The Briefing Note: ‘Proposed Options’ Section (with lessons from Sir Humphrey)
If there is any part of writing the briefing note (especially the “for decision” note) that really seems to cause angst for people, it’s the “Proposed Options” section – and maybe not for the reason you might think. Generally, this section (see the template we provided a little while ago to see where this fits) sets out 2-to-4-ish clear and distinct options for dealing with a policy problem, and lists the pros and cons for each. Our experience has been that that hard part isn’t coming up with the options. And working through the pros and cons for each isn’t so bad, either. It’s how to write the pros and cons in a way that doesn’t aggravate your reader or weaken your recommendation that seems to be the hard part.
Crafting the Options
Usually there are 2 easy options:
- do nothing (if your department requires that as an option … and if it doesn’t, it should1), and
- do-the-something-you-want-to-do (i.e., the thing your analysis has led you to).
And then there are a couple of other “well if you really want more options” options. Options 3 and 4 would be different kinds of “do something” (usually something someone else wants to do). And they should really be viable and distinct “somethings”, not non-options.2 Assuming we are not so fortunate as to have a Minister with the, ahh, intellectual capacity of the Rt. Hon. James A. Hacker, let’s go with three options – real options – that might be:
- do nothing;
- do something smallish where someone else pays for it (e.g., a new regulation); or
- do something big, with government money (i.e., the “Big Program” option).
The first challenge is to consider the optimal order in which to present them. Unless your department has rules about this (e.g., always present the recommended option last), you’ll want to think about which order makes the most persuasive case in the particular briefing at hand. Then you need to get to work on the pros and cons of each option.3
Writing the Pros and Cons
It’s surprising how little guidance all the “how to do briefings” books give on this topic of how to write the pros and cons. Most start and stop with an implicit instruction to “list the pros and cons”. Based on our research and experience, we have crafted a number of guidelines that are addressed in our publications and briefing courses. But we list them here briefly:
- know what your reader (or department) expects. The rest doesn’t matter if it contradicts what your reader thinks the pros and cons should be about and how they should be written.
- the biggest mistake many BN writers make in this section is to try to steer the reader towards their preferred option in a pretty heavy-handed way. There’s plenty of time to do that – you get to conclude with your “recommended option”, remember. True, the entire note should present analysis and evidence that logically concludes with the recommended option. But if the note reads as one long advertisement for why your option represents policy awesomeness, and all else are policy-fails waiting to happen, you may risk your credibility.
- consider this section as the opportunity to appear even-handed and magnanimous. Even if you sing the praise of the options you’ve rejected, your recommended option should still shine through if your analysis is any good. In order to achieve this, try this little trick: when writing the pros of any option, adopt the perspective that that option is your favourite. (This will be easy for your preferred option, but adopting this perspective for every option will make it easier to come up with good, objective pros for every option). Say to yourself: “I love this option, and I’m going to list all the reasons why adopting it it would be the smartest thing the Minister has ever done.” What do the people who support this option have to say about it? Why do they like it so much, what arguments support doing this and what great things will happen if it’s adopted? Do this for every option.
- do the opposite for the cons: for every option (including yours), say to yourself: “what a stupid idea. Here are the reasons this is a bad idea and the ways this could go wrong.”
Remember our definition of what constitutes good policy analysis, based on the persuasion perspective: “Somewhere between the technocrat and the hyper-political policy advocate, then, is where we should search for the post-positivist policy analyst. The the role of the analyst is one of having to persuade a decision maker that, having analysed the problem and considered appropriate responses to it, the analysis represent the best solution to the problem, given all the inputs that were identified, from the analyst’s perspective and are recommended from the analyst’s position within a responsible and ethical public service tradition. Having explicitly admitted that it is contingent upon the particular perspective that the analyst brought to the problem, and identifying what inputs were considered, the analyst can clearly state a professional opinion aimed at the admittedly fuzzy concept of the “public interest”: that the recommended course of action represents, as far as they are aware, the best solution available. A recommendation full of caveats, to be sure; but in the post-positivist realm, to express greater certainty, or to less explicitly state the effect of the analyst’s perspective and biases, or to have some other motivation than the public good would be dishonest and unethical. But by making transparent what all the participants knew beforehand anyway, the way is cleared for the analyst to focus on the challenging part of their task: persuading the decision maker.”
1. “Do nothing” is a key option to consider, because it backs us up to the problem definition stage and causes us to ask if this is really government’s problem to fix; then moves on to the analysis stage to ask if there is anything government can do or should do. It may indeed be a problem; but is it a public problem? And it may be a public problem, but does the government have the capacity to do anything about it? Also, as the legendary policy professor Dr. Rod Dobell notes, “Do Nothing” is often improperly labelled as “Status Quo”. The status quo is a misnomer as it is near-to-impossible to achieve; even if you do nothing, the situation is bound to change. On the “do nothing” option, the last word goes to “Yes, Prime Minister”, and a lesson in how to propose “do nothing” as a strategy when your reader insists that something must be done:
Bernard Woolley: What if the Prime Minister insists we help them?
Sir Humphrey Appleby: Then we follow the four-stage strategy.
Bernard Woolley: What’s that?
Sir Richard Wharton: Standard Foreign Office response in a time of crisis.
Sir Richard Wharton: In stage one we say nothing is going to happen.
Sir Humphrey Appleby: Stage two, we say something may be about to happen, but we should do nothing about it.
Sir Richard Wharton: In stage three, we say that maybe we should do something about it, but there’s nothing we can do.
Sir Humphrey Appleby: Stage four, we say maybe there was something we could have done, but it’s too late now.
2. If your reader isn’t too bright, you might get away with a version of the Yes Prime Minister ”non-option option”. But I wouldn’t count on it:
Bernard Woolley: What if he demands options?
Sir Humphrey Appleby: Well, it’s obvious, Bernard. The Foreign Office will happily present him with three options, two of which are, on close inspection, exactly the same.
Sir Richard Wharton: Plus a third which is totally unacceptable.
Sir Humphrey Appleby: Like bombing Warsaw or invading France.
(True story: I once put “Bomb Warsaw” and “Invade France” as separate options in a briefing note – but only because I knew the Deputy Minister shared an affinity for YPM, and he would strike it out before it went forward to the Minister).
3. Sir Humphrey once gave a brilliant briefing on the fly in a moving train between London and Edinburgh, listing first the options followed by the con for each (there was no recommended option in this case, as the solution turned out to be somewhat unorthodox):
Sir Humphrey: Well, Minister, in practical terms we have the usual six options: One: do nothing. Two: issue a statement deploring the speech. Three: lodge an official protest. Four: cut off aid. Five: break off diplomatic relations. And six: declare war.
Hacker: Which should be it?
Sir Humphrey: Well: If we do nothing, that means we implicitly agree with the speech. If we issue a statement, we’ll just look foolish. If we lodge a protest, it’ll be ignored. We can’t cut off aid, because we don’t give them any. If we break off diplomatic relations, then we can’t negotiate the oil rig contracts. And if we declare war, it might just look as though we were over-reacting.