Policy Blog Trending

Rational and Incremental Policy Making

Rational & Incremental policy-making

Rational and Incremental Policy Making

An analysis of rational and incremental policy approaches

Policymaking can be understood as a process whereby governments commit to taking action to address a particular problem or issue. Through this relatively straightforward understanding of policymaking we can begin the process of examining further the approaches which are widely used in the development of policy. There are a number of competing and complementary theories related to how policies and more broadly the policymaking process can be approached and understood, however, the objective of this article is not to comprehensively review and analyze these approaches but instead to focus on the ways in which rational and incremental policy functions in policy development and how they can be understood in the context of policy implementation. We will explore what are the constituent components of these approaches, how they function in the real world, alongside a critical evaluation of both of these approaches and undertake some preliminary comparative evaluation, to gain a more nuanced picture as to how these approaches differ from each other. When evaluating policymaking and the approaches related to the process of making policies it’s important to take account of the policy cycle, as a frame through which we can understand the policymaking process.  The policy cycle we will use throughout this essay and which serves as the effective frame in which we can view the approaches is that which is proposed by (Anderson, 2015)this includes analysing policy making through 6 stages, that of;

  • Agenda Setting – identifying the problem that the proposed policy(s) will seek to address,
  • Policy formulation – the approach to be taken to address the problem identified in the agenda setting stage of the policy cycle
  • Decision-making – the process of deciding which approach to take or whether an approach will be taken at all
  • Implementation – putting the policy into practice
  • Evaluation – evaluating the performance of the policy and establishing whether it was a success or failure by examining its impact and outcomes ultimately

Below you can see a more broad illustration of the policy cycle, wherein a sixth stage is added, namely that of support/maintenance of policies.

The policy cycle and where scientific advice can be given.

In line with (Wegrich and Jann, 2006) we will evaluate the approaches according to how they function alongside how they work in relation to the policy cycle outlined above. You can find a more full discussion of the policy cycle in the scientific process available here.

Rational Policymaking.

The rational approach to policymaking can be viewed as stated in (Cairney, 2012) as the commonsense way in which a democracy should function. (Cairney, 2012) goes on to state that it may be better viewed as an ideal in which one should aim for “a process in which elected policymakers identify problems, clarify their aims and carefully weigh up solutions before making a choice (based on perfect information and no resistance from unelected implementing officials)”. This, however, may be viewed as an ideal but it is commonly stated by critics that it is an ideal which is unlikely to be reached, due to the difficulty of having perfect information (for a further discussion on this you may find this piece on the challenge of evidence useful) and in making decisions where the factors that are considered can be ranked in a fair and impartial manner. It is because of this that many scholars are increasingly seeing the rational approach to policymaking requiring significant interaction with the more incrementalist approach. This integration can be achieved through the incorporation of rational approaches over a prolonged period of time that are responsive to changes and utilizing the best available evidence over a given time period. There are a number of ways in which this debate permeates modern discussions on what constitutes modern political and policy approaches. however, we can evaluate this policy as described in (Cairney, 2012),  namely to evaluate whether elected policymakers can effectively seek to translate their values into policy supported by groups and organisations that behave in a ‘logical, reasoned and neutral way’. Indeed any discussion around rational policymaking must take into account whether the identification of problems and the accurate interventions necessary to address such problems, is at all possible in practice.

There are a number of primary assumptions that must be made to provide credence to whether the comprehensive rational approach to policy making can function effectively. These look at whether it is possible for organizations to separate facts from theories and values in an artificial manner, whether policymakers can rank their objectives in any meaningful way that supports policymaking. There are a host of reasons why this policy approach can face significant challenges, specifically if we look at for example contradictory objectives. This is where there exists a divergence between two particular policy options and concerns how a policymaker can effectively address these contradictions alongside how one can go about conducting a fair and effective ranking of the relevant factors to consider, and indeed whether such a ranking is even possible. We must also look at how the rational approach fits in with the policy cycle outlined above and whether it is possible for the rational approach to mirror this model in a linear fashion, namely is it possible for the rational approach to follow a clear linear process, which is uninterrupted by external factors inhibiting the effectiveness of any such interventions. There is also the consideration that rational policymaking assumes that a policy maker can understand and interpret all possible outcomes which is not possible, indeed many authors cite this as being down to a variety of factors, not least cognitive limitations. However, if we look at bounded rationality, which as stated in (Cairney, 2012) wherein one “doesn’t seek to simply maximise one’s utility but instead seeks to follow a course of action that is ‘good enough’. This approach within the rational approach would also explore using ‘rules of thumb’ to consider the relevant factors in making policy decisions. Within this context we can view rational policy making as a process where we are seeking to make the best possible decision as far as possible by using administrative science to support that decision, however this approach nonetheless has a number of limitations which we will explore further below.

