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The Art of Memo Writing In The Public Sector

The Art of Memo Writing In The Public Sector

2 months ago By Emily Harris
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While it’s no longer a fax or print-out, the art of the business memo (also known as a memorandum, or "reminder") is still alive and well within the public sector. For a division that has a number of diverse teams and departments working under the one organisation, and experiences regular workflow changes, effective internal communication is key. Considering memos focus primarily on internal communications, they play a big role in ensuring a government organisation’s internal communication are clearly received and understood by the relevant parties. Every day, public servants across the country will write memos informing individual employees or entire departments of upcoming events or broadcasting internal changes to personnel or workflows. 

​Like with any professional communication, there's an art to writing an effective and clear memo that's balanced and concise. Today, we look closely at what makes a ‘good’ memo and provide advice on how to write decision or policy memos that strike a balance between guiding/recommending a course of action and still remaining objective. ​ Considering memo writing is an essential part of many public sector roles - especially within governance, HR and professional roles - hopefully, these tips will help to develop your memo-writing skills and enhance your overall employability: 

The purpose of a Memo

A business memo is a short, yet formal document used primarily to communicate between employees. The key differentiating factor between a memo and an email is that memos are more formal in tone and often used when you need to give your message a more official look. They are also usually internal documents or only addressed to employees or key stakeholders of an organisation, which again differentiates them from a press release or letter. They are ideal for sharing brief yet vital information quickly like:

  • Changes to personnel, including team additions, departures and role changes

  • Updates on upcoming events like meetings or organisational training days

  • Changes to organisational workflows, operations and policies 

  • Address business challenges and propose solutions (and particularly within the public sector recommend a decision or course of action to superior public servants or elected representatives)

Criteria of a strong memo

While memos can cover a wide range of subjects, from organisational structure updates to policy initiatives. However, despite the diversity in the subject matter and target audience, the criterion to writing a strong memo remains the same:

Brevity: the more concise a memo the better, as it makes the information easier to be digested and understood. Furthermore, within the public sector, memos will often relate to very specific departments, teams or make recommendations on a particular matter and consequently, a memo’s wording needs to be exact and precise to avoid any confusion[1] (LEE, 2018).

Clarity: While memos should be professional in tone, they should also be easy to understand. Consequently, they should avoid any jargon or academic language that could take away from the memo’s key message and isolate its audience.

Clear formatting: Because keeping your memo clear and concise is paramount, you need the memo to be as easy to navigate and read through as possible. The best way to do this is through formatting so, the majority of memos will include the following information in the header (at the top of the document):

Date: The date the memo is sent to its intended recipients 

To: The name and/or title of the individual(s) or team(s) to whom the memo is primarily addressed 

Cc: The name and/or title of anyone else who will receive a copy of the memo (optional)

From: Your name and title. You can also include the team/department you work within

Subject: A clear, short sentence or phrase that sums up what your memo is about. Think of this as an informal title for your memo

Tips To Help You Write Your Next Policy Memo 

Policy or decision memos are a specific category of memos that analyse situations and offer recommendations to inform and guide a decision-maker (within the context of the public sector this is usually a superior public servant or elected representative). Such writing is the bread and butter activity of executive public administration, covering a wide width of subjects, from specific cases via tactical issues to policy initiatives[2] (Roehl, 2022). 

No matter the subject, a policy memo will include the pros and cons of each suggested decision or recommendation and this is where the challenge lies. As writers must strike the perfect balance of being objective (listing all possible pros and cons and alternate solutions) while still providing a persuasive case for their recommended course of action. This can be easier said than done, so we list the key ingredients to a balanced, effective decision memo below:

1.    Always lead with the main topic of your memo. It should be clear from the very first sentence what your memo is about. If your memo is longer than two-to-three paragraphs, your first paragraph should briefly summarise the overall memo and what is to follow. Doing this also helps to avoid waffling or going on a tangent within your copy.

2.    Keep your audience top of mind. To ensure you are resonating with your primary audience, it’s important to ensure each memo is tailored to their priorities, for example, a new policy or matter will impact the HR team in different ways to the finance team. Consider what matters most to the specific group of people you’re writing for, and ensure those elements are emphasised most in the first half of your memo, to help captivate them. If you’re sending a memo to a wider, more diverse group of people across multiple departments it’s also important to ensure your language can be easily understood by all (don’t use any particular jargon or abbreviations that only a specific group of people will be familiar with).

3.    Be objective. We’ve mentioned this before, but objectivity is crucial in decision memos. Regardless of whether have a preferred recommendation over another, you need to ensure you are clearly and fairly providing all contextual information for each pro and con. Furthermore, make sure you are differentiating clearly between facts and your own assessments and estimates. Where assessments and estimates are associated with clear limits in scope, state it.

4.    Be clear. It’s important that despite being objective and providing pros and cons for a number of potential actions, the memo also needs to be clear about the particular action it advises. When writing your next memo, simply state your advised action and why it's recommended, in plain language and then follow with the necessary next steps. When illustrating your point, or providing the next steps, including a table or figures can help to persuade your audience further. Finally, using an active voice rather than a passive one in the language you use throughout your memo can again, help to get your point across effectively.  

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While every memo will have different requirements, depending on its desired target audience, purpose and government organisation it’s being sent within, the above tips are a great starting point to help you master the art of memo writing. Which is a useful skill for any public servant and will help to cement your employability. 

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[1] Leadership For Educational Equity (LEE). (2018). Guide To Writing An Effective Policy Memo. LEE. Retrieved from: https://educationalequity.org/sites/default/files/documents/best_practices_-_policy_memo.pdf

[2] Roehl, U. (2022). The Art Of Writing A Good Memo. The Mandarin. Retrieved from: https://www.themandarin.com.au/181000-the-art-of-writing-a-good-memo/