Blogging for a policy audience
Blogs can be a useful tool to reach policymakers and can be made all the more effective by following a few simple guidelines.
Writing for any audience requires the writer to think as much about the needs of the reader as they do about they want to say. Just as we would write a WhatsApp message to a friend in a different way to a report for senior colleagues, so any blog writer seeking a policy audience needs to think about who they want to read it. Whether you run a blog or write for one, following some simple guidelines – and avoiding a few common mistakes – will increase the likelihood of your work being noticed by both policymakers and other audiences.
1) A blog isn’t a newsletter…
A huge number of blogs associated with research centres, academic schools or research hubs are dominated by news about the centre, school or hub. If your blog is attached to a centre for housing policy, write about housing policy. If it is linked to one examining rural development, write about rural development. If you have a new fellowship or research grant, you should tell your dean and your mum but the rest of the world is interested in the results.
2) …or a journal article…
The process by which you reached your results is important, as is what you are not saying. However, it is also important to set out what you found reasonably quickly and explain why it matters reasonably clearly. This blog isn’t going through peer review and for most audiences, the implications for land reform, sentencing policy or how care is funded really are more interesting than the methodology or the relationship to the wider literature. In practical terms, this means a clear statement of the action you are proposing in the introduction and a continued focus on it throughout the blog.
3) …or a book
A blog post doesn’t need to be exhaustive. It should give the reader enough to suggest a new solution to, or perspective on, an existing problem and then set out why that matters or what the next step should be. As a rule of thumb, a blog post should be between 600 and 800 words. It can be shorter, it should not be longer. As far as practical, provide links to more extensive material and identify the author so they can be contacted if necessary.
1) Focus on the solution not the problem. With many policy challenges, the fact that a problem exists is all too clear, what policymakers are usually interested in are ways of addressing it.
2) Be familiar with the political and policy context. Which tier of government is responsible for the policy area? What legal, financial or political obstacles exist? You don’t need an answer to all of these but it is worth being aware of the viability of your proposal before you invest the time in writing about it.
3) Be aware of your audience. In all likelihood you are writing for civil servants who may well have a deep understanding of the subject from a policy perspective.
4) Be sensitive to timing. Pointing out what was wrong with legislation after it has been passed may be satisfying but it’s also frustrating for all concerned. Wherever possible, get in early.
5) Have mercy on your reader. Do use sub-headings, a clear introduction, graphs, bullet points, case studies, and whatever else will add clarity. Do not use excessive jargon, unexplained acronyms, untranslated foreign language text, convoluted or circuitous language, or other approaches that obfuscate or distract from your point. Use hyperlinks rather than footnotes.
Writing for a blog site and writing for a policy audience ultimately has the same demands as any other type of effective writing. The determinant of every decision should be ‘does this help or hinder the reader in understanding what I am saying?’. Being able to answer that question requires the writer to be clear about their audience, their proposal and the problem it addresses. Investing the time answering those questions first will make everyone’s life easier.
Nick Bibby is Director of the Scottish Policy and Research Exchange.
Image by Werner Moser from Pixabay