The Incremental Approach to Policy Making

In Charles Lindblom’s seminal work, he critiques the role of comprehensive rationality in the policymaking process and instead speaks about the challenge this approach faces, specifically the opportunity cost of comprehensive research (Lindblom, 1959), within this we can see an interesting understanding of the limits of truly rational policy making. The limitations of using the best available evidence requires research to develop the recommendations necessary to make rational policy making.  However when viewed through the lens of an opportunity cost where we instead look at how the time and resources necessary for such research to be conducted could instead be used, alongside the greater role of politics afforded to policymaking we can see many aspects contained within the incrementalist approach which take a more nuanced view of the process of policymaking and the relevant approaches in the process. (Cairney, 2012) talks about policymakers considering not only their own values but a more general view of other policymakers views on policy, this is to take account of the balance of power that typically exists and the impact this balance of power can have on policy making in general, in this regard we can view the incrementalist approach as more cognisant of the political challenges and interactions which are inherent in policymaking.

Incrementalism according to (Lindblom, 1979) however does not simply mean change occuring in small increments, it can be large increments that take place in the policy making process. indeed building upon this a primary factor of incrementalism is considered to be whether the change is radical or non-radical, in that does the policy change that occurs fit in line with more general trends or is it a more radical departure from typical policy making. We can see between rational (in this case bounded rational) and incrementalism there is a tendency for significant overlap in use of these approaches. for example (Cairney, 2012) states that “Boundedly rational policymakers are much more likely to introduce incremental policy changes – based on learning from past experience and addressing the unintended consequences of previous decisions” it is here where we can see not only the overlap but also how both approaches to policy making can intersect for a much more dynamic and adjusted approach to making policy.

Lindblom, (1959) views incrementalist approaches to policy making as a more efficient, sensible and democratic approach. This is in contrast to the approaches to boundedly rational policy making as put forward by (Simon, 1976) where we can view governments focusing on improving previous policies as a more efficient way for policymaking to take place. alongside this we can view policymaking that occurs through stages or over time as more sensible as there is a reduced likelihood of making large lasting changes that were poorly thought out and not evaluated along a well-considered and evaluated process, and wide reaching changes can also be considered undemocratic according to (Cairney, 2012) in that the deviation may not be rooted in accountability and have the necessary democratic legitimacy to adopt such a different approach, indeed this can come down to the issue of mandates and whether policymakers, for example, have the mandate to implement such wide-reaching reforms. We can see this in (White and Lindblom, 1965) analysis which looks at pluralistic democratic systems – we can see where there can be parties which engage in “partisan mutual adjustment” a process that constitutes a large part of how an incrementalist approach functions in a multi-party democracy as we can see policies over time being tweaked and adjusted to more accurately achieve the intended outcome of a particular policy. (Hayes, 2017) states that policies are made through a pluralistic process in which a number of participants can instead focus on proposals that seek to incrementally alter the status quo, and that for the process of incrementalism to yield defensible policy outcomes it must seek to satisfy three which provide examples of incrementalism in public policy; that all or most social interests should be represented, political resources must be sufficiently balanced so as one actor does not centrally control or dominate and that political parties must be moderate and pragmatic (Hayes, 2017). These three conditions fit in line with the process of incrementalism, indeed being more democratic as the aim is to incorporate in the largest number of stakeholders, however with regards to the point on pragmatism and moderate parties being involved being a central critique that the policy of incrementalism fails to incorporate in idealism and the requirement for radical change, specifically in response to major crises.

Compare and contrast rational and incremental models of policy making

We can see from the literature discussed above that there exists a significant overlap in terms of the use of these approaches in the process of policymaking. However, when we begin to examine the relative strengths and weaknesses of the approaches we can see that within either incrementalism or the rational approach to policymaking that there is a wide variation in terms of how these approaches can be used. Hayes, (2017) states that nonincremental policy changes occur during a period of crises or during mass public arousal and that a departure from incrementalism to a more rational approach to policymaking would typically occur after a number of years of experience with policy implementation and that rational approaches can occur in a punctuated equilibrium. We can see that incremental approaches typically occur over a longer period of time and that the main point of departure would typically occur in bursts of public pressure or engagement on a particular issue, for example, the issue of healthcare in the U.K with a gradual and incrementalist approach being pursued until an institution such as the NHS is established, which would be a radical departure from the norm only to lead to a punctuated equilibrium where incrementalist changes then re-occur on a more radical approach such as the establishment of such an institution as the National Health Service.

