Policy Briefs, the PREPARED way

September 2023

Prof. Doris Schroeder, professor of Moral Philosophy at University of Central Lancashire in Cyprus, and Dr Michael Makanga, Executive Director of the European and Developing Countries Clinical Trials Partnership

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Policy briefs come in two main forms – advocacy policy briefs, which argue for a particular course of action, and overview or objective policy briefs, which provide well-balanced evidence, so that policymakers can decide themselves. 

An example of an advocacy policy brief released during the COVID-19 pandemic comes from the London-based Child Poverty Action GroupTheir brief addressed English Members of Parliament and advocated for an expansion of free school meals. The challenge they hoped to address was that “many families living in poverty are not currently entitled to free school meals for their children, but are unable to afford to pay for meals themselves” (ibid.). 

An example of an overview policy brief released during the COVID-19 pandemic comes from the World Health Organisation. They published 8 policy briefs providing guidance to governments on topics from COVID-19 surveillance to coping with the COVID-19 infodemic. Rather than pushing one policy, they suggested a range of possibilities, which governments could implement on any of the topics. One suggestion to address the COVID-19 infodemic was, for instance, to “train health workers, who are often the most trusted source of health information, to better identify and address health misinformation” (ibid.). 

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Do ethics values find their way into policy briefs? Yes and no.

Policy briefs can be driven by underlying ethical reasons. This applies to the content of a brief and is relevant to both advocacy and overview briefs. For instance, the advocacy brief of expanding the eligibility criteria for free school meals to reduce child poverty is clearly informed by underlying ethical values. Or, in 2022, the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) published an overview policy brief on Human Rights implications of COVID-19 response measures in the context of climate change. Their brief included five general recommendations as well as specific recommendations for Fiji and Senegal. Due to the obvious link of the brief to human rights, the underlying ethical foundation is also clear. In both of the above cases, the briefs try to push for policies that will make the world more ethical, i.e. reduce malnutrition in children or increase respect for human rights. 

Three questions immediately arise, first, why should ethics play a major part in policymaking? Second, if so, which ethics values could carry this burden in a global world and third, how would it work?

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Via PixaBay

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Why should ethics play a major part in policymaking?

John Locke famously defined the main purpose of government as securing and protecting the inalienable rights of its people. That’s an honourable and worthy purpose. Yet, as the 2022 Edelman Trust Barometer shows, “Government and media fuel a cycle of distrust. Nearly one out of every two respondents view government and media as divisive forces in society”. Especially during the COVID-19 pandemic, mistrust of governments increased

In response, leading ethics groups such as the European Group on Ethics in Science and New Technologies (EGE) noted that “values play an important role in how we understand and make sense of crises” and that values “should guide strategic crisis management”.

The 2023 Bhopal Declaration, which addressed decision-makers of the G20, requested that “values and ethical considerations should not be treated as residual elements in formulating development strategies; rather they should form the core of the substantive practices in production, technology and financial transactions.” In other words, the Declaration requests that ethical considerations should play a bigger role in policymaking. 

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Prof. Schroeder in Bhopal, India, Jan 2023, where the policy brief innovation was discussed with Prof. Sachin Chaturvedi

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Which ethics values could guide policymaking?

It is extremely difficult to identify globally valid ethics values. For instance, one of the most prominent efforts to arrive at a globally applicable moral framework, the four principles approach by Beauchamp and Childress (beneficence, nonmaleficence, autonomy, and justice) has been criticized as “imperialist, inapplicable, inconsistent and inadequate”. 

For the PREPARED policy brief methodology, we chose the TRUST values of fairness, respect, care and honesty for four reasons. First, the four values underpin the TRUST Code, an ethics code, which has been adopted by institutions globally. Second, the four values are easy to understand and do not require technical knowledge. Third, the development of the values framework was not biased towards high-income country thinking as the TRUST team was composed of a majority of lower- and middle-income countries teams. In addition, the majority of team leaders were women. Fourth, the TRUST team included representation from highly marginalized populations, the indigenous San from South Africa and sex workers from Nairobi. 

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One adopter of the TRUST Code, NATURE, described their reasons for using the framework as the foundation of their inclusion and equity policy for international research like this:

It’s a framework that’s based on four values of fairness, respect, care, and honesty … [T]hese are actually the elements that drew us to the code – the fact that they took such a broad, consultative approach, that they integrated the perspective of vulnerable populations, and that it is designed to be relevant across multiple disciplines.

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How would an ethics-driven policy brief work?

An ethics-driven policy brief is best suited for advocacy purposes because each policy suggestion needs to be assessed on whether it promotes fairness, respect, care and honesty or not. This is likely to be too cumbersome for an overview brief, which typically includes many policy suggestions. 

As the PREPARED methodology for ethics-driven policy briefs is very new, we currently have one example, namely “One Seat, One Billion People – Advocating for a G21”. Encouragingly, this first brief received coverage from NATURE and Katherine Littler, co-lead of the World Health Organization’s Health Ethics and Governance Unit in Geneva, Switzerland commented that it is “a good model of how to include ethics in decision-making” (ibid.). 

Drawing on the experience of drafting this ethics-driven policy brief, we can provide five points of advice at this stage (taking for granted that the typical advice on writing policy briefs is also adhered to, e.g. be brief, avoid jargon, target your audience on a topic they need to resolve, not a topic you find interesting): 

  1. Use as many statistics as you can. Policy makers are used to making decisions based on statistics. 
  2. Involve high-profile co-authors. For instance, Peter Singer was a co-author on the first PREPARED brief. 
  3. Let a designer produce the look of the brief, including generous use of infographics. 
  4. To ensure that the brief is brief, use Appendixes for information that might interest some readers, but not all. 
  5. We received considerable praise for using significant numbers of references in our brief. 

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What next?

PREPARED has at least one more policy brief to deliver, ideally on a topic that is directly relevant to research ethics and integrity in global crisis. If you have a suggestion, please email us, and please remember it needs to be an advocacy brief. 

Luckily, we are not alone, as Prof. Rose de la Cruz Bernabe from the University of Oslo intends to test our methodology in three Horizon 2020/Europe and one Norwegian Research Council funded project. Thank you Rose! 

Watch this space for the next ethics-driven policy briefs.  

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