Disjointed Incrementalism

Having expressed strong doubts about the rational model, in terms of both feasibility and underlying theory, its critics have suggested an alternative view of the planning process. The terms incrementalism, disjointed incrementalism, muddling through, and successive limited comparisons have been used for an alternative approach, of which Lindblom has been the most prominent advocate.7

Lindblom believes that value clarification at the outset, though it sounds attractive in principle, is usually not practical. Rather, what counts is achieving agreement on goals. Politics is, after all, "the art of compromise," not the art of optimization. He suggests that the range of possible courses of action should not include the full-blown comprehensive model. Rather, he argues, planners should quickly come down to a short-list of serious possibilities and focus on these. He argues that planners and policy makers should be strongly influenced by precedent and by experience and that they should recognize the advantages of policy options that represent marginal or incremental changes from previous policies. The argument for an emphasis on marginal change is twofold. First, a policy that is simply an adjustment or fine-tuning of a previous policy is much more likely to gain acceptance than one that is a radical departure. Second, marginal or incremental adjustments require less knowledge and theory. Even if we do not really know why a policy or a program functions as it does, we can often see that if we adjusted it this way or that, it is likely to function better. In Lindblom's phrase, the rational model is "greedy for facts":

It can be constructed only through a great collection of facts. ... In contrast, the comparative [incremental] method both economizes on the need for facts and directs the analyst's attention to just those facts which are relevant to the fine choices faced by the decision-maker.8

The greed for facts is not a small point. Gathering facts takes time and costs money, and sometimes the facts cannot be had no matter how much effort is expended. Similar observations can be made regarding theory. Building theory takes time and money, and sometimes, when all is said and done, alternate theories will prove equally plausible. What is one to rely on, then? Perhaps it is best to rely on the fine-tuning of disjointed incrementalism. Piano tuning is an incremental process and it seems to work.

The arguments for the incremental, or muddling-through, approach are powerful, and most advocates of the rational model will admit that there are times when incrementalism is the most practical route. But it must be said that there is one important situation in which the incremental approach is not good—the situation in which a decision to move in a new direction must be made. If the problem is new, it is hard to see how an incremental approach can work. In the 1960s the United States began to confront the problem of nuclear waste disposal. There simply was no existing program that could be incrementally adjusted to deal with a problem that had not existed a decade earlier. Perhaps the reason we have hundreds of thousands of "hot" fuel rods in temporary storage at dozens of sites around the country is precisely because we took the incremental approach.

The critic of the incremental model might also argue that excessive reliance on the incremental approach can make one excessively dependent on precedent and past experience and thus blind to worthwhile new ideas. Thus heavy reliance on incrementalism can lead one into excessive caution and missed opportunities.

To some extent the choice between the rational model and the incremental model may be an expression of one's willingness to take risks. The rational model may hold out the hope of big gains because going back to the beginning may yield a new and much superior approach. But if one goes back to the beginning and gets things all wrong, there is the possibility of big losses. The incremental approach, by holding fast to the handrail of experience and precedent, reduces the chances of both big gains and big losses. Table 19-1 summarizes the circumstances in which one might favor one model or the other.

TABLE 19-1 Which Model to Use

Favors Rational Model Favors Incremental Model

Favors Rational Model

Favors Incremental Model

Adequate theory available

Adequate theory lacking

New question

Modification of old question

Resources generous

Resources limited

Substantial time for study

Limited time for study

Numerous relations to other policy issues

Few relations to other policy issues

Wide range of policies might be politically acceptable

Policy options highly limited by political realities

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