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date: 16 December 2017

Summary and Keywords

Incrementalism is a model of the policy process advanced by Charles Lindblom, who views rational decision-making as impossible for most issues due to a combination of disagreement over objectives and inadequate knowledge base. Policies are made instead through a pluralistic process of partisan mutual adjustment in which a multiplicity of participants focus on proposals differing only incrementally from the status quo. Significant policy change occurs, if at all, through a gradual accumulation of small changes, a process Lindblom calls seriality. For incrementalism to yield defensible policy outcomes, three conditions must be satisfied, all of which are far from automatic: 1) all, or at least most, social interests must be represented; 2) political resources must be balanced sufficiently among groups that no one actor or coalition dominates; and 3) political parties must be moderate and pragmatic, permitting a convergence to an ever-evolving political center.

While Lindblom sees nonincremental policy departures as extremely rare, subsequent research suggests that major policy departures may occur in response to crises or mass public arousal, through the development of a rationalizing breakthrough after many years of experience with policy implementation, or through a process of punctuated equilibrium. While many scholars and policymakers have argued that policymaking can and should be more rational, or that nonincremental alternatives may at times be superior to incremental ones, implementing nonincremental policy departures poses special problems and often gives way to incrementalism in the administrative process as public attention and support for strong action wanes. Nonincremental policy departures are more likely to be both enduring and effective where long experience with an issue leads to consensus on values and an adequate knowledge base, giving rise to a rationalizing breakthrough.

Keywords: incrementalism, partisan mutual adjustment, seriality, public satisfying, punctuated equilibrium, dramaturgical incrementalism, life cycle of issues, rationalizing breakthrough, decrementalism

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