Tag Archives: incrementalism

Policymaking in the UK: do you really know who is in charge and who to blame? #POLU9UK

This week, we continue with the idea of two stories of British politics. In one, the Westminster model-style story, the moral is that the centralisation of power produces clear lines of accountability: you know who is in charge and, therefore, the heroes or villains. In another, the complex government story, the world seems too messy and power too diffuse to know all the main characters.

Although some aspects of these stories are specific to the UK, they relate to some ‘universal’ questions and concepts that we can use to identify the limits to centralised power. Put simply, some rather unrealistic requirements for the Westminster story include:

  1. You know what policy is, and that it is made by a small number of actors at the heart of government.
  2. Those actors possess comprehensive knowledge about the problems and solutions they describe.
  3. They can turn policy intent into policy outcomes in a straightforward way.

If life were that simple, I wouldn’t be asking you to read the following blog posts (underlined) which complicate the hell out of our neat story:

You don’t know what policy is, and it is not only made by a small number of actors at the heart of government.

We don’t really know what government policy is. In fact, we don’t even know how to define ‘public policy’ that well. Instead, a definition like ‘the sum total of government action, from signals of intent to the final outcomes’ raises more issues than it settles: policy is remarkably difficult to identify and measure; it is made by many actors inside, outside, and sort of inside/outside government; the boundary between the people influencing and making policy is unclear; and, the study of policy is often about the things governments don’t do.

Actors don’t possess comprehensive knowledge about the problems and solutions they describe

It’s fairly obvious than no-one possesses all possible information about policy problems and the likely effects of proposed solutions. It’s not obvious what happens next. Classic discussions identified a tendency to produce ‘good enough’ decisions based on limited knowledge and cognitive ability, or to seek other measures of ‘good’ policy such as their ability to command widespread consensus (and no radical movement away from such policy settlements). Modern discussions offer us a wealth of discussions of the implications of ‘bounded rationality’, but three insights stand out:

  1. Policymakers pay disproportionate attention to a tiny proportion of the issues for which they are responsible. There is great potential for punctuations in policy/ policymaking when their attention lurches, but most policy is made in networks in the absence of such attention.
  2. Policymakers combine ‘rational’ and ‘irrational’ ways to make decisions with limited information. The way they frame problems limits their attention to a small number of possible solutions, and that framing can be driven by emotional/ moral choices backed up with a selective use of evidence.
  3. It is always difficult to describe this process as ‘evidence-based policymaking’ even when policymakers have sincere intentions.

Policymakers cannot turn policy intent into policy outcomes in a straightforward way

The classic way to describe straightforward policymaking is with reference to a policy cycle and its stages. This image of a cycle was cooked up by marketing companies trying to sell hula hoops to policymakers and interest groups in the 1960s. It is not an accurate description of policymaking (but spirographs are harder to sell).

Instead, for decades we have tried to explain the ‘gap’ between the high expectations of policymakers and the actual – often dispiriting- outcomes, or wonder if policymakers really have such high expectations for success in the first place (or if they prefer to focus on how to present any of their actions as successful). This was a key topic before the rise of ‘multi-level governance’ and the often-deliberate separation of central government action and expected outcomes.

The upshot: in Westminster systems do you really know who is in charge and who to blame?

These factors combine to generate a sense of complex government in which it is difficult to identify policy, link it to the ‘rational’ processes associated with a small number of powerful actors at the heart of government, and trace a direct line from their choices to outcomes.

Of course, we should not go too far to argue that governments don’t make a difference. Indeed, many ministers have demonstrated the amount of damage (or good) you can do in government. Still, let’s not assume that the policy process in the UK is anything like the story we tell about Westminster.

Seminar questions

In the seminar, I’ll ask you reflect on these limits and what they tell us about the ‘Westminster model’. We’ll start by me asking you to summarise the main points of this post. Then, we’ll get into some examples in British politics.

