Lindblom’s Incremental model

Charles Lindblom, in his article on the “Science of muddling through” in 1959 proposed the incremental model of policy sciences. The process of moving between the steps is known as “Muddling”. He proposed this theory as an alternative to the Rational theory. In his article, Lindblom argued that that people make decisions in relatively small increments rather than in big leaps. It is a model describing how policy decisions are made. He rejected the idea that decision-making was essentially something which was about defining goals, selecting alternatives and comparing alternatives. He always says a rational model is not workable for complex policy questions.

Lindblom aim was to challenge rational comprehensive (root method) by pointing out that there was a method in the apparent irrationalism of ‘muddling through’. The incremental approach (branch method) of decision-making involves a process of “continually building out from the current situation, step-by-step and by small degrees”. According to Lindblom, many constraints like time, thinking capability, the cost does not allow policy-makers from identifying the full range of policy alternatives and their consequences. He proposed that “successive limited comparison” is both more relevant and realistic in such a condition of “bounded rationality”.


It assumes intellectual capacities and sources of information that men simply do not possess and it is even more absurd as an approach to policy when time and money that can be allocated to a policy problem is limited. according to lindblom, policy makers always start with the accepted programs & budgets and then try to add new programmes and policies to the existing ones. What actually goes on in government is incrementalism in the sense that past activities are virtually continued with certain modifications. The incremental approach sets up a model of successive limited comparisons. The assumption here is that here in government historic chain of decision exists which the administrator can use as a basis for making future choices.

Features of Incremental Decision-making

  1. The incremental theory views public policy as a continuation of the past policies with any incremental modification.
  2. It accepts the legitimacy of past policies and continues the old policies.
  3. While making a policy, Risk is reduced by following this theory.
  4. It ensures stability in society.
  5. This process involves mutual adjustment, negotiation, bargaining and compromises between and among different stakeholders. The incremental approach allows the decision-maker to take a fair number of shortcuts.
  6. It follows the trial and error method. As human beings rarely act to maximize all their values. They rarely search for ‘one best way’, instead search to find a way that will work’.


  • Simplicity and flexibility
  • Minimal disruption in polity and society
  • Consultative in nature as it prefers to continue the old policies
  • It focuses on the limitation of human beings


  • The decision-making is based on the availability of limited options
  • Leads to poor quality of decision
  • A drastic or radical shift is impossible

Due to changes in the policy environment, witnessing the poor quality of decision-making in the public sector, Lindblom modified his theory. The publication ‘Politics and market’ in 1977 signaled a shift towards an even broader environment. This work recognizes that pluralist decision-making was biased, that not all interests and participants in incrementalist politics were equal, and that some had considerably more power than others. So, he proposed the need to improve mutual partisan adjustment by ‘greatly improved strategic policy-making’. 

In his subsequent 1979 article, “Still muddling through”, Lindblom makes clear that the core idea in an incrementalist approach is the belief in skill in solving complex problems, and he aims to suggest “new and improved” ways of ‘muddling through’. There are two ways to do this.

  1. Incrementalism is a political pattern, with step-by-step incrementalism.
  2. Incrementalism as policy analysis

In this article, he laid ‘Analytical incrementalism’ as a method of securing the balance of power in a pluralist polity in which business and large corporations tend to exercise a powerful influence over the policy-making process. He introduced three forms of incremental analysis

  1. Simple incremental analysis
  2. Strategic analysis
  3. Disjointed incrementalism

Simple incremental analysis: Only those alternative policies which are marginally different from the existing policy are analyzed in this analysis.

Strategic analysis: As completeness of analysis is not possible because of many constraints, Lindblom suggests to an analyst to take a middle position and use thoughtful methods to make better choices. Those methods include trial and error learning, systems analysis, operations research etc.,

Disjointed incrementalism: It is an analytical strategy which involves ‘simplifying and focusing’ problems by six methods

  • The limitation of analysis for a few familiar alternatives
  • Intertwining values and policy goals with empirical analysis of problems
  • Focusing on ills to be remedied rather than on goals to be sought
  • Trial and error learning
  • Analyzing a limited number of options and their consequences
  • Fragmenting of analytical work to many partisan participants in policy-making

Partisan mutual adjustment

In one of the Lindblom’s works The Intelligence of Democracy, he argues that decision-making is a process of adjustment and compromise which facilitates agreement and coordination. In his 1993 work, he argued that policy evolves through complex and reciprocal relations among all the bureaucrats, elected functionaries, representatives of interest groups, and other participants. 

He strongly encouraged the bargaining in policy-making because he believes that process of bargaining creates a greater sense of involvement of people in the policy process. The policy process would assign a central role to ordinary citizens employing ordinary knowledge.

Example policies – Indian context

The change of governments did not lead major shifts in existing government policies, be the trade, foreign affairs, financial allocations, etc,. We rarely find any total shift in the public policy.

Firstly, lets us take an example of reservations in India. The main motto of reservation is to uplift the disadvantaged sections in the society. But initially, reservations in India are confined to Scheduled caste (SC) and Scheduled tribe (ST). Later, with the implementation of Mandal commission report, it is extended to the other backward castes (OBC). Next, in 2019 the government announces the 10% reservation in educational institutions and government jobs for economically weaker section (EWS) of upper caste category. So, here we can observe small incremental changes in the policy for years to bring the desired change i.e., to uplift disadvantaged or backward sections in the society.

Secondly, as our country largely depends on rural economy, strengthening it quite essential for us. Since 1960’s, the governments made continuous efforts to provide employment guarantee and to increase wages to poor in rural areas.

    1960-61 – Government launched the Rural Manpower Programme (RMP)

  1977-78 – Food for Work Programme (FWP) was introduced for providing food grains to labor for the works of development.

  1980 – National Rural Employment Programme (NREP) was launched to provide profitable employment opportunities to the rural poor.

2004 – National Food for work (NFW) is launched in 150 of the most backward districts of India with the objective of generating supplementary wage employment.

1993-94 – Jawahar Rozgar Yojana (JRY) to provide employment to rural unemployed. It was a poverty alleviation scheme

2005 – Introduced National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA) to provide for the enhancement of livelihood security of the households in rural areas specially 200 selected backward districts of the country by providing at least one hundred days of guaranteed wage employment in every financial year to every household.

2007 – Later NREGA extended to additional 130 districts.

In this case, there may be many governments changed from 1960 to till now. But they are continuing the same policy with introducing little changes to the existing ones. Likewise, we can see many policies not only in India but all over all the world following incremental model in their public policies.


  1. He argues that there is need for improvement in decision-making in pluralist democracies, but he has grave doubts as to the possibility of drastic change.
  2. Y. Dror, a famous political scientist seen this model as profoundly conservative and is suitable in those situations where problems are quite stable over time, and where there are adequate resources.
  3. Lindblom presents sweeping generalizations but does not support them adequately with empirical evidence.

Source: Pubic policy formulation, implementation and evaluation, RK Sapru, Public policy art and craft of policy analysis, RK sapru, UGC MOOC course on Public policy.

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