We can see that a radical departure from the norm, only to be followed by a more incrementalist approach can be observed in (Cairney, 2012) where he states “if a previous policy commanded widespread respect then policymakers will (and should) recognise the costs (analytical & political) of a significant departure from it.” This fits in line with the inverse of this argument where external pressures such as technological change, or if there is a sea change in attitudes on a particular issue that there contains fertile ground in which a radical departure from incrementalist policy making can occur. However (Lindblom, 1964) approaches this with the defence that incrementalism is not necessarily about continuity and stability but moreover is the most logically coherent process to make changes within a social structure is through a series of stages.

However, when comparing the policy-making approaches it is important to note the significant overlap between both approaches. Most notably (Lindblom, 1979) assertion that opting for an approach other than comprehensive rationality does not instead mean that one has to reject the approach that favors better decision making in favor of a more gradual process but instead an approach that can incorporate both the thoroughness of the comprehensive rationality approach to policymaking with the more tried and tested approach of the incrementalist approach which allows for checks on the progress of policy initiatives to reach a particular desired policy outcome. This can become an approach that allows policy to reach its more desired outcome that blends the strengths of both approaches. This however faces the challenge of where the power to make policy should be concentrated or if it should be concentrated at all?

The rational approach, with its subsections, can mean that power is centralized and that organizations and policymakers seek to make use of ‘administrative science’ as stated by (Simon, 1976) and that organizations should seek to evaluate the possible outcomes and decide the best possible policy solution with the available evidence. While this approach seeks to incorporate the relevant evidence it requires that “an assumption that power is held centrally by policymakers and carried out by neutral bureaucrats or other organisations” as stated within (Cairney, 2012). This assumption that policy and policymaking should be controlled centrally and in a hierarchical fashion, can lead to the disenfranchisement from the policymaking process of lower ranking staff, clients, amongst other stakeholders. Such centralized control of policymaking may hold important considerations for the implementation of such rational policymaking, with those trusted to implement a particular policy being excluded from the making of the policy they are tasked with implementing. This contains within it a contraction of sorts where the rational approach to policy making may take account of the best available evidence while neglecting to include those who are responsible for its implementation which may encounter the problem of being well developed in its scope and objectives but failing due to poor implementation.

We can observe similar contradictions occuring in the incrementalist approach to policymaking, with the nature of partisanship which is a strong component of the incrementalist approach leading to unbalanced power structures pursuing mutually negative policy approaches and within a situation of duopolistic power brokers, for example, pursuing policies that don’t seek to improve the situation. We can see this where there is consensus within a political structure on an approach that is not in the best interests of addressing particular areas of concern. This can be seen in (Lindblom, 1977) where he notes the particular failures of the incrementalist system with regards to business (particularly large firms) in a market system, where they accrue large swathes of power and exert significant influence to the determinant of small firms competing in a market economy and where policies are created that reinforce this imbalance of power.

While we can see that (Lindblom, 1979) identifies that this is not a sufficient reason to reject the incremental policy approach, we can, however, see that the contradiction in terms of the incrementalist approach assuming there will be corrections to policies that are not adequately addressing particular problems that there is a flaw in this approach due to the assumption of the political will to correct mistakes or flaws in the policy cycle. We can see in the policy cycle that there are 3 primary options available, that of positive action, negative action and neutral or no action, within the incremental approach we assume the approach will be to gradually take positive action which supports addressing the particular policy problem, however we can also see evidence of incrementally negative policy action being taken where the system doesn’t correct itself and continues down a path of gradual worsening of the original problem. The work of (Weiss and Woodhouse, 1992) seeks to address the concerns around the main critiques of Lindblom’s original work by addressing some common misconceptions around the approach of incrementalist policymaking.

They take the approach that in lieu of “ time, cognitive capacity, resources, or theoretical understanding required for envisioning all conceivable options or for analyzing all the consequences of those options that do get considered.” that the incrementalist approach to policy making afford the best possible solution to addressing these shortcomings.

