In his seminal work, The Science of “Muddling Through” Charles E. Lindblom (1959) uses a systems approach to policy formation and suggests that a comparative approach could assist political scientist and policymakers to understand how decision-making happens. In his rebuttal to rational, scientific or mechanical processes, like cost-benefit analysis (CBA), Linblom suggests am incremental approach to understand decision-making. He attempts to describe how decisions are made through various methods of analysis including: the root vs. branch, evaluation and empirical analysis, ends vs. means, testing on hypotheses, non-comprehensive analysis of relevance vs. realism, but concludes that the small succession of events, incremental analysis often helps determine policies. Finally, he adds that while theorist search for the root of the problem and provide possible policy recommendations; practitioners need practical advice immediately on the job and may already be on a new topic when the academic has found the optimal policy solution.
Lindblom’s basic approach is incrementalism, or the small steps of a process to create change. Although in this seminal work, Lindblom is discussing decision-making, his larger goal is to suggest how positive social change happens. It is more apparent that his mission and vision of muddling through, is much broader than decision-making through his later writings such as “Modes of Inquire”. This idea was quested through his career and was further developed after several academic rebuttals published in the 1964 PAR, which I will describe below.
Through the study of public administration, various theories, methods and approaches are used by social scientists to understand how government works in order to make it work better. Academics have used business modeling, positivist-scientific approaches, historic views (for example, using our forefathers to describe the present context), systems theory (like Lindblom’s decision making model), feminist and postmodern theory, and mix-methods to describe how the world works. It seems they are all muddling through reality to prescribe policies, when actually they are living through the policies and their outcomes. Policy, in this case, is a loose definition of how to study human nature or social change. The social sciences are one of the most complex sciences because it is hard to predict human behavior. Therefore Lindblom’s ideas truly describe the study of public administration, or the search of finding practical outcomes and semi-optimal policy solutions for situations difficult to predict.
On Incrementalism and Decision-Making
Dror, Yehezkel, “Muddling Through-‘Science’ or Inertia?,” Public Administration Review, Vol. 24, No. 3. (Sep., 1964), pp. 153-157.
The first and biggest refute to Lindblom’s claims of decision making as incremental, Dror suggests that each new place where rapid social change occurs, a new “normative” model for policy makers should be created. He claims that politics get into the way of rational decision-making and that indeed Lindblom’s argument is closer to reality to what policy makers face. But his largest caveat is that too much successive action recreates limited comparison and leads to dangerous overreaction. He complains that the incremental change includes the small construct of actors (often elites) and does not allow for new knowledge, whether technical or behavioral, to impact the equation. This pro-inertia idea inhibits innovation, which is exactly what decision-makers need to advance ideas.
Lindblom, Charles E., “Governmental Decision Making Contexts for Change and Strategy: A Reply,” Public Administration Review, Vol. 24, No. 3. (Sep., 1964), pp. 157-158.
Lindblom’s response was simple, context matters. While working at the State Department, he further his argues that disjointed incrementalism differs with regime types, contrasting the US and the Soviet Union. Additional elements to consider include the results, degree of continuity and its available means for dealing with problems. Furthermore, Lindblom includes that many models of decision-making are needed to address issues. They must each fit reality, be directed toward improvements, apply to policing making and motivate to maximize the optimal policy outcome.
Heydebrand, Wolf, “Administration of Social Change,” Public Administration Review, Vol. 24, No. 3. (Sept., 1964), pp. 163-165.
In this reaction to Dror’s rebuttal to Lindlom’s incremenalism piece, Heydebrand suggests they differ in style of decision-making. Dror’s argues that Lindblom’s absence to social, economic and political stabiltity (ie context) should be included and Heydebrand adds, so should agenda setting, motivation, mobilizing and coordinating resources, etc. These are the other areas that classic public administration also addresses. Heydebrand uses the idea of social Darwinism to describe Lindblom’s incrementalist approached to social change. He also suggests the concept should be dissected into short-term and long-term costs and concludes that Lindblom’s thoughts do not go beyond a laisser-faire model.
Etzioni, Amitai, “Mixed-Scanning: A ‘Third’ Approach to Decision-Making,” Public Administration Review, Vol. 27, No. 5. (Dec., 1967), pp. 385-392.
Whereas incrementalism is a rebuttal of CBA or rationalism in decision-making, the third approach of mix-scanning is the mixture of the two. Etzioni cites criticism of the rational approach because it is often unrealistic and requires a high degree of control over a particular situation. He also cites that incrementalism is often a bit lazy, and suggests inertia is insufficient as a response to an issue. Also incrementalism seeks to “adapt strategies to the limited cognitive capacities of decision-makers to reduce the scope and cost of information collection and computation.” The mix-scanning approach uses different lens to look at the small issues and the bigger problems. It looks at patterns of development in the recent past and in different areas so that it can incorporate a more in-dept examination where needed. This middle, or third way, approach, Etzioni suggests creates higher capacity to scan and control, allow more flexibility, changes with relevant environments and adapts to various specific situations.
Doron, Gideon, “A Comment: Telling the Big Stories. Policy Responses to Analytical Complexity,” Public Administration Review, Vol. 5, No. 4. (Summer, 1986), pp. 798-802.
In this short comment, Doron describes when stories, also known as narratives in postmodern literature, can be used to analyze problems. He places the concept of story telling into a matrix, comparing it to other conventional policy analysis methods. He then describes the scope of when storytelling is useful in the context of small or big problems. Doron argues that the lack of good theory for decision making is a large constraint and often time policy makers use stories to assist them to make decisions. Interestingly, he suggests that stories can be used incrementally until a state of dissatisfaction comes about and “crisis” hits. Then, often more rigorous policy analysis, or the perception of one, is useful for policymakers to use. Therefore the method of communicating a policy and its scope depended on the degree of what the policymakers are trying to convey.
Clark Jr., Thomas D., and Willam A. Shrode, “Public Sector Decision Structures: An Empirically-Based Description,” Public Administration Review, Vol. 39, No. 4. (Jul.-Aug., 1979), pp. 343-354.
For another approach to public decision-making, Clark and Shrode provide a dry empirical based description. Using research data from public organizations, never fully qualified in the article, the authors create models for when public manager uses information in their decisions. A survey and questions were sent to various agencies and responses were gathered, but the quantities and questions were not facilitated in the article. The authors create a typology of problem solving to structure decisions that include their perception of organizations, evaluations of political (internal and external), program and personnel variables and pressures they face. The results seem inconclusive due to the lack of understanding of their statistical modeling.
Lindblom, Charles E., Currents and Soundings: From the Professional Stream, “Still Muddling, Not Yet Through,” Public Administration Review, Vol. 39, No. 6. (Nov. - Dec., 1979), pp. 517-526.
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