Using the Overton Window to Anticipate Change (June 9, 2020 Pooling Perspective)


By Ann Gergen, Executive Director

Adapted from "Overton Window diagram" by Hydrargyrum; licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

Note: Throughout the pandemic, Ann Gergen has been offering regular insight into COVID-19 issues AGRiP members are experiencing and related trends to monitor. With pools now once again broadening their focus beyond COVID-19, Ann’s perspective pieces will address additional timely topics, returning to the pandemic and its effects on pools as relevant.


Regardless of what you might have expected from 2020, this year has been – and will likely continue to be – a time of significant upheaval. As of this writing, both the COVID-19 pandemic and policing practices are generating widespread public discourse about the role of government at all levels. 

Shifts in public perception and sentiment may cause local public entities to adjust their roles, actions and operational approaches. As they do so, their risk profiles will change – which means pools will need to review their approaches as well. 

One framework that can help pools understand how public beliefs and norms influence public policies (and, in turn, can help pools anticipate change) is the Overton Window.

This concept puts policy alternatives relating to an issue along an axis representing the degree of government influence (federal, state, local or otherwise). The Overton Window itself bounds the set of potential policies the public views as reasonable, with those policies outside the window viewed as “radical” or even “unthinkable.”

As external factors (e.g., media influence, crisis situations) alter public perceptions, the Overton Window may shift. When it does, ideas that were previously considered unacceptable can suddenly seem sensible or even popular by comparison. Over time, ideas that might have once seemed outside the realm of possibility can become policy. 

A great example of the Overton Window in action involves the regulation of seatbelts. Before 1965, most people would have defined mandatory seatbelt use as outside the boundaries of the Overton Window. In 1968, the federal government required all vehicles to be fitted with seat belts. In 1984, New York became the first state to put seat belt use mandates in place. Today, regulation of seat belt use is well within the bounds of generally accepted public policy.

Over the years, pools have been integral in helping their members adapt to transformations in public perception and the resulting public policies.

  • Environmental protection expectations have shifted local government land use planning and decision-making processes. In response, pools have modified land use coverage and provided risk management programs for local governing bodies.
  • Changes to equal protections and equal benefits expectations have resulted in new anti-discrimination and parity laws for local governments and schools. Pools have helped their public entity members revamp policies, change practices, engage in effective training and make other adaptations in order to address these needs.
  • Shifts in the public’s perception about mental health have resulted in many changes such as parity within employee health benefits, PTSD presumptions, delivery of employee assistance program services and more. Pools have been at the forefront of guiding members through implementation of all these changes.

By monitoring where perceptions and norms fall within the Overton Window, pools can gauge likely changes in local public entity practices and consider corresponding risk questions. This can help pools provide the coverage, services and important guidance member entities have come to expect.

  • For instance, the Overton Window of public perception around pandemic restrictions might help your pool identify the likelihood that a local government will enforce greater limitations than imposed by the state. Your pool can prepare member guidance to help public entities determine the parameters of their authority.
  • The Overton Window of public perception around transmission risk of COVID-19 might also suggest how quickly your member agencies will restart certain services or programs. Your pool might provide safety grants for sanitation activities and risk management advice about the efficacy of use waivers.
  • With regard to policing practices, the Overton Window indicates how a law enforcement agency’s policies and actions might be received or interpreted by the public. Thinking in these terms might help your pool prepare for changing law enforcement needs or risks that can be addressed through coverage, model policies, training or other risk management guidance.

Given today’s level of attention to and debate about issues affecting local public entities, it’s important for pools to understand the direction and magnitude of change their members will experience. And, as public opinion shifts and previously “unthinkable” policies are enacted, pools might need to alter their claims and litigation management tactics, risk management or loss control advice, training, model policies, safety grants or other key programs to best serve member needs. 


Other Resources:


Ann Gergen is AGRiP’s executive director and a former pool administrator. She has worked closely with and for pools, public entities, reinsurers and related service providers throughout her career.

Image adapted from "Overton Window diagram" by Hydrargyrum; licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.