We can also observe that a major deficiency in the work of Lindblom and the incrementalist approach is that which is proposed within (Atkinson, 2011) that inherent within the incrementalist approach is an assumption that a policy change is forthcoming and that there is a desire to move away from the status quo, but this fails to take account of the “ persistent pull of the status quo.” This also flies in contradiction to a common critique that the incrementalist approach is one which is inherently conservative, but that instead, we can see that the will to do nothing, or in terms of the policy cycle for no action to be taken is a consideration that bares heavily on the approaches of both incrementalism and rational policy making.

Again inherent within both approaches and as mentioned by (Cairney, 2012) is the impact the systems of governance have on the policy approach to be taken. (Cairney, 2012) specifically mentions the divergence between the Westminster model of government with much more centralised control and two parties which are conflicting in their aims, as opposed to the systems of government in the US which contains within it more checks and balances, this can also be seen in countries such as Japan where political inertia makes the arguments around policy making approaches much more nuanced and conditional on government structure.

Rational vs incremental policy-making

With regards to which approach can best aid the policymaking process, and through a comprehensive analysis of the literature on the topic, I believe that it is clear that while both have major concerns and considerations with regards to their applicability, it could be understood that both rational and incrementalist approaches to policy making can have sufficient cross-over in terms of their applicability. Indeed we can see from one of the main proponents of the incrementalist approach Charles Lindblom that he believes there is scope to incorporate the incrementalist approach with the rational approach. However, throughout this essay I have sought to compare and contrast both approaches with regards to their integrations with the policy cycle and how they can best aid in the development of policy that is logically coherent and is focused on achieving the stated objective and outcome desired at the identification stage of the policy cycle. It is due to this alongside the considerations with bearing too heavily on one side I would understand that it is highly contextual which policy approach to favor and to where possible incorporate the gradual, tried and test aspects of incrementalist policymaking with the incorporation of using the best available evidence of the rational approach to policymaking that is too be favoured. I hope in this brief insight into rational and incremental policy I provide some insight into topics such as;

  • What is an incremental policy?
  • What are rational policies?
  • What is the difference between rationalism and incrementalism?

And furthermore provides some clear cut examples of incrementalism in policy making, as well as what the relative advantages and disadvantages of incremental policy making are.


  • Anderson, J. (2015). Public policymaking . Stamford: Cengage Learning.
  • Atkinson, M. (2011). Lindblom’s lament: Incrementalism and the persistent pull of the status quo. Policy and Society , [online] 30(1), pp.9-18. Available at: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.polsoc.2010.12.002 [Accessed 10 Dec. 2017].
  • Cairney, P. (2012). Understanding public policy . Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, pp.95 – 111.
  • Hayes, M. (2017). Incrementalism and Public Policy-Making. Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Politics , [online] p.abstract. Available at: http://politics.oxfordre.com/view/10.1093/acrefore/9780190228637.001.0001/acrefore-9780190228637-e-133 [Accessed 10 Dec. 2017].
  • Lindblom, C. (1959). The science of “muddling through” . New York, N.Y.: Irvington Publishers, pp.79–88.
  • Lindblom, C. (1964). Contexts for Change and Strategy: A Reply. Public Administration Review , 24(3), p.157.
  • Lindblom, C. (1977). Politics and markets . New York, N.Y.: Basic Books.
  • Lindblom, C. (1979). Still muddling, not yet through . [Place of publication not identified]: [publisher not identified], pp.517–25.
  • Simon, H. (1976). Administrative behavior . 3rd ed.
  • Wegrich, K. and Jann, W. (2006). Theories of the Policy Cycle. Handbook of Public Policy Analysis , pp.43-62.
  • Weiss, A. and Woodhouse, E. (1992). Reframing incrementalism: A constructive response to the critics. Policy Sciences , [online] 25(3), pp.255-273. Available at: https://page-one.live.cf.public.springer.com/pdf/preview/10.1007/BF00138785.
  • White, O. and Lindblom, C. (1965). The Intelligence of Democracy: Decision Making through Mutual Adjustment. The Western Political Quarterly , 18(4), p.934.


Jason Deegan

Jason Deegan is a PhD Candidate (Stipendiat) and research fellow at the University of Stavanger. His work primarily focuses on; Innovation, Regional Studies, Smart Specialisation and Policy.

Leave a Reply