— and how to compile them easily
Position papers are a highly efficient tool to influence policy-making processes. Their content is full of thoroughly researched, concise arguments that are geared towards target groups like policymakers.
In other words, they have great content but their style doesn’t make them easily accessible to your regular, interested citizen, who has the ultimate power to steer policy via his or her vote.
What is a position paper?
Position papers primarily aim to summarise pro and con arguments around a particular issue an organization wants to have reflected in a new policy or in a bill.
The way to go about this is that you research all the arguments and state them clearly and succinctly in a short, well-structured format. Then you try and get it in front of the people who write the policies, the policy wonks, or those who make decisions on them, the politicians. Think tanks and civil society organizations are also common options.
The constituencies who can exert pressure on their political representatives are usually not really targeted — at least not in the sense that the style would be adjusted to suit their preferences. It’s this group that I am after in this post. Sort of an indirect, more generic approach to influence policymaking processes.
Okay, there are more efficient ways to reach a broader audience than retargeted position papers. The advantage here is that these adaptations can be produced very easily and they are effective content. Story-telling, for example, demands you to produce entirely new content, whereas position papers can be adapted very easily.
Why position papers are a good tool to address more than technical target groups
So before I go into the matter of how to write position papers, let me make two points on why I think that they are also a strong public relations outreach tool for development projects:
- Position papers can be great to publicize important pros and cons of a certain policy, the introduction of a new service, the aim of a newcomer initiative, or just particular aspects of your project activity. They can be a real contribution to the overall debate on a topic and therefore might get widely circulated.
Dealing openly with counter-arguments to your own position can provide your communications with tremendous credibility. Especially, since acknowledging counter-arguments against one’s own position is not what communications tools of development projects are usually used for.
So you will stand out and gain greater credibility by being cognizant of the criticism of your position. Credibility is an essential building block of today’s communications brought about by the influence of social media on communications in general. (For more on this see my post on the importance of principles in development communications Good Communications Is More Than Operating Your Tools Perfectly)
- Position papers speak about topics — which is the opposite of what many development projects tend to do: speaking about themselves as institutions and their good deeds. (Read more in my blog piece Face It, Nobody Cares About Your Project!)
Which is a mistake. People are interested in topics, or stories about people, not institutions. They continue reading or watching if something brings value to them, or helps them fix something, for example.
The self-proclaimed useful contributions of organizations are usually not delivering this value. This is something every communicator should have become aware of, latest with the emergence of corporate social responsibility and its overall negative perception by the public. Primarily because of its single-sided and distortive way of presenting facts. Greenwashing is the term coined for it in the area of companies presenting their business-as-usual as eco-friendly.
Where do you start
You produce a position paper for your policymaking target group and then you adapt it to the interests of your voter target group.
So let’s first look at generating a regular position paper. You start by researching your topic.
You might find that the arguments against the direction you want the whole thing to take are stronger than yours. Then the best decision would probably be to toss the draft into the bin. Disregarding certain counter-arguments or discrediting them with cheap points or going ad hominem is not such a good idea.
If the bottom line of your research comes out positive for you, proceed with writing.
How to compile a position paper
When writing a position paper for your project you pick a side on a particular, sometimes controversial, topic and build a case for this position.
You use facts, opinions, statistics, and other circumstantial evidence to convince your reader that your position is the best. To do this, you gather information and create an outline to build a well-constructed argument.
Choose a topic for your paper
I mentioned the picking of the side because your project might not have an absolutely clear position on all issues related to its work. So it is better to pick a topic where the position of the project has not too many “ifs” and “in-the-case-ofs”.
Also a good idea is that your position paper focuses on a topic where your position can be supported by some substantial research and information, to hold up when it is challenged.
Therefore, it is helpful to research a few topics that are important to your project and then choose the ones you can best argue about, even though they may not be the most central issues your project deals with.
Be creative and remember you don’t always have to rush through the middle to score a goal. Means, think of why you’re doing this. Picking the obvious big subjects, where positions are maybe hardened already, might not be the option for you.
Important is the chance to make a strong argument. Your topic can be simple or complex, but your argument must be sound and logical.
