How to Write Memoranda to Cabinet
This purpose of this note is to present public sector writing practices for writing Memoranda to Cabinet. The focus is on both style and context. Although style and technique are important, it is an appreciation of the context that will distinguish you as a writer of superior Memoranda to Cabinet (MCs).
As MCs play a pivotal role in the Cabinet decision making process, it is critical to understand the function and process associated with the document. An MC is the key instrument a Minister uses to obtain the support of Cabinet colleagues for policies and proposed course of action. In draft form, it is also the instrument used by officials to lay the consultations groundwork with other departments and the central agencies before the Minister actually presents the initiative to Cabinet.
An MC is prepared when directed by the Prime Minister or a Cabinet decision; in response to Parliamentary Committee recommendations or requests; when proposed legislation is to be presented to Parliament; or when a policy or program initiative is of significant importance or sensitivity to warrant a Cabinet decision before any action is taken by a Minister.
The Privy Council office produces a Memoranda to Cabinet Drafter’s Guide which should be available through your department’s Cabinet Briefing Unit or strategic policy branch. In this guide you will find details on the key steps in the Cabinet decision-making process as well as detailed direction on the MC is structure and drafting of MCs.
Approach the task strategically, with political acumen. Your task is to presents complex issues in straightforward, plain language for the primary audience; the Minister’s Cabinet colleagues. Remember there are also other audiences for the MC and each has their own perspective or role (senior officials in the sponsoring department, political staff in the sponsoring department, officials in other departments and the central agencies).
The structure of the MC is formal and official. It must be followed in order for the MC to be approved and accepted into the decision making process by the Privy Council Office.
Every MC consists of: the Ministerial recommendations (MR); the Analysis; the Communications Synopsis and Plan; and an Advisory Note. There may also be Annexes or Appendixes. Usually the Analysis is written first, then the MR although in final form the MR appears at the beginning of the MC.
The Ministerial Recommendation (MR) is an “advocacy document” providing an overview of the issue, the recommendations along with their costs and the main supporting arguments. This is the only part of the MC that contains the Minister’s views, opinions and recommendations. Attached to the three page MR is a one-page Communications Synopsis and an annex with the Communications Plan. The sections of the MR are:
- Title (4 or 5 word description)
- Issue (one sentence summary of the question to be discussed by Cabinet)
- Recommendations (states the decision the sponsoring Minister seeks)
- Rationale (the principle arguments for the recommendations)
- Problems and Strategies (a numbered series of concise descriptions of possible problems arising from implementing the recommendations and how to handle each problem).
- Political Considerations (assessment of the politial issues related to the recommendations)
- Departmental positions (concerned departments’ positions supporting and opposing the recommendations)
The Analysis contains the background of the issue, factors considered in arriving at the options presented and the costs and benefits of implementing each option. The objective is to provide other analysts, briefers and implementers with the details and background needed to understand the issue and its implications. The sections of the Analysis are:
- Background (outline of events leading to presentation of the issue to Cabinet)
- Considerations (description of the non-financial factors and interest that will be affected by the recommendations)
- Options (balanced presentation of the pros and cons of each of the possible courses of action and the financial implications of each option)
The Communications Synopsis generally contains nine sections on one 8.5 x 14 inch page: Consultation, Date Drafted, Anticipated Announcement Date, Goals, Impact, Possible Headlines, Messages, Activities, and Sustaining the Message.
The Communications Plan should not be longer than 8-10 pages and explains how the Minister will present and explain the decision to the public. It consists of a Communications Analysis and Communications Tactics sections.
The one-page Advisory Note is written by exempt staff outlining the political communications considerations.
When you write an MC, to make it as readable and understandable as possible, keep in mind plain writing principles:
- use plain, everyday language
- avoid long, complicated sentences and paragraphs
- be concise and build arguments logically, step by step
- avoid technical terms and acronyms
- keep the MR short, simple and concise; move anything that is not critical to the Analysis section.
Assume your first draft will be too long, verbose and bureaucratic. Avoid all three by rigorously & ruthlessly editing & revising. Ask yourself these questions:
- Given the purpose and context of this MC, what exactly do briefers and Ministers really need to know? What is the strategy, the game plan here?
- Have I identified the various actors or issues or options; captured the strategic considerations?
- Would I be confident walking into Cabinet with this MC?
- Is the level of detail I am providing appropriate to the subject? Is every word and paragraph essential? What can I edit out?
Contact Theresa McKeown & Associates by email at PSwriter@publicsectorwriting.com or by telephone toll free at 1-800-613-9121. We conduct public sector writing training, deliver sessional writing instruction at the University of Victoria, and review ministerial briefing, parliamentary affairs and correspondence services for government departments.