Executive Summary Guidelines a communications Program Workshop

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Executive Summary Guidelines

A Communications Program Workshop

This workshop teaches the basic strategies and structure for an effective executive summary for a briefing book or an extended policy paper. The executive summary is the most important part of a policy paper because it synthesizes complex data into a succinct and coherent whole that allows a decision-maker or general reader in a few minutes of reading to glean the problem, supporting evidence, and solutions. As such, the executive summary is often the most difficult part of the policy paper to write.

Yet there are basic steps that will help turn complex ideas into succinct and powerful arguments guaranteed to capture the attention of a busy reader. You will, for example, need to state explicitly not only the current problem but the current situation, sign post the pros and cons of your reasoning for change, and highlight your key findings and recommendations. This workshop examines techniques culled from executive summaries ranging from short memos produced for the Spring Exercise to high-level international policy papers and allows you time to try out an executive summary on your own topic.

The Structure of the Executive Summary

Once you have determined your dominant findings and recommendation/s, you are ready to structure your memo and draft an initial version of the executive summary. The executive summary highlights the problem and recommendations but also serves as a road map into the structure of your memo, allowing the reader to follow the course of your analysis. The executive summary does not the chronicle the story that lies behind the problem nor does it track the development of your research. It telegraphs your key recommendations, relying on your authority as a policy analyst. It summarizes your key points for a busy reader and highlights the recommendations in a memorable way to guide future discussions.

After you have finished your research, it can help to write a draft of the executive summary as a structuring device for the longer paper. You will return to the executive summary again at the end of the writing process for the full paper, revising it to make sure that it matches your analysis, findings, and ultimate recommendations. Even a short, two-page memo can benefit from a brief executive summary that foregrounds the recommendations or findings discussed later in the body. (See Gilroy, “Big Picture on Army Recruitment,” as an example at the end of this presentation.)

In telegraphic style, explain who the target audience is (i.e., the decision-maker for your policy proposal), clarify the problem, and describe the main points that the decision-maker should know.

Core characteristics of the Executive Summary—all in brief:

  1. Acknowledges the target audience and intended use/s for the paper

  2. Concisely states the problem or issue either in terms of current policy or as a problematic situation
  3. Sign posts reasons for initiating changes to that policy or situation

  4. Presents key policy options or findings (depending on orientation of your paper)

  5. Sign posts the pros and cons of each option or findings

  6. May reference the methodology used to examine the data

  7. Recommends primary course/s of action or synthesizes key findings that may lead to recommendations in future policy work

  8. Offers supporting reasons for selecting or highlighting that course of action or findings

  9. May restate urgency in a short concluding line

Note that these characteristics answer the core questions a decision-maker must know immediately: WHO, WHAT, WHY, and HOW, with WHEN and WHERE included where necessary.

Examples of Executive Summaries

These examples highlight excellent formats, ranging from short findings to extensive international policy recommendations.

  • Prize-winning PAE: Erica Han and Lymari Morales (2007), Understanding Muslim Populations: What Leaders Need to Know,


    • This policy analysis paper synthesizes and prioritizes its findings, offering recommendations as subsets. Many clients are more fascinated by a PAE-writer’s survey of the problem than they are interested in the writer’s conclusions and recommendations. This paper offers a way of meeting the client’s immediate interests without losing sight of recommendations.

  • Prize-winning PAE: Mamie Marcus (2007), Immigrant Voters in Massachusetts: Implications for Political Parties,

    • http://www.hks.harvard.edu/var/ezp_site/storage/fckeditor/file/pdfs/degree-programs/oca/pae-marcuss-immigrant-voters-in-massachusetts.pdf

    • This policy analysis paper first highlights the findings, building on them for the subsequent recommendations.

  • Lengthy professional white paper: Pew Center, Asia Society. January 2009. "A Roadmap for U.S.-China Cooperation on Energy and Climate Change,”


    • This report presents a vision and a concrete roadmap for U.S.-China collaboration focused on reducing greenhouse gas emissions to mitigate the effects of climate change. The report begins with a “Forward” that highlights the importance of a collaboration between the U.S. and China as key leaders in negotiating climate change policy. The Forward also names key goals and describes underlying motivations.

    • The Executive Summary explicitly names basic assumptions for the rationale supporting the methodology, findings, and recommendations. Without those assumptions, readers will not be persuaded of the report’s ultimate recommendations. The Executive Summary then advocates its major recommendations before moving on to explicit findings with second-level, more specific recommendations. The conclusion to the Executive Summary underscores the urgency of following its recommendations both in a negative sense—what will happen if China and the U.S. do not act on these recommendations—and in a positive sense—what will happen if China and the U.S. do act on the recommendations. While conclusions are not mandatory for executive summaries, they do allow you to return to the big picture or the motive of your policy recommendations.


General Texts on Policy Analysis:

  • Bardach, Eugene. 2000. A Practical Guide for Policy Analysis. New York: Chatham House Publishers.

  • Stokey, Edith and Richard Zeckhauser. 1978. A Primer for Policy Analysis. New York: W.W. Norton and Company.

  • Smith, Catherine F. 2010. Writing Public Policy. Oxford UP.

  • Weimer, David L. and Aidan R. Vining. 1992. Policy Analysis: Concepts and Practice. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice Hall.

HKS and other online resources:

  • Communications Program, Writing Skills Handouts (log-in necessary), http://ksgnotes1.harvard.edu/comm/handout.nsf/504ca249c786e20f85256284006da7ab?OpenView&Start=1&Count=30&Expand=2#2

  • PAE “Standards for Good Analysis,” Harvard Kennedy School of Government, http://www.hks.harvard.edu/degrees/oca/students-alumni/pae/guide/standards-for-good-analysis

  • Policy Analysis Exercise Guide (This is the handbook for PAE writers that offers guidelines for all aspects of a strong policy paper, including the executive summary):


  • “Policy Paper Guidelines,” International Relations Department, Boston University, http://www.bu.edu/ir/graduate/current/papers/policy/


uciana Herman

Harvard Kennedy School of Government

March 3, 2011

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