Policy Memorandum and Government Transparency

Students imagine themselves to be policy advisers and write a policy memorandum on government transparency and secrecy to the imagined Transparency Reform Council.


(1) To familiarize students with a new writing genre. Students with significant experience writing for academic audiences will learn how to address an audience of policymakers or decision-makers, using the memorandum form.

(2) To encourage analysis of transparency and secrecy. Students will think deeply about a particular government practice involving concealment or disclosure, and will analyze and craft a recommendation about that practice.

(3) To allow students to practice public speaking. Students will gain experience presenting their work to an audience of peers and their instructor. They will practice the skills necessary to convey complex ideas with clarity, and to articulate arguments persuasively, in speech. 

Class: Gov 94jb: Secrecy and Transparency


In this activity, students are assigned to write an analytic and persuasive policy memorandum on a topic in government transparency and secrecy. They imagine themselves to be policy advisers and will tailor their memorandums to the Transparency Reform Council. Students will then present their memos to their classmates and take questions.


  1. Instructor hands out assignment prompt. To see a detailed version of the assignment prompt used in Bruno’s course, see attached documents.
  2. After students receive the assignment prompt memo, they will select a topic for their writing and then begin to work outside of class.
  3. In this writing activity, students' task is to compose an analytic and persuasive memorandum (9-11 pages) that addresses, and makes a recommendation about, one specific transparency practice (whether currently existing or not). Possible topics include:
    1. (1) whether the proceedings of appellate courts, including the U.S. Supreme Court, should be broadcast live on television and online via streaming video;
    2. (2) whether legislators should be permitted to engage in confidential discussions and negotiations while formulating new laws, and if so, under what circumstances;
    3. (3) whether administrative agencies (e.g. the EPA, FDA, SEC, etc.) should ordinarily have to disclose information about their policymaking activities in real time, and if not, whether some other kind of disclosure should be required; and
    4. (4) whether an independent oversight institution should be empowered to require disclosure of the information and reasoning used by state officials to decide that particular individuals or groups abroad should be targeted in military operations (e.g., “targeted killings” by drone), and if so, what form such an institution should take.
    5. Students may also propose their own topic but should consult with the instructor prior to writing. 
    6. In writing their memos, students are instructed to imagine themselves as policy advisers. In that role, the student is providing analysis and argumentation about whether, and why, the particular transparency practice in question should be pursued (or not) by a constitutional democracy like the U.S. The audience for the memo is a group of officials -- the Transparency Reform Council (TRC) -- empowered to follow through on students' recommendations, and to bring them into effect. Students are instructed to imagine that the TRC has the authority to institute any reform they might recommend, whether this would require legislative change, constitutional change, etc. Students are also told to assume that the TRC is not motivated by any partial or sectional interests, but simply wants to design transparency rules and institutions in the best possible way.
    7. This writing assignment progresses outside the classroom. However, students are invited to meet with the instructor throughout the writing process for oral feedback on outlines and drafts.
    8. After writing and submitting their memos, students will be tasked with delivering a brief, oral presentation of their work during an in-class symposium. Each student will have a total of just five minutes to present his/her question, analysis, and recommendation, so brevity is essential.  After the student finishes presenting, she or he will face questions from the audience for three to four minutes.

Follow Up: 

Student memos will be graded for their clarity, analytic strength, and persuasiveness. Oral presentations will also be evaluated for these qualities. After grades are submitted, instructor will also request student feedback on the assignment in an effort to improve it for future use.


The benefits of this activity are several. First, the activity invites students to think deeply and creatively about the theories of government secrecy and transparency covered in the course readings. Second, the activity plunges students into a new genre of writing that is unfamiliar to most college students, but extremely important in most professional settings. It promises to help students develop new skills that are transferable to future endeavors of all different kinds. Instructors should consider using this activity because it provides students with some relief from the monotony of writing in the academic genre, while also requiring them to think critically about course materials in creative ways.

Bruno’s advice to instructors who are considering adopting this activity would be to provide students with a clear and comprehensive prompt. Because the memo genre will be new to most students, they will have many questions. It is critical to provide them with clear instructions and supplemental resources to help them answer those questions.


During this activity, students will consult the assignment prompt memo, the various writing resources to which it links, and the course readings that are germane to their topic. They may also do some limited outside research using databases like JSTOR and Academic Search Premier.

In Bruno’s assignment prompt, he included various links to policy memo writing and public speaking resources (see attached). 

memo_assignment.pdf121 KB