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Literature on Incrementalism Thesis

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Updated: Jul 21st, 2021

Researchers have tried to explain the factors affecting decision-making in public policy, as well as instruments employed to make decisions in different settings, for decades. Rationality used to be the theoretical paradigm that had been used before the middle of the twentieth century (Migone & Howlett, 2015). This approach was seen as an efficient method since politicians could meet the needs of society and address the challenges the nation faced. However, rationality was criticized extensively as it lacked the flexibility that was necessary for the country after the Second World War.

Some theories are now regarded as prevailing due to their effectiveness and ability to respond to the innovations of the modern world. For instance, incrementalism has been regarded as one of the most efficient frameworks to be utilized in the budgeting process. Incrementalism is a classic model of the policy process theory that was developed by Charles Lindblom in the 1950s (Migone & Howlett, 2015). The researcher opposed rationality and argued that the method was time-consuming and ineffective in many settings. Charles Lindblom views incrementalism as a strategic plan used by the Department of Justice or government for making coherent decisions for budget disbursement and allocations.

Furthermore, Lindblom refers to incrementalism as an applied theory decision-making policy. The supporters of this approach emphasize the benefits of using previous experience and moderate adjustment to new circumstances (Bendor, 2015). The major benefit of this model is its effective use of time and resources, as well as its predictability that is pivotal in terms of the complexity of the public sector. In simple terms, departments and institutions have an idea of possible funds they will receive so they can develop long-term plans.

However, the critics of this theory note that it is less effective in the areas where substantial changes occur frequently, and it can even lead to certain violations (Thurmaier & Willoughby, 2014). For instance, John W. Kingdon defines incrementalism as a strategy that one might use to manipulate outcomes. In government, officials are reluctant to take big steps in making program policy changes due to being concerned about failure, which can result in adverse influence on the development of the economy or its specific segments.

Kingdon developed a framework based on the Garbage Can Model that aims at exploring dramatic changes that take place in the decision-making process. The researcher suggests a policy agenda-setting model that is not directly related to budgeting but can be successfully applied to the associated decision-making processes (Thurmaier & Willoughby, 2014). The approach implies the focus on actors making decisions and the types of opportunities that arise. It stated that visible and invisible clusters of decision-makers use different windows of opportunities. The influence of the political and social agendas is explored, which helps in explaining the mechanisms of dramatic changes that occur in the decision-making process.

However, irrespective of the development of new models and approaches, incrementalism remains a widely used framework. According to Hijal-Moghrabi (2017), policymakers in many large US cities tend to employ a combination of paradigms when making decisions. Moreover, incrementalism is a preferable model as it is instrumental in developing budgets in a short period of time, which is often necessary for many settings. Incremental adjustment is beneficial in the context of the budgeting process since decision-makers can use an evidence-based approach and estimate the potential outcomes of the solutions they offer. The involved stakeholders can affect the process and ensure proper allocation of funds. Various structures can progress in a sustainable manner if they can foresee the budgets that will be available in the short- and long-term perspective. The spheres that are characterized by dramatic changes are not numerous, and many institutions, projects, or programs are effective as they are based on previous experience. Therefore, incrementalism is now seen as one of the major theories that are employed by contemporary researchers and practitioners.

Research Design

The present study is characterized by the use of the case study research design. A case of the federal budget will be explored in detail that will help to identify the benefits and limitations of the use of incrementalism in the process. The mentioned research design is the most appropriate for the exploration of the utilization of a specific theoretic paradigm in decision-making. This method ensured the focus on specific instances when one model was preferred over another, which will give the ground for the examination of factors affecting the decision-making process. Case study research design can provide insights into the ways different models are employed and specific results of the made choices.

This research will involve the analysis of the budgeting process that was guided by incrementalism or the Garbage Can Model. This study will include the exploration of the processes that have taken place during the past six years. It will be essential to address the changes that took place in such spheres as healthcare and defense as these areas were some of the priorities of President Trump, who has a political agenda different from the agenda of the previous administration. It can be beneficial to examine the budgets that have undergone considerable changes and the ones that have been moderately adjusted. This study will examine the factors that affected the decision-making process and approaches employed by decision-makers within the scope of the two theories mentioned above. The outcomes of the decisions will be estimated through the evaluation of the extent to which the set goals have been attained, as well as the areas in question developed.


Bendor, J. (2015). Incrementalism: Dead yet flourishing. Public Administration Review, 75(2), 194-205. Web.

Hijal-Moghrabi, I. (2017). The current practice of performance-based budgeting in the largest U.S. cities: An innovation theory perspective. Public Performance & Management Review, 40(4), 652-675. Web.

Migone, A., & Howlett, M. (2015). Charles E. Lindblom, “The Science of Muddling Through”. In M. Lodge, E. C. Page, & S. J. Balla (Eds.), Oxford handbooks online (pp. 80-95). New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

Thurmaier, K. M., & Willoughby, K. G. (2014). Policy and politics in state budgeting. New York, NY: Taylor and Francis.

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