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There are a multitude of competing theories on how policies are made and shape world events. Charles Lindblom was one of the first to reject the hypothesis that policy making is a rational process, seeing it as the science of ‘muddling through’ instead.
Rational policy making therefore seeks to:
Establish goals before considering means,
Rank values and priorities.
Having defined these goals we need to establish all the potential strategies to achieve this and which is the most effective.
Good policies achieve explicit goals,
Undertake comprehensive analysis,
Draw on casual theories, know that if you do x then y will happen.
- Policy aims or ends are identified in terms of the values of the policy maker
- All means to achieve those ends are identified
- The best means are selected
Analysis of the decision-making context is comprehensive – i.e. all relevant factors / possibilities have been considered (see Jordan and Richardson, 1987)
As John (1999: 33) stated, “Put simply, the rational actor model conceives policy to be a logical, reasoned and neutral way organizations assess problems, propose solutions, then choose and carry out courses of action. The model has several assumptions … there are clear cut stages to decision-making. Organizations can make decisions when they are faced with choices. They rank the decisions and one emerges as a clear winner. When organizations make their choices, the preference rankings between them are consistent. Every participant in the policy process gets what they want, subject to the constraint of resources”.
Lindblom rejected this theory on empirical and normative grounds. The problems with the rational approach that Lindbolm found were:
Imperfect information which comes to humans which are not extremely bright, there are a lot of ‘unknown unknowns’ in life,
There are limited resources,
Policies themselves are sometimes in conflict and there would be a great difficulty in joining up all policies, departmental interests would make it harder to join up all policies.
Goals and ends cannot always be separated,
Unintended consequences, social science deal with probabilities not with absolutes,
Democracy, different people rank various values differently, elections manifest different opinions.
Lindblom provides a similar critique of rationality. Its failures are based on limitations in:
- Cognitive / problem-solving ability
- Available information – especially of future consequences and future conditions
- The cost of research
- The ability to distinguish between facts and values (a factor we can discuss in the agenda-setting lecture)
The dynamics of the policy process and the way in which issues arise (i.e. decision-makers may need to react to events much more than devoting time to policy planning).
Lindblom proposes the ‘incremental model’.
The emphasis is on making small adjustments on former policies and good policies are those on which there is agreement considering goals and means together. Less reliance on theory, acceptance that policy is a never-ending process and nothing is definitive. Incremental policy making however may stifle innovation.