How think tanks change public policy – the Overton Window of Political Possibility

16 February 2011

A very clear description of what think tanks do -and how they change public policy from Joseph G. Lehman, president of the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, at a Show-Me Institute event on April 7, 2009, in Columbia, Mo.

(And before someone comments on the ideological leaning of the speaker and the examples he uses, they are not relevant to the very interesting insights into think tanks’ roles and how to assess their contributions to change.)

What influences societies? Ideas, as simple as that. Almost everything that surrounds us is the result of somebody’s idea. Think tanks provide a way to channel these ideas. As Hayek would put it, think tanks can be described as ‘second hand dealers of ideas’ marketing the ideas of the originators -a small bunch of very smart people- to the general public and the political classes.

Part 1


Part 2 below provides an interesting description of how ideas move through society from ridicule to acceptance to ‘we knew this was a good idea all along’. He presents the Overton Window of Political Possibility. This is interesting: for, say education policy, he lists policy options from ‘more freedom/less government involvement’ to ‘less freedom/more government involvement’. Then he identifies the ‘window’ (or range of policy options) available for politicians at a particular time and place.

If fewer options are available for a politician then the window is narrower -and vice-versa. Think tanks can help by moving or widening the window making it ‘safe’ for politicians to talk about certain policies that they might not have been able to talk about before.

Part 2


In Part 3, he describes the way ideas that may be first outside the window move in the world of politics to come into it: unthinkable, radical, acceptable, sensible, popular and policy. This ‘movement’ from politically impossible to politically inevitable. But on the specific role of think tanks he argues (quoting John Miller) that they are not responsible for success itself but for creating the conditions for success.

Part 3


Part 4