Overton Windows of Opportunity

From Flickr Creative Commons

It’s very satisfying to find actual, recognized theories for some of the ideas and instincts that float around in my head.

Especially when I’d never heard of them before–it’s like finding a friend you never knew you had, or something.

In some research that I’ve been doing about message development, as part of work on some advocacy campaigns on which I’m consulting, I came across this concept of the Overton Window(there’s apparently a novel by Glenn Beck by the same title, definitely NOT what I’m talking about here).

This Overton Window is related to the idea of political windows of opportunity, except that it’s specifically referring to messages, and the range of such ideas (or policy proposals) on a continuum from unthinkable to actualized policy (with radical, acceptable, sensible, and popular in between–I love that there’s a distinction between sensible and popular because, of course, there is).

But where I think this connects most to our advocacy challenges today, and so why I find it most comforting, is that, while much of what we know those we serve really need, in terms of policy approaches, falls somewhere in the lower ranges, from “unthinkable” (true universal health care as a guaranteed human right) to “radical” (progressive tax policies that would provide a strong foundation for economic justice), there are opportunities to move the window by deliberating building momentum around ideas that are unthinkable, so that alternatives seem quite sensible by comparison.

Conversely, in the realm of messaging, there are ways to couch the policy approaches that are our goals in terms of popular themes, riding the coattails, so to speak, of those frames in order to create space for a particular policy innovation.

What does this mean for social work policy advocates, at least those who aren’t taking my advanced policy course next fall and, therefore, will have to read and talk about this part of political theory as a part of class?

1. We absolutely have to have a sense of the policy and message landscapes around the issues we’re working, so that we can correctly diagnose why a particular idea is struggling to gain traction. There’s a real danger, always, of becoming too myopically focused on our own perspective; what the Overton Window reveals is that, without a “pulse” on the issue, we won’t know where we fall, or why we fail.

2. There is a place for the outlandish in policy debates. As I’ve said before, we’re sometimes too reluctant to appear “radical”, and so we cede wide swaths of the policy debate, which we really can’t afford, especially when we’ve got windows to shift.

3. Events beyond our control can move policy proposals from one end of the spectrum to another, just as critical events can open windows of opportunity in the policymaking process. Strategic analysis must include an assessment of how attitudes and prevailing wisdom are evolving, so that we can anticipate and respond to these changes.

Where do your policy agendas fall on this continuum, and how do you craft messages that increase the likelihood of support for your issues? How do you build momentum around ideas that clearly fall in lower ranges, particularly when they represent your “sacred extremes“? And are there any of your favorite theories, that help to explain your world and the way you see it, that I should know about?

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