Incrementalism Theory

Incrementalism Theory

Incrementalism refers to a planning method in which the advancement in a certain project or any policy is made by making small changes rather than extensive jumps. Contrary to the other methods that follow the top-down or bottom-up approach to problem-solving, incrementalism focuses on tackling the sudden problems that arrive while implementing new policies rather than creating any overall new strategy. People tend to use incrementalism in tackling various daily life issues. The application of incrementalism to formulate the new public policies based on the previously existing policies was first discussed by Charles E. Lindblom, an American political scientist, in 1950. He mentioned this in his essay “The Science of Muddling Through” which he published in 1959. He suggested the various drawbacks of employing sudden policy changes before analysing the possible effects of those changes on people in this essay. According to Lindblom, policymakers should prefer using the incrementalism process for formulating new policies rather than the rational models of policymaking. In this article, we’ll discuss incrementalism and how it differs from the rational model of policymaking. Various examples of incrementalism are also discussed in this article.

Rational Model vs Incrementalism

Incrementalism focuses on making incremental changes rather than large scale changes. The process of incrementalism is used in drafting public policies and handling budgeting. Lindblom considered the rational decision-making model an unrealistic idea because, for the proper functioning of this model, two conditions must be satisfied. The first condition is the agreement on all the goals and the second condition is the accurate prediction of all the potential solutions they have decided to tackle the problem. Lindblom claimed that these two conditions are unlikely to meet most of the policy issues. The rational method does not guide policymakers on what actions they should take in case these conditions fail to satisfy while the incrementalism method advises policymakers to take incremental steps and draft defensible policies at the moment any issue occurs. The incrementalism process involved the formulation of the policies based on the interests and values of all the actors involved in the policymaking. Earlier, people use to prefer the rational-comprehensive model of policymaking as it involves the evaluation of a large number of factors, hence the chances of getting an ideal solution using this approach are high. However, according to Lindblom finalising a solution based on the analyses of the large factors at every moment the problem occurs, is a tedious process. The solutions to the given problems can be obtained by using incrementalism which involve making slight yet long-term effective changes in the current policies rather than analysing all the factors and drafting a new policy.

Charles E. Lindblom

Charles E. Lindblom

Examples of Incrementalism

1. Danes Wind Industry

In the 1970s, most countries were fascinated by the technology of utilizing wind energy and they were ready to invest in this renewable source of energy. By using the incremental approach, Denmark has become the world leader in using this technology. Other countries such as the United States, the United Kingdom, and Germany also tried to develop the various machines to utilize wind energy, but no technology was able to surpass the Danish wind industry. The quality of the windmills manufactured by the Danes was far better than those manufactured by the competitor countries.  Although designing windmills is not a complicated task, the problem is the tradeoff between the reliability of the windmill and its cost. The windmills designs of America and the United Kingdom were technically superior, but they failed to manufacture reliable windmills due to their lack of experience in this sector. On contrary, the windmills manufactured by the Danes are very reliable. The superiority of the Danes in the wind industry is because the Danish wind industry was the result of the agricultural base while the wind industry of the other countries such as the United Kingdom and America was based on high technology aerospace companies. Danes constantly put efforts into building the more and more advanced windmills while the other countries believed that they can build an exceptional windmill just in one go by using the formal techniques.

Danes Wind Industry

2. Women’s Rights and Equal Pay

America got independence in 1776, but American women had to struggle for many more years for equal rights and opportunities. Earlier, most of the civil rights were provided to the men only, for example, women were not allowed to vote. Several incremental steps taken by the women are the reason they were able to get the various rights that they had been devoid of earlier. In 920, the 19th amendment of the United States Constitution allowed the right to vote to women. The problems faced by the pregnant workers were addressed in the Pregnancy Discrimination Act passed in 1978. The procedure to file complaints regarding wage discrimination was made easier after the Lilly Ledbetter Act, 2009 was passed. The incremental approach also helped the women to get equal pay for equal work. Earlier, American women were permitted to work but there were provided lesser wages than the men for equal work. In 1873, Susan B. Anthony, an American social reformer, was amongst the other women who demanded equal pay. In 1963, President Kennedy passed the Equal Pay Act that forced organizations to pay equal wages to bother males and females for equal work.

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3. Civil Rights and Racial Inequality

The end of the civil war in 1865 marked the official abolishment of black people enslavement. However, the black people still had to struggle for civil rights and equality for many more years. In the 14th amendment of the United States constitution, in 1868, equal protection right was guaranteed to the black people, and in 1875, the 15the amendment assured the right to vote for the black people. Even after these amendments, black people were still facing a lot of discrimination in various areas and departments. In the 19th and 20th centuries, the demand for equal rights was raised by the Jim Crows Laws along with some Whites. Martin Luther King Jr. called these amendments done by the government, a way of appeasing people and he demanded the strong laws and policies that would end the discrimination against the Blacks.

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 the premises of democracy.” – Martin Luther King Jr.

The struggle of Martin Luther King Jr. and others made president Lydon Johnson passes a Civil Right Act to tackle the issues regarding discrimination based on colour, sex, religion or origin. This act promised the abolishment of racial segregation in different sectors like public facilities, voting rights and employment. Before the enactment of the Voting Rights Act, in 1965 people had to pass a literacy test to be eligible for voting, but this act abolished these criteria and allowed the voting right to every citizen. Fair Housing Act, 1968 promised equal housing rights to all the citizens irrespective of their race, colour, or religion.

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4. Gay Rights

Several examples describe the huge amount of discrimination that Gay people have always faced. There are many countries where gay people are not provided with many civil rights including marriage rights. In 1779, The third president of the United States, Thomas Jefferson, passed a law that mandate the castration of gay men. After a lot of struggles and protests or we can say incremental steps by the gay people, the supreme court of the United States passes a law in 2003 that banned all the laws that forbid gay relationships. This incrementalism steps of the gay people impacted the other nations too to take steps to lower the discrimination against them.


5. Hike in Fuel Prices

People are usually less likely to question the small changes, and they tend to oppose the sudden enormous changes. For example, have you ever observed that the company frequently raises the prices of the gas or fuels by only a small cent rather than a large amount? They do so because people are more likely to raise their voice if the price is hiked by 10 per cent overnight, but they tend to ignore it if the same price is increased over some days. This incrementalism approach is used in various others sectors too such as software design, engineering, planning, and politics. One can make huge changes by using the incremental strategy.

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Advantages of Incrementalism

  • The method of formulating policies or tackling issues using the incremental approach is simpler than the other budgeting and policy-making methods.
  •  The incrementalism method involves the gradual changes, while the other methods involve the sudden and abrupt changes. People may find it difficult to adjust to the large-scale changes or the sudden enforcement of the new policies, but they are more likely to easily adapt to the policies that are the result of the incremental approach.
  • The efficiency and the flexibility that the incrementalism method offers are higher than the other policy-making methods.

Disadvantages of Incrementalism

Beagle Fallacy is the primary disadvantage of incrementalism. Beagle refers to a dog breed, which possesses an exceptional sense of smell, but restricted eyesight. Due to this limited eyesight, they tend to miss the prey standing in front of them but downwind. Likewise, by only concentrating on the incremental changes, policymakers sometimes fail in achieving the actual objectives.

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