Incrementalism in Policy Making


What is Incrementalism?

Incrementalism refers to a method of achieving broad changes in the various policies or laws by making small changes in the policies over time. Incrementalism is also known by the term gradualism because this method involves changing the policies or laws by making gradual changes rather than changing them all at once. We often use incrementalism without even realising to tackle daily-life tasks or problems such as making tea or driving to the destination. One does not need to do deep planning or research while performing these actions. Incrementalism suggests that any problem that may occur while performing any actions can be solved one at a time, the moment it arises. Incrementalism can be best described by the following axiom,

How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time!”

Background of Incrementalism

Consciously or unconsciously people tend to use incrementalism to deal with the various daily life problems. However, the way one can use incrementalism to make significant changes in public policies was first discussed by a political scientist, Charles E. Lindblom, in 1950. Lindblom published an essay titled ‘The Science of Muddling Through,” in 1959, in which he mentioned the negative impacts of making momentous changes in the policies without thoroughly analysing and identifying the impacts these changes may have on a large scale. Lindblom suggested that Incrementalism is the best method for bringing changes in the policies over the rational model.

Charles E. Lindblom

Charles E. Lindblom

Rational Model vs Incrementalism

In the case of the rational-comprehensive model, which is a strictly top-down approach to tackling the problems, one needs to analyse every factor that may affect the outcome, and also one needs to consider all the possible solutions to the given problem before taking any actions. Economists claims this method can help in getting the ideal solutions as large numbers of variables are involved in this method. However, Lindblom refused this belief and he argued that considering a large number of variables and then finalising the solution is a complex task and can consume a lot of resources such as time and money. According to Lindblom, the rational-comprehensive model of policymaking is quite unrealistic because in most cases the chances that this method leads to the appropriate solution mainly depends if the two factors are satisfied. First is total agreement on all the objectives. Second is the ability of the policymakers to precisely predict what would be the exact consequences of all the possible solutions that they have considered. The major drawback of the rational-comprehensive approach is that it does not guide the policymaker that what steps they can take in case these conditions are not satisfied. On the other hand, incrementalism allows the policymakers to make small yet significant changes in case of any sudden problems. Incrementalism allows the policymakers to address the sudden problems by taking suitable steps rather than developing a single plan as in the case of the rational-comprehensive method which sometimes does not help in tackling the sudden issues. The main feature of incrementalism is that it emphasises the need of identifying and considering the values and interests of all the people that are involved in the formulation of policy.

Incrementalism in Policy Making

Incrementalism in Policy Making

While drafting the policies, the policymakers not only have to consider their values but also the balance of the legislature power and the reactions of the interest group due to the changes in the policy. Policymaking can be considered as a trade-off between one’s own goals and those favoured by the other members involved in the policymaking or finalising the policy that aligned with the goals of one member over the other members involved in the policymaking. Policymaking is a tedious and costly task, one needs to spend a lot of time persuading the political parties, and the public that the policy changes are required for their betterment to make sure that the policy is implemented without much opposition. The process of policymaking is also unpredictable, which is why the majority of the policymakers often prefer to use the incrementalism process which enables them to make amendments to the previous policies rather than spending a lot of time formulating the major new policies. Incremental policy changes involve learning from the previous mistakes in the policies and then addressing those issues rather than introducing entirely new policies. Lindblom proposes that the policymakers do not formulate policies by expressing their values, and then formulating the policies based on that try their best to achieve them, instead, their desire to trade-off a particular goal over the other becomes clear only after they formulate the policy decisions. The analysis of the policies is not comprehensive, i.e., it does not consider all the theoretical and empirical implications. Rather, they usually focus on the effect of the various incremental changes, ignoring the alternative policies, values and other possible outcomes. Hence, we can not say that a good policy is one that adheres to the policymaker’s values.

According to Lindblom,

The test of ‘good’ policy shifts from its ability to satisfy wider policy objectives, to whether or not it commands agreement within the wider political system.”

Lindblom’s claimed that the incrementalist strategies are reasonably efficient, democratic, and sensible. Let us discuss this,

First, Incrementalist strategies are efficient for the government organizations as they only have to focus on the effects of the incremental changes from the previous policies, and major political parties often avoid focusing on the more radical options. Second, it is sensible when the policy changes are done through a series of small steps, rather than taking large steps hence reducing the likelihood of making drastic effects. The impacts of the decisions based on the non-incremental approach are more complex to solve and are comparatively unpredictable. Also, making radical changes in the policies can be considered undemocratic. The existing successful running policies in the constitution are implemented after the long negotiations and adjustments at least, if not based on the wide agreement. To sum up, Lindblom (1965) suggests focusing on formulating several policies from the status quo using incremental processes. It would be easy for the people to accept these policies as they depart slightly from the status quo.

