A frame of reference is the foundation of your briefing note. It gives you sound guidance as you do your research and writing. It will help you to keep your work focused and will help you avoid spending time pursuing avenues that are not relevant to the task at hand.
A frame of reference has six elements:
• strategic perspective;
• barriers; and
These elements are linked to each other. Changing one can mean changing one or more of the others as well. In light of this, a frame of reference is a valuable tool for making sure that the foundation of your briefing is viable before you devote a lot of time to research and writing. You can also use it to get buy-in and guidance from your supervisor, partners or senior management at an early stage.
Sometimes it is quick and easy to write a frame of reference. In such cases, there is nothing lost by taking a little time that is required. Other times, it will be difficult and time-consuming to write a frame of reference. This can be an important sign that you need to clarify what you are setting out to do before you spend a lot of time doing it.
Sometimes, you will draw a complete blank when you try to write your frame of reference. This may be one of those times when writing is a process of discovering what your thoughts are, rather than simply putting your thoughts on paper. In such cases, go ahead and start writing. Before you finish up, however, do go back and write your frame of reference. If you still experience difficulty at this point, it is a sure sign that your briefing note is in trouble.
A strategic perspective is vital to a successful briefing note. It has three components:
• triggers (drivers);
• strategic goal; and
• corporate perspective.
What triggered the need for a briefing note, and what triggered the trigger? Review the triggers closely to ensure that you clearly understand what is driving the task that you are about to pursue. It is important to know not only what is required but also why it is required.
What strategic goal will the briefing note further? This is not the same as the objective of the briefing note. The strategic goal is a bigger purpose that validates the objective. Such a goal might be found, for example, in (see also “Sources” below):
• the law;
• the Speech From the Throne;
• the Budget;
• the Minister’s mandate letter; or
• your departmental or branch business plan.
What is a corporate perspective? This is the most challenging component of the strategic perspective. This is where you anticipate and think through the big picture that will be on the minds of senior managers as they review your briefing note. Here, it is helpful to do a SWOT scan, using PESTLE as a guide.
SWOT stands for:
• Strengths (internal capabilities);
• Weaknesses (internal vulnerabilities);
• Opportunities (external circumstances that can be exploited); and
• Threats (external circumstances that present a danger).
PESTLE stands for:
• Political factors (e.g., public opinion, relevance to the Speech From the Throne);
• Economic factors (e.g., budget considerations, financial impact on stakeholders);
• Social factors (e.g., impact on education, culture, families, the elderly, employees);
• Technological factors (e.g., technological capabilities and constraints);
• Legal factors (e.g., impact of laws, regulations, treaties or contracts); and
• Ecological factors (e.g., impact on wildlife habitat or greenhouse gases).
WHAT DO YOU WANT TO ACHIEVE?
In setting the objective of the briefing note, state it in terms of something you want the briefing note to achieve, as opposed to simply going through a process. Here's an example of a process: "To brief the Minister on our cost-sharing program." That raises the question: What do you want to be the outcome of that briefing? Instead, you might say something like this: "To ensure that the Minister is aware in advance of opposition that may arise to our cost-sharing program."
Here is a test of whether you have developed a sound objective. Ask yourself if it is SMART, i.e.:
• Relevant; and
• What exactly do you want the Minister to do, decide, know or understand after reading your briefing note?
• Does your objective embrace answers to these questions: Who? What? When? Where? Why? How? How much?
• How will you know whether you have achieved your objective?
• Can you use quantitative metrics (e.g., “Did the Minister approve spending
$1.45 million on the new program?” or “Did the Minister agree to visit 15
mining communities in the next 12 months?”)?
• Can you use qualitative metrics (e.g., “Did the Minister approve the new
communications strategy for the program?” or “Did the Minister accept the invitation to speak at the conference?”)?
• What barriers stand between you and achieving your objective?
• Should you consider addressing each barrier in a separate initiative — say, in separate briefing notes to the Minister, the Deputy Minister, etc.?
