//What is Incremental Policy Making?
Incremental Policy Making

What is Incremental Policy Making?

The Incremental Approach to Policy Making

The standing on the shoulders of policies past approach values lessons learnt, but how does Incremental Policy Making function in reality?

In Charles Lindblom’s seminal work ‘The Science of “muddling Through”, 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, 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 Incremental policy making approach which takes 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 Incremental policy making approach as more cognisant of the political challenges inherent in policymaking.

Incremental policy making (or Incrementalism) according to Lindblom, in ‘Still Muddling, Not Yet Through‘  however does not simply mean change occuring in small increments, it can be large increments that take place in the policy making process. However a primary factor of incrementalism is 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 in ‘The Science of “muddling Through”‘ 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 process, and wide reaching changes can also be considered undemocratic according to (Cairney, 2012). this can come down to mandates and whether policymakers for example have a 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 primary conditions; 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.

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.

We can observe similar contradictions in the incrementalist approach to policy making, with the nature of partisanship which is a strong component of the incremental policy making approach leading to unbalanced power structures pursuing mutually negative policy approaches and with a situation of duopolistic power brokers for example pursuing policies that don’t seek to improve the situation, but instead follow a path dependent process of bad policies.

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 incremental policy making approach assuming there will be policy 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 policy making.

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.

In opposition to this 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.

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