This does not mean that you should pick a topic where there are few or only weak counter-arguments out there. Heavy counter-arguments can even make your position paper stronger — as long as you are capable to deal with them.
Conduct preliminary research
Preliminary research is necessary to determine if sufficient evidence is available to support your position.
Search some reputable sites such as educational and government sites to find professional studies and statistics. If you don’t find anything after an hour of searching or find that your position doesn’t stand up to the results on reputable sites, choose another topic. This could save you from a lot of frustration later.
Challenge your own topic
You need to know the opposing view as much as your own stance when taking a position.
Take time to identify all the possible challenges you may face with your viewpoint. Your position paper must address the opposing view and cut it off with evidence to the contrary. Brainstorm with colleagues to get alternative views that you may not have readily considered. If you find arguments for the other side of your position, you can address them in a fair manner and then state why they are not valid.
Another helpful exercise is to draw a line down the middle of a plain sheet of paper and list your points on one side and the opposing points on the other. Which argument is really better? If it looks like your opposition is outscoring you with valid points, you may want to rethink your issue or stance on the issue.
Continue to gather supporting evidence
Once you have determined that your position can be supported and the opposing position is (in your opinion) weaker than your own, you can proceed with your research. Remember, it’s important to know how to properly check the validity of the sources you use. Make sure the articles you quote are written by reputable sources, and watch out for individual sources that deviate from the norm, as these are often subjective rather than factual.
Try to gather a variety of sources, and include both the opinion of an expert and personal experience that can add emotional appeal to your topic. These statements should support your own position but be different from your own words. The goal is to add depth to your argument or provide anecdotal support.
Create an outline
A position paper can be arranged in the following structure:
1. Introduce your topic with some basic background information.
Work yourself towards building your concluding sentence, which confirms your position. For example, tilling is bad for the soil in the long run.
2. Introduce possible objections to your position.
For example, on untilled fields crop roots aren’t going deep enough to dig channels that allow water to keep moving downwards. The water is getting trapped on top of the field.
3. Support and acknowledge the opposing points. Just make sure you don’t discredit your own views.
For example, if you’re going to no-till, you should work on your soil biology first. The water on the field actually shows more soil health practices need to be adopted.
4. Explain that your position is still the best one despite the strength of the counterarguments.
Here you can work to discredit some of the counter-arguments and support your own. For example, long-term benefits are saving costs on tilling machinery and fertilizers.
5. Summarize your argument and reiterate your position.
Finish your text and focus on your argument. Avoid the counterarguments. You want your audience to walk away with your view of the issue resonating with them.
When writing a position paper, write with confidence and state your opinion with authority. After all, your goal is to show that your position is the right one.
However, when you are after broader target groups — not the policy wonks and ministerial technocrats — I suggest you don’t try to emphasize your authority by lining up PhDs, using overly technical language and detail, Latin or aloft phrases. Make sure that your arguments are carved out well and carry themselves as opposed to bringing in the authority of institutions only.
Remember, authority also creates distance and we are trying to aim at regular, interested people here. They might get completely estranged or even offended by text that bases its authority on titles, names and technical mumbo-jumbo.
Also important for this crowd is that you confine yourself to arguments that have real impact on a situation. If you cite research that finds in 2.3% of cases there was no evidence of impact, this might be point for scientists to consider further research. For your regular reader, however, mentioning this shows the writer doesn’t know how to keep things relevant.
The classic form of a position paper is an A4 paper, slightly designed but not overdone, and printed on an office printer.
Almost classic by now, because Adobe had invented the format in 1993 already is PDF. So basically the electronic version of the print-out on the office printer.
Both formats are difficult to adjust when new arguments come up, anything that demands correcting the text.
For the purpose of using the position paper also as an outreach tool for reaching the interested public, I suggest that you place the text and visuals directly on a website — in the HTML, not as PDF. This makes your content much more flexible and easier to find by search engines.
It is the context you want to get across, not the content. In other words, it’s about what you have to say, not how you say it and how it looks.
Here is a good guideline on standard policy papers, not the adjusted ones! (in German): Philip Mayer (2009): Richtlinien zum Erstellen eines Positionspapiers. Zurich-Basel Plant Science Center (Hrsg.).
Photo by Christa Dodoo on Unsplash