Rejecting the rational, comprehensive model of decisionmaking that called for careful articulation of all goals and full consideration of all alternatives, Charles Lindblom’s essay, “The Science of ‘ Muddling Through’” (1959), inaugurated a new approach to understanding public policy. While Lindblom used the term successive limited comparison rather than incrementalism, this new approach argued that: (1) means and ends are decided simultaneous, not sequentially; (2) comparisons are restricted to marginal changes in existing policy, and are not made among all possible alternatives; and (3) the appropriate test of good policy is simply the ability to make a decision. Based on both the cognitive limitations of decision makers and widespread conflicts over values in policymaking, Lindblom argued that it simply was not rational to try to make rational, comprehensive decisions.
Lindblom’s insight provided the theoretical foundation of Aaron Wildavsky’s (1930–1993) The Politics of the Budgetary Process (1964) and his later empirical modeling of U.S. appropriations decisions (Davis et al. 1966). As Wildavsky noted,
Budgeting is incremental, not comprehensive. The beginning of wisdom about an agency budget is that it is almost never actively reviewed as a whole every year in the sense of reconsidering the value of all existing programs as compared to all alternatives. Instead, it is based on last year’s budget with special attention given to a narrow range of increases or decreases. (Wildavsky 1964, p. 15)
Given this understanding of budget decision making, Wildavsky (1978) argued that a succession of budget reforms designed to introduce elements of rational, comprehensive choice into the appropriations process—such as President Lyndon Johnson’s (1908–1973) planning-programming-budgeting system or President Jimmy Carter’s zero-based budgeting—would inevitably fail.
The Lindblom-Wildavsky model of incrementalism was remarkably successful in inspiring a generation of research on public policymaking in general and budgeting in particular. But it also attracted considerable criticism even in its heyday. John Wanat (1974), for example, argued that the budget results reported by Wildavsky could be adequately accounted for by the prevalence of mandatory budgetary increases without reference to constraints on individual decision making or the need to coordinate decisions among political actors. John Gist (1982) then suggested that the level of competition within the budget process depended very much on the level of the budget examined. At lower levels, budgets change far more than might be expected given incremental decision making. And perhaps most telling of all, the very concept of incrementalism was characterized by considerable drift as various authors operationalized the concept in markedly different ways. Indeed, after identifying at least twelve different meanings of incrementalism used in research on public policy ranging from the “use of simple decision rules” through “smallness of ultimate change” to “absence of competition,” William Berry (1990) argued that the concept had become so broad that it should be abandoned. But none of these criticisms really slowed the pace of research on incrementalism, in large part, perhaps, because none really identified an alternative theory that could account as well for the empirical regularities reported by those working within the incremental paradigm.
Such an alternative finally appeared after renewed attention to periods of rapid policy change. Wildavsky and his colleagues (Davis et al. 1974) certainly acknowledged that, at least on occasion, policies and budgets change rapidly. But they were more attentive to the longer periods of stability than to the rarer episodes of change. But John Kingdon’s Agendas, Alternatives, and Public Policies (1984) drew renewed attention to the importance of episodes of sudden, dramatic change in fundamentally shaping public policy. Kingdon’s attention to nonincremental policy change was further developed by Frank Baumgartner and Bryan Jones in Agendas and Instability in American Politics (1993). Their punctuated equilibrium model of public policy purported to account for why we observe both short, rapid episodes of policy change and long-term stasis between such periods. Explaining how their model accounts for the former goes beyond the scope of an essay on incrementalism. But while Jones and Baumgartner’s (2005) explanation for the periods of relative stasis in policy between periods of sharp change accounts for Wildavsky’s findings, it also differs from his understanding of incrementalism. That is, rather than explaining stability by the need of politicians to find consensus in order to make any decision in the face of widespread conflict over values and the ultimate goals of public policy, the punctuated equilibrium model explains episodes of limited policy change by reference to both the government’s inability to attend to more than a few major issues at any given time and the stickiness of political institutions that inhibits rapid change. When government attention is drawn to an issue and that stickiness breaks down as veto points are overcome by political momentum, significant policy change is likely.
Has the theory of incrementalism founded on the work of Lindblom and Wildavsky really been surpassed? It is clear that the theoretical analysis used to account for observations of incremental behavior has shifted from attention to the limited cognitive capacities of individuals and the necessity of politicians to make decisions in the face of conflicting values to the stickiness of political institutions and institutional limits on the size of policy agendas. And it is also true that scholars are now more attentive to the importance of periods of rapid change that are observed in most policy areas over time. In these senses, the theory of incrementalism has been surpassed by Baumgartner and Jones’s theory of punctuated equilibrium. But in other respects, incrementalism is alive and well. Baumgartner and Jones’s attention to periods of punctuation is important largely because most policymaking, most of the time, is incremental in the sense used by Wildavsky in the quotation presented at the beginning of this essay. Most policy decisions are not reexamined every year against all possible alternatives. The backdrop of punctuations is as important as the punctuations themselves. Even more importantly, neither Kingdon’s policy agendas model nor Jones and Baumgartner’s punctuated equilibrium model represents a return to the model of rational, comprehensive decision making so strongly rejected by Lindblom and Wildavsky.
SEE ALSO Decision-making; Economics; Lindblom, Charles; Marginalism; Pluralism; Policy Analysis; Punctuated Equilibrium
Baumgartner, Frank, and Bryan D. Jones. 1993. Agendas and Instability in American Politics. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Berry, William D. 1990. The Confusing Case of Budgetary Incrementalism: Too Many Meanings for a Single Concept. The Journal of Politics 52 (1): 167–196.
Davis, Otto A., M. A. H. Dempster, and Aaron Wildavsky. 1966. A Theory of the Budgetary Process. American Political Science Review 60: 529–547.
Davis, Otto A., M. A. H. Dempster, and Aaron Wildavsky. 1974. Towards a Predictive Theory of the Government Expenditure: US Domestic Appropriations. British Journal of Political Science 4 (4): 419–452.
Gist, John R. 1982. “Stability” and “Competition” in Budgetary Theory. American Political Science Review 76: 859–872.
Jones, Bryan D., and Frank Baumgartner. 2005. The Politics of Attention: How Government Prioritizes Problems. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Kingdon, John W. 1984. Agendas, Alternatives, and Public Policies. Boston: Little Brown. 2nd ed., 2003. New York: Longman.
Lindblom, Charles E. 1959. The Science of “Muddling Through.” Public Administration Review 19: 79–88.
Wanat, John. 1974. Bases of Budgetary Incrementalism. American Political Science Review 68: 1221–1228.
Wildavsky, Aaron. 1964. The Politics of the Budgetary Process. Boston: Little Brown. 4th ed., 1984.
Wildavsky, Aaron. 1978. A Budget for All Seasons: Why the Traditional Budget Lasts. Public Administration Review 38 (6): 501–509.