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American National Government and Politics: Politics in the Trump Era: Home

Summer Class 2018

Policy Memo

The purpose of this assignment is to assess your ability to understand and analyze a current policy issue, construct appropriate political advice to an elected or appointed official, and defend that choice against alternative points of view.  It will require you to know that official’s political orientation, the power of her or his office, how that relates to the policy in question, what the diverse points of view regarding that policy might be, and then how to articulate clear and actionable guidance to the official.  This will be prepared according to professional memo specifications.  

Assignment

I. WHO READS MEMOS?

The typical recipient of a policy memo

  • a) is extremely busy,
  • b) is far less knowledgeable about the subject at hand than the memo’s author,
  • c) is responsible for making important decisions on the basis of memos like the one you are about to write and
  • d) has an agenda.

All the suggestions below should be considered in this light.

 II. INTRODUCTION FORMAT

Begin your memo with a short summary introduction. This introduction should tell the reader:

1. The memo topic and what ground or issues it covers.

2. Why you wrote the memo – the request, the debate, the decision to be made, etc.

3. What recommendations you make or key themes to remember. Summarize your main points in a few sentences.

4. Where the memo is headed. You should provide a brief roadmap:

Many people never read more than the introduction or executive summary. Those who do will find it much easier to understand your memo after reading it.

III. WRITING

Your memo should be easy to follow and easy to read. Five guidelines for good formatting should be kept in mind.

1. Stay on point and keep it short. The typical memo should make a single point or a handful of related points. Drop any argument that does not support your main point/s. Concise memos earn wider readership and higher praise than long memos no one ever finishes. You should be direct, choose your words carefully, and edit rigorously. There should be no extraneous words in your memo.

2. Organize your memo around meaningful sections. Repeat the memo’s most salient points and conclusions in the section headers. These will help guide the reader quickly through your memo.

Start each section with a mini roadmap. Start each paragraph with a topic sentence that summarizes its main point. A reader should be able to follow the flow of your memo just by reading the first sentence of each paragraph.

3. Use formatting to enhance the informational content of your memo. An important way to improve ease of readership is the use of tables, figures, and bullet points. The goal in all cases is to say more with less. Make sure when you use these that they actually enhance understanding and don’t just look cool.

Use bullets for lists and simple ideas. Avoid long lists. Use paragraphs for complex ideas. Tables and figures should allow the reader to understand more while reading fewer words – if you have to spend a page explaining a figure you probably should drop it.

4. Write for a broad audience. Don’t write a memo that only you and three other experts can understand. Avoid technical jargon and bureaucratese. Make your memo self-contained and comprehensive enough (while keeping it short!) to enable others to understand the basis for your conclusions.

5. Provide citations to your sources of information within the text of the memo (Turabian 1996, p. 175). Bibliographies may be appropriate depending on the circumstances. Obey whatever citation formatting norms are in place where you work.  For the purposes of this memo, your reference page will use the Chicago Manual of Style format.

 IV. ANALYSIS & ARGUMENTATION

The fundamental purpose of a policy memo is to help people make decisions. Your memo should provide exactly as much description as is required to allow you reader to understand your analysis and no more.

Even if you are asked to provide background or an overview of an issue, event, person, or group, your goal is to analyze, not merely describe. When necessary, descriptions of historical periods should aim to illustrate the key themes relevant to current policy debates. Likewise, when you are making a case for a policy option, your memo must persuade through logical argument, not simple recitation of facts and assertions.…

VII. CONCLUSION FORMAT

Your conclusion should reemphasize your main points and recommendations.

How exactly you do this will depend on the purpose of your memo. Generally speaking, however, the conclusion is the place is explore the implications of your analysis and recommendations. What arguments or policies do they call into question, which do they reinforce? What additional analysis seems required? What other key decisions

must be made in light of your work?

VII. VETTING

Ask a friend or colleague to read your memo but remember one of the hallmarks of college writing and professional writing is independence of work.  Asking someone you trust to review your member is not the same as asking them to rewrite your memo.   Any edits you make and any attempt to rework your memo must be your effort alone.

Helpful questions to ask yourself before submitting your memo include:

• Does my introduction provide a clear summary of the memo?

• Is my main point clear?

• Is my memo’s organization clear and are all my sections and paragraphs presented in a logical manner?

• Can my reader easily follow the memo?

• Can someone outside my department/organization/profession understand my writing?

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