• Does your objective fall within the parameters of higher goals that have been approved previously (e.g., goals set out in the Budget, the Speech from the
Throne, the Minister’s mandate letter, the department’s business plan)?
• When must the objective be achieved in order to be useful (e.g., within six hours, within seven days, within two months)?
In setting your objective, you have an opportunity to be strategic. You don't want to overreach — but neither do you want to aim for less than what you could reasonably expect to achieve.
Your manager can be helpful at this early stage in assessing the objective.
The audience is the star of the show. Without an audience, you cannot achieve your objective.
Choosing your audience is another opportunity to be strategic. The first audience that comes to mind may not be the audience that is best-suited to furthering your strategic goal or achieving your objective.
The ultimate audience — say, your minister — is just one of many audiences that your briefing note will encounter as it makes its way up through your bureaucracy. For a ministerial briefing note, the draft must be read, understood and endorsed by five managers and seven or more administrative assistants, executive assistants, briefings officers, policy advisors and chiefs of staff. — each of whom may delay your briefing note, edit it without consulting you, or even reject it outright if they misunderstand it.
THE GLOBE AND MAIL TEST
Finally, there is The Globe and Mail test. Briefing notes, and even drafts of briefing notes, are subject to access to information legislation. Thus, another audience could be the general public, and your briefing note could end up on the front page of The Globe and Mail one day. This should not deter you from offering frank advice. It should, however, be an incentive to ensure that everything in the briefing note will stand up under intense public scrutiny.
Authority is the flip side of the audience. Your audience has to be matched with the signing authority for the briefing note.
Here, you again have an opportunity to be strategic. If you or your upper managers do not have the authority to address the audience that is needed to achieve your objective, you will need to rethink your endeavour to identify an alternative objective and an audience that you do have the authority to address.
Another dimension of authority is approvals by specialists — such as legal counsel, communications, finance, human resources and subject-matter experts. If you need OKs from people such as these, it will take time, and you will need to account for this when you write your timelines.
Barriers are external factors that stand between you and achieving your objective with your chosen audience. Barriers could include:
• the audience's existing position on the issue (and if you don't know what it is, it is worth your while to work through back channels to find out);
• competing views conveyed by other stakeholders;
• the audience’s lack of understanding of a complex issue;
• time pressures that could prevent the audience from reading or even seeing your briefing note; and
• PESTLE and SWOT factors.
You have another opportunity to be strategic here. Do the barriers present too much of a challenge to overcome in a single briefing note? You may have to consider your options and develop a plan for overcoming those barriers — possibly:
• developing a series of briefing notes, each designed to overcome one or more of the barriers; and/or
• seeking an opportunity to deliver an oral briefing on a complex issue.
Finally, we come to timelines, which have three components:
• deadline — i.e., when the briefing note must be received by its ultimate audience in order for it to achieve its objective;
• schedule — e.g., when your research and consultations will be done, when your drafting and revising will be done, when the briefing note will be translated (if needed), when approvals will be received from specialists and the formal line of authority; and
• personal time budget — i.e., the number of hours of your own time that the project will require.
Once again, you have an opportunity to be strategic here. Does your deadline permit you enough time to gather all the information that you want or need for the
briefing note? If not, you must make a choice:
• You could plow ahead and hope for the best without the missing information.
• You could change other elements of your frame of reference as needed to match the available information.
• You could ask for an extension on the briefing note’s deadline if it has been requested
If you need to ask for an extension, do so as soon as possible. Waiting until the last minute makes you look incompetent and complicates life for everyone else.
As noted above, a ministerial briefing note must be cleared by 12 or more managers, administrative assistants, executive assistants, briefings officers, policy advisors and chiefs of staff. If you are tempted to cut corners in your personal time budget for research and writing, give some thought to what the consequences will be if any of those individuals:
• misunderstand your briefing note;
• send it back to you for revision;
• revise it themselves without checking with you; or
• reject it entirely before it reaches its intended audience