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Incrementalism: Dead yet Flourishing

Incrementalism: Dead yet Flourishing

Public Administration Review. March

Publication commas

2015, Vol. 75, Issue 2, Pages 194-205

Charles Lindblom’s 1959 essay “The Science of ‘Muddling Through’” is best known for the strategy of decision making—disjointed incrementalism—that it recommended. That famous paper and Lindblom’s related work also provided two theories: a critique of the conventional method (the synoptic approach) and an argument for using incrementalism instead. Both are applied theories: they are designed to help solve complex policy problems. Lindblom’s negative applied theory has stood the test of time well: the empirical foundations of its main micro-component (cognitive constraints of individuals) and its central macro-component (the impact of preference conflict on policy making) have grown stronger since 1959. The picture regarding the positive applied theory is more mixed. As a coherent decision-making strategy, disjointed incrementalism has almost disappeared. Yet its key elements, the major heuristics identified in “Muddling Through,” are thriving in many applied fields. Intriguingly, they are often accompanied by subroutines—especially optimization as a choice rule—typically associated with the synoptic approach.