Examples of Incrementalism in History

There are several examples in history that reflects how incrementalism can lead to notable changes in the policies and the society.

1. Civil Rights and Racial Inequality

The enslavement of the black people was officially abolished in 1865 by the end of the civil war. However, the struggles of the Black Americans for equality and civil rights span over the next 120 years. In 1868, United States Constitution assured equal protection rights to the black people in the 14th Amendment, and the 15th Amendment in 1875 allowed the Black people the right to vote. However, not much improvement was seen in the condition of the Black people. Due to this, Jim Crows Laws in the South and Black Americans along with some Whites raised their voice for further changes in the 19th and 20th centuries. The leader of the Civil Right Movement Martin Luther King Jr. opposed the incremental changes of the government when realised that these steps of the government were just to appease the Black people and these are not resulting in the betterment of the Black People in America. Following is the statement of Martin Luther King, Jr. that he gave in a speech on 28 August 1963.

This is no time to engage in the luxury of cooling off or to take the tranquillizing drug of gradualism. Now is the time to make real the promises of democracy.”

King’s effort leads president Lydon Johnson to sign the Civil Rights Act on 2 July 1964, which addressed the issues related to discrimination based on religion, sex, colour or ethnicity. This act banned racial segregation in various sectors such as employment, schools, and public facilities, and also discrimination against the right to vote. In 1965, the U.S government passed the Voting Right Act that allowed the voting right to every citizen, earlier, only the people who passes a literacy test were allowed to vote. In 1968, the government passed the Fair Housing Act that assured equal housing rights to all regardless of their religion, race, or colour.

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2. Gay Rights

Gay people have always faced discrimination throughout the world, they have been denied certain rights and facilities such as the right to marry. A law was proposed by Thomas Jefferson (third president of America) in 1779 that forced gay men to undergo castration. In 2003, various small yet significant protest forces the US Supreme Court to ban the laws that criminalize gay relationships. The incrementalism has also influenced the other western nations to pass laws to reduce the discrimination against gays and transgender.


3. Women’s Rights

Right from the independence of America, women were deprived of equal opportunities. Most of the basic rights including the voting rights were provided to only the men. But incrementalism changes result in gradual yet significant changes toward women empowerment. In 1873, when the American social reformer, Susan B. Anthony raised her voice for equal pay, to 1920, when the U.S. government passed the law that enables the women’s right to vote in the 19th Amendment, a lot of incremental changes gradually forced the government to take necessary actions to ensure equal rights and opportunities to the women. In 1978, the Pregnancy Discrimination Act strengthened the rights of the pregnant workers, and Lilly Ledbetter Act passed in 2009 made it easier to file the complaints related to wage discrimination.

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4. Equal Pay for Women

American women were allowed to work in the early 20th century but there were given far less wages than the wages given to men for similar jobs. But due to various small and large struggles by the women activists, this disparity in the wages of men and women has gradually been reduced. In 1963, then America President John F. Kennedy signed the Equal Pay Act that banned the organisations from paying different wages to men and women for performing similar tasks.

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Advantages of Incrementalism

Following are the main advantages of the Incrementalism:

1. Efficient Method

The primary advantage of incrementalism is that it is considered a more efficient method than the other methods of policymaking. This method does not demand the use of a lot of resources such as time and money. Although the incrementalism method is often criticized by the utopians, most policymakers consider it a practical and suitable way to achieve the major changes gradually.

2. Easily Adaptable

Lawmakers consider incrementalism as a safer way to make the changes as people often refuse the sudden and sweeping changes. Incrementalism makes it easier and less traumatic for the people to adjust to the newly implemented policies which is why the solutions that are obtained through incrementalism are generally more accepted by the people than the solutions obtained through the other policymaking methods.

3. Simple Approach

If this method is compared with the other methods of policymaking or budgeting, this method is the easiest to use. You need not be much experienced as one can easily understand it.

4. Gradual Changes

Unlike other rational methods, the incrementalism method involves the gradual changes making it easier for the people to accept the changes. After implementation of the new policy or budget employing this method, one may not see much difference from day one to the second but significant changes can be seen if we view it in months.

5. Flexible

Incrementalism is very flexible. If at any point it seems like a particular factor or policy is not going as it was planned one can easily make changes at any step.

Disadvantages of Incrementalism 

Following are the primary criticism of the Incrementalism:

1. Beagle Fallacy

A beagle is a dog breed that has an excellent sense of smell but they have limited eyesight, hence they often miss the prey standing right in front of them but downwind. In the same manner, while using an incrementalism approach, policymakers sometimes fail in achieving the overall goal while taking the small incremental steps.

2. Tedious Process

People criticise incrementalism by stating that it takes a lot of time and resources when we try to solve the problem that arises at each step rather than formulating an overall strategy to tackle the issue.

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