May 21, 2003

Muddling Through

In 1959 Charles Lindblom published The science of "muddling through". It was destined to become a classic and muddling through is now a term of art in much of the public policy world. Lindblom's paper starts out with a sketch of what a rational process of policy making would look like. Part of the first step is to "list all related values in order of importance." This step is followed by a comprehensive analysis of all possible policy outcomes. With this thorough analysis in hand, the policy maker makes a choice that maximizes her values. Something like the following diagram (note especially the policy box toward the bottom of the diagram).

This process of policy making requires assembling and integrating tremendous volumes of data and knowledge Beyond the simplest, and not very interesting, policy problems Lindblom argues that this commonly articulated approach to policy making is not even possible. Herbert Simon's bounded rationality and his work with James March on the work of organizations point out that what in fact happens is that people use a limited amount of the information that they have available at any given time to actually make decisions.

In Muddling Through, Lindblom contrasts the fully rational approach with one in which the policy maker chooses one objective that is of primary importance and then, making choices from a small portfolio of policy approaches that she has experience, designs a next step in the evolution of the policy history of her agency. Lindblom argues that in making these choices the policy maker is choosing from differences at the margin. In this incremental approach to policy making, value tradeoffs and policy tradeoffs are intertwined.

Among the advantages of this approach is the fact that values do not have to be agreed upon among policy makers. "Agreement on policy thus becomes the only practicable test of the policy's correctness." The failure of a given analyst to consider all possible values is addressed by the fact that there is a portfolio of policy making agencies, each with its own primary values; interactions at the margins works to protect undue impacts of one policy on values that are not within its immediate scope. Muddling through recognizes that policy problems will never be solved comprehensively and thus policy solutions will advance toward better states by an ongoing process of iteration.

There is a notion of democratic principles in Lindblom's model. In particular by ensuring that values are advanced and prioritized through interactions among agencies with differing sets of priorities, he seems to assume that the portfolio of agencies in some ways reflects the societal parsing of problems and priorities.

The ideas of muddling through have been expanded upon by a school of environmental management called adaptive management. The primary difference is that in adaptive management, policies goals are made explicit and policies are treated as experiments. The experiment is successful if progress is made toward the goal; thus another explicit element of adaptive management is the inclusion of a measurement program in all policy regimes. It is this measurement program that allows statement to be made about whether a policy is successful or not.

Begin Aside
Of course it is a management axiom that "if you can't measure it, you can't manage it"
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So Lindblom sketches a policy landscape that moves incrementally and recursively from its current state to a new one according to a limited set of rules. Policy agents interact in a loosely couple ways that ensure that a wide range of values are represented and advanced in aggregate. In some ways this looks alot like the cellular automata models I was constructing of earthquake processes.