Try to think of some relevant examples of what happens when, for example, minsters seem to make quick and emotional (rather than ‘evidence based’) decisions: what happens next? Some obvious examples – based on our discussions so far – include the Iraq War and the ‘troubled families’ agenda, but please bring some examples that interest you.

In group work, I’ll invite you to answer these questions:

  1. What is UK government policy on X? Pick a topic and tell me what government policy is.
  2. How did the government choose policy? When you decide what government policy is, describe how it made its choices.
  3. What were the outcomes? When you identify government policy choices, describe their impact on policy outcomes.

I’ll also ask you to identify at least one blatant lie in this blog post.

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Policy in 500 Words: how much does policy change?

You should get the impression from 1000 words that most policy changes are small or not radically different from the past: Lindblom identifies incrementalism; punctuated equilibrium  highlights a huge number of small changes and small number of huge changes; the ACF compares routine learning by a dominant coalition to a ‘shock’ which prompts new subsystem and policy dynamics; and multiple streams identifies the conditions (rarely met) for major change.

Yet, I just gave you the impression that we don’t know how to define policy. If we can’t define it well, how can we measure it well enough to come to this conclusion so consistently?

Why is the measurement of policy change important?

We miss a lot if we equate policy with statements rather than outputs/ outcomes. We also miss a lot if we equate policy change with the most visible outputs such as legislation. I list 16 different policy instruments, although they tend to be grouped into smaller categories: focusing on regulation (including legislation) and resources (money and staffing) to accentuate the power at policymaker’s disposal; or regulatory/ distributive/ redistributive to suggest that some policy measures are more difficult to ‘sell’ than others.

We also give a limited picture if we equate change with outputs rather than outcomes, since a key insight from policy studies is that there is generally a gap between policymaker expectations and the actual result.

What are the key issues in measurement?

So, as in defining policy change, we need to make choices about what counts as policy in this instance to measure how much it has changed. For example, I have (a) written on one output as a key exemplar of policy change –  legislation to ban smoking in public places for Scotland, England/ Wales, the UK, and (almost) EU – to show that a government is signalling major changes to come, but also (b) situated that policy instrument within a much broader discussion – of many tobacco policies in the UK and across the globe – to examine the extent to which it is already consistent with a well-established direction of travel.

To make such choices we need to consider:

  • Breadth (to give the ‘big picture’) versus depth (to note important details forensically)
  • How much we expect policy to change, given the size of the problem (a big feature in public health studies, which criticise government inaction)
  • How radical policy change looks from the ‘top’ (at the point of central government choice) or the ‘bottom’ (longer-term delivery of policy by other bodies)
  • What policies mean (what problem were policymakers trying to solve?)
  • How consistent ‘policy’ seems when made of often-contradictory instruments

How do we solve the problem?

The problem is that we can produce very different accounts of policy change from the same pool of evidence, by accentuating some measures and ignoring others, or putting more faith in some data more than others (e.g. during interviews).

500 words p30 UPP

Sometimes, my preferred solution is to compare more than one narrative of policy change. Another is simply to ‘show your work’.

Take home message for students: ‘show your work’ means explaining your logical process and step-by-step choices. Don’t just write that it is difficult to define policy and measure change. Instead, explain how you assess policy change in one important way, why you chose this way, and shine a light on the payoffs to your approach. Read up on how other scholars do it, to learn good practice and how to make your results comparable to theirs. Indeed, part of the benefit of using an established theory, to guide our analysis, is that we can engage in research systematically as a group.




PS Here is the way in which I describe these issues to MPP students writing theory-driven coursework on policy and policy change (using the case study of UK tobacco policy as a guide):



Filed under 500 words, public policy, Research design

Policy Concepts in 1000 Words: Bounded Rationality and Incrementalism

(podcast download)

Note: I don’t write so much about incrementalism in the 2nd edition. If you would like more of the background, please see see chapter 5 in the 1st ed of Understanding Public Policy

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.


Filed under 1000 words, public policy, UK politics and policy