Guest blog by Henrik Bliddal who is Director of NATO Parliamentary Assembly’s Science and Technology Committee and its Research Assistant Programme:
As a director at the NATO Parliamentary Assembly (PA), it is my job to compose first drafts of reports for members of parliament (MPs) from North America or Europe. Ultimately, the MPs are the authors of these reports which provide analysis and policy recommendations on critical issues affecting the NATO Alliance. Thus, they need to trust me to deliver fact-based analysis they can stand behind. At the NATO PA, I am also in charge of recruiting research assistants who provide directors with background pieces and draft sections of reports. They are normally young professionals and/or recent graduates from programmes like LSE’s MSc in International Relations.
I have overseen the research assistant programme for more than three years. All our research assistants have done marvellous work (and have since moved on to good positions somewhere else). Still, I normally see a steep learning curve, even with the best of them, as they transition from academic writing to drafting words meant for politicians. As I know that many LSE alumni end up working for politicians, I thought I would share a few thoughts on some key principles I stick to. Most of you will probably say they are ‘no-brainers’, but trust me, even for seasoned writers, it is sometimes easy to forget.
The most common flaw I see is words written without the audience in mind. The job of politicians is very different from other jobs. It is not their primary task to be absolute experts on every topic that they deal with. Politicians must work on several dossiers at once. In the morning, your MP might have a meeting on road safety in parliament. At lunch time, a reporter might call asking for comments on the day’s decision by the European Central Bank. And in the afternoon, they might be meeting with the local constituency to discuss issues they care about. If you are lucky, your MP will take some time in the evening to look at your policy paper on Syria’s dire food situation, in preparation for the call they arranged with a journalist the next morning. It is thus your task as a (budding) expert to put the important information into manageable pieces for your MP. There are always exceptions, but you should assume that they have little time and limited knowledge of the issues at hand. You must write accordingly. They expect you to deliver papers that will guide them through the core issues and put them in a position to make the necessary policy calls.
What does this mean in practice? You must, of course, develop deep knowledge on the subject you are writing on. How did Syrian policies shift agriculture management in rural areas before the outbreak of civil war? What role did fluctuations in the international food market play? Can we see some of the effects of climate change on the ground in Syria? These are big and nuanced questions. However, you cannot get lost in the details when writing a two-page background piece. Your boss needs to grasp the basic answers on these questions. They can always follow up with you if need be. You need to write in simple terms – which does not mean you should simplify. At the same time, you must ensure that your words are accurate and precise. The shorter the product, the more carefully you need to choose your words. Is it probable or almost certain that Syrian agricultural policies turned a prolonged drought into a genuine food crisis? Words matter. Moreover, your analysis must highlight those issues that are significant from a policy point of view. What are the policy choices open to the politicians you are working for? Which policy choices are realistic from their perspective? Which pieces of the puzzle are they best placed to address?
In summary, before you hand in your policy papers, sit down and read them again by putting yourself into the mindset of the politicians you are working with. If your analysis does not meet the principles laid out here, it is back to the beginning.