Tag Archives: comprehensive rationality

Policy Concepts in 1000 Words: Bounded Rationality and Incrementalism

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A classic starting point in policy studies is to compare ideal-types (which might be ideals to aspire to) with the real world. The classic example is comprehensive (or synoptic) rationality. The idea is that elected policymakers translate their values into policy in a straightforward manner. They have a clear, coherent and rank-ordered set of policy preferences which neutral organizations carry out on their behalf. We can separate policymaker values from organizational facts. There are clear-cut and ordered stages to the process (aims are identified, the means to achieve those aims are produced and one is selected) and analysis of the policymaking context is comprehensive. This allows policymakers to maximize the benefits of policy to society in much the same way that an individual maximizes her own utility.

Its comparator is ‘bounded rationality’ (coined by Simon) which suggests that policymakers’ ability to make and implement decisions is more problematic. We question our ability to separate values and facts. We note that policymakers have multiple, often unclear, objectives which are difficult to rank in any meaningful way. We wonder if the policy process is so ordered and linear (or if policymakers sometimes select a solution that already exists to a problem defined for them). We know that policymaking organizations have limited knowledge and research capabilities; that they have to use major shortcuts to gather a limited amount of information in a limited time. We know not to seek policymaking perfection, but something that is good enough. We don’t ‘maximize’ – we ‘satisfice’.

We can use this discussion to go down two main paths. The first is empirical/ descriptive. Lindblom’s famous conclusion is that bounded rationality helps cause incrementalism[i]. Organizations use simplifying strategies, such as limiting policy analysis to a small number of policy choices which diverge incrementally from the status quo (based on the argument that it is better to analyse a few issues comprehensively than seek comprehensive coverage of all issues). They use trial and error. Rather than ranking preferences in advance, they test their willingness to trade off one aim for another when they make policy decisions. They use an incremental strategy as a rule of thumb: if a previous policy commanded widespread respect then policymakers recognise the costs (analytical and political) of a significant departure from it.

If we follow this empirical path, we want to know if policymaking, and its outcome, is incremental. This picture of policymaking seemed to be common wisdom for some time: Lindblom’s critics often bemoaned the problems with the outcome, not his analysis. We can also identify related terms such as path dependence, policy succession and inheritance before choice which, albeit in different ways, highlight the dependence of current policy decisions on those made in the past. More recently, punctuated equilibrium theory suggests that incrementalism is not the full story. Rather, we can identify a mix of ‘hyper-incrementalism’ and radical change; a huge number of small changes and a small number of huge changes. Studies of policy diffusion also suggest that bounded rationality often prompts governments to emulate the (often radical) policies of other governments without fully understanding their success. So, we can now identify, in the literature, a common focus on bounded rationality as a starting point, but some very different conclusions about policy change.

The second path is normative/ prescriptive. Lindblom’s early work was often criticised for selling incrementalism as good practice: focusing on radical options is futile if no-one will countenance them anyway; policy in a series of steps reduces serious mistakes; and, existing policy is good if based on wide agreement. It prompted intense debate, focused on the extent to which incrementalism was appropriate when governments had a mandate for, or a need to engage in, radical change. Lindblom’s thinking also changed to some extent, to reflect his diminishing belief that the US political system was pluralistic and therefore a vehicle for policy based on widespread agreement.

This debate took place when Lindblom was contrasting policymaking in the US with the Soviet Union. Incrementalism was partly an antidote to ‘central planning’. While that specific debate has aged, we can still identify a broader concern with the centralization of power. The ideal of comprehensive rationality includes an assumption that power is held centrally by policymakers whose decisions are carried out by neutral bureaucrats or other organizations. In other words, a central decision maker should control the policy process; power should reside in the hands of elites at the top/ the centre at the expense of other actors. This raises debates about the balance between central and local government power, particularly when both have electoral mandates. We should also consider our need to balance authority at the top with local knowledge at the bottom; to balance the delegation of policymaking to people who know best how to do it with the maintenance of a meaningful degree of accountability for the outcomes. For example, you can see this debate play out in studies which apply complexity theory to public policy. In practice, the descriptive/ prescriptive elements of these discussions become blurred. One may argue for particular arrangements not only based on principle but also because they appear to work.

Much of the postwar debate took place in the idiosyncratic US, but incrementalism (or, in some cases, inertia) has been identified as a defining feature in systems such as Japan, Italy and Germany. It is tempting to associate incrementalism with particular types of system, such as ‘consensus democracies’ or systems with diffused power and multiple veto points – in contrast to the ‘majoritarian’ or ‘top-down’ UK. Yet, incrementalism’s key features – bounded rationality; the necessity of bargaining and compromise between actors who have different information, different interests and conflicting views; and, the need to build on past policies – may be ‘universal’.


[i] Policymaking through non-radical steps. Note that the meaning of ‘incrementalism’ is not always clear and that Lindblom is not its only exponent – look out for Wildavsky too.

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