lay out the argument for why that option is better than each of the others.


  • Write a detailed recommendation for specific steps on how and when to implement the recommended policy option.


The following items should be included as appendices to a policy paper.

  1. Annexes, if there are any.
  2. Endnotes, if end notes are used rather than footnotes.
  3. Tables, charts, maps, etc. Maps can also be placed within the body of the paper, if appropriate.
  4. Bibliography

Policy Paper Content and Analysis

Viable Alternatives

Policy papers must present several policy alternatives, and they must be serious alternatives. As a general rule, three options should be presented. One serious alternative will often be to maintain the status quo. Even if the status quo seems dangerous and stupid, students should take it seriously because in the real world it will often be the most likely outcome. Students should check with their advisers to see if the status quo should be included as one of the policy options.

The alternatives presented must not be strawmen that are so ridiculous they only serve to make the recommended policy look good. Of course, it is fine to go deeper into the preferred alternative than into the other options, but the other options must be given a fair presentation and analysis.

Cost-benefit analysis

Policy papers should be based on clear cost-benefit analysis. This analysis may be either quantitative or qualitative. In either case, the student should be certain to think through all possible outcomes clearly and thoroughly. The cost-benefit analysis should seriously consider the feasibility of implementation, not only in terms of economic or strategic implications, but also in terms of political feasibility. Moreover, the analysis of likely effects must not be completely one-sided. There are always going to be some benefits and some costs to any policy proposal.

Clear Criteria

Students should present clear criteria for evaluating the problem at hand and the policy alternatives to be considered. This will involve prioritizing among a variety of possible values. Trade-offs are the heart of the policy process – if solutions were easy or obvious, the problem would not be around for the student to analyze. Determining clear criteria from the start will greatly aid the development of a  cost-benefit analysis.

Clear predictions

What are the likely results of the various alternatives? Be specific and reasonably detailed. What level of certainty can one have about them? And what middle-run indicators would demonstrate success?

Examples of Policy Papers

Sample Policy Paper 1

Sample Policy Paper 2