Policy Outcomes, Big and Little

Just as we have divided the policy agenda into micro and macro, we can distinguish between two types of policy outcomes, incremental adjustments and systemic overhaul. We normally associate incrementalism with the micro agenda and overhaul with the macro agenda.

What is Incrementalism?

Incrementalism, also disdainfully called disjointed incrementalism, is a policy making process which produces decisions only marginally different from past practice. Some analysts describe incrementalism as muddling through, in contrast to the ideal of the rational-comprehensive model of policy planning. The rational model assumes a great deal of information, clarity of goals and criteria, and the ability to define and analyze all possible alternatives, rendering a single clear solution. The real world is not so obliging.

Given all the constraints examined in this chapter, perhaps all that we can realistically expect is minor modification, inertia, or business as usual. Many find this conclusion disappointing, regarding incrementalism as a failure of the political system to come to grips with the underlying problems which put issues on the agenda. Risk-averters and some Conservatives regard incrementalism as safe, system-conserving behavior. Nonetheless, we must regard incrementalism as the most likely outcome of the policy formulation process.

Why Is Incrementalism the Norm?

We note that the systemic tendency to incrementalism reproduces itself in each stage of the policy cycle, especially at budgeting, not just at formulation. We will examine here how incrementalism occurs in both phases of the policy formulation process, analysis and politics. These reasons are conceptually distinct, but reinforce each other. As we will see when we look at implementation and budgeting, the tendency to incrementalism operates there as well. In fact, incrementalism is the norm in each stage of the process. Incrementalism is characterized by severe limits in the rationality applied to policy analysis. It may also represent a failure of policy analysis. This failure is not purely technical, but institutional, since organizations operate with constraints, especially of time and budget. Here are several reasons that rationality is constrained for policy formulation:

  1. Typically, only a narrow range of alternatives and consequences can examined seriously, and even those few are blinkered by past practice.

  2. The policy chosen is likely to provide only a limited, short-term amelioration of the concrete problem posed on the political agenda.

  3. Overhaul, the opposite of incrementalism, introduces formidable risk and many decision makers prefer a risk-aversion strategy which prevent unanticipated and possible irreversible policy outcome.

  4. The criterion brought to bear is not goal maximizing, but administrative satisficing, slight improvement as compared with past performance.

  5. Incrementalism and inaction consume fewer resources than a more systemic solution, especially an unproven one. Large budget deficits, or merely the memory of such deficit spending, dampen enthusiasm for tackling problems on a grand scale.

In addition to the limits of rationality, there are significant political and organizational forces which promote incremental decision making. Some are:

  1. Constitutional checks and balances, separation of powers, and federalism. Recall my earlier point that the Founders intended to secure liberty and prevent tyranny, not to design a streamlined method of policy determination and implementation.

  2. Interest groups and subgovernments promote incremental change in the status quo. They control the micro-agenda, limit the scope of alternatives, shut out unsympathetic voices, and skew the decision making in favor of vested interests and past practice.

  3. In such an environment, the built-in political process of negotiation, bargaining, and compromise among many legitimate participants in the policy arena is virtually the only way to get things done.

  4. Further, the very character of large-scale, complex organizations fosters incrementalism: fragmentation, inertia, bureaucracy, conflicting goals, and financial constraints.

  5. Government-induced change typically carries a price tag, but budgets are scarce and complex. Budgetary constraints prevent the initiation of new policies or the expansion of existing programs. The budget-making process is notoriously cumbersome and resistant to reform, as we shall see when we turn our attention to budgeting.

  6. Finally, the legal system operates around a set of established principles which also reinforce incrementalism:
    • Precedent, especially evident in the holdings of the Supreme Court.
    • Due process under the law, which provides legal standing to many interested parties and provides the opportunity to use litigation as a redress: New and bold policies get tied up in court.

But results more profound than incrementalism do happen, albeit rarely. We turn next to overhaul.

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The Public Policy Web
©by Wayne Hayes, Ph.D., ®ProfWork
October 18, 2002