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Lindblom,1959(2)

Lindblom,1959(2) - Lindblom Charles E"The Science of...

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Unformatted text preview: Lindblom, Charles E. "The Science of ‘Muddling Through'." Public Administration Review. 19, American Society for Public Administration, (1959): 79-88. Reprinted with permission. The Science of “Muddling Through” By CHARLES E. LINDBLOM Associate Professor of Economics Yale University UPPOSE an administrator is given respon- sibility for formulating policy with re- spect to inflation. He might start by try- ing to list all related values in order of importance, e.g., full employment, reasonable business profit, protection of small savings, prevention of a stock market crash. Then all possible policy outcomes could be rated as more or less efficient in attaining a maximum of these values. This would of course require a prodigious inquiry into values held by members of society and an equally prodigious set of calculations on how much of each value is equal to how much of each other value. He could then proceed to outline all possible policy alternatives. In a third step, he would undertake systematic comparison of his multi- tude of alternatives to determine which at- tains the greatest amount of values. ' In comparing policies, he would take ad- vantage of any theory available that general- ized about classes of policies. In considering inflation, for example, he would compare all policies in the light of the theory of prices. Since no alternatives are beyond his investi— gation, he would consider strict central con- trol and the abolition of all prices and mar- kets on the one hand and elimination of all public controls with reliance completely on the free market on the other, both in the light of whatever theoretical generalizations he could find on such hypothetical economies. Finally, he would try to make the choice that would in fact maximize his values. An alternative line of attack would be to set as his principal objective, either explicitly or without conscious thought, the relatively simple goal of keeping prices level. This ob- jective might be comprOmised or complicated by only a few other goals, such as full em- 79 ) Short courses, books, and articles exhort admin- istrators to make decisions more methodically, but there has been little analysis of the decision-making process now used by public administrators. The usual process is investigated here—and generally de- fended against proposals for more “scientific" meth- ods. Decisions of individual administrators, of course, must be integrated with decisions of others to form the mosaic of public policy. This integration of individual decisions has become the major con- cern of organization theory, and the way individuals make decisions necessarily affects the way those de- cisions are best meshed with others’. In addition, decision-making method relates to allocation of de- cision—making responsibility—who should make what decision. More “scientific" decision-making also is dis- cussed in this issue: "Tools for Decision-Making in Resources Planning." ______..__————-————————— ployment. He would in fact disregard most other social values as beyond his present in- terest, and he would for the moment not even attempt to rank the few values that he re- garded as immediately relevant. Were he pressed, he would quickly admit that he was ignoring many related values and many pos- sible important consequences of his policies. As a second step, he would outline those relatively few policy alternatives that occurred to him. He would then compare them. In comparing his limited number of alternatives, most of them familiar from past controversies, he would not ordinarily find a body of theory precise enough to carry him through a com- parison of their respective consequences. In- stead he would rely heavily on the record of past Experience with small policy steps to pre- diet. the consequences of similar steps ex- tended into the future. Moreover, he would find that the policy a1- ternatives combined objectives or values in different ways. For example, one policy might offer price level stability at the cost of some Copyright Cleared by Book Tech ,W 40 80 PUBLIC ADMINISTRATION REVIEW risk of unemployment; another might offer less price stability but also less risk of unem- ployment. Hence, the next step in his ap- proach—the final selection—would combine into one the choice among values and the choice among instruments for reaching values. It would not, as in the first method of policy- making, approximate a more mechanical proc- ess of choosing the means that best satisfied goals that were previously clarified and ranked. Because practitioners of the second approach expect to achieve their goals only partially, they would expect to repeat end- lessly the sequence just described, as condi- tions and aspirations changed and as accuracy of prediction improved. By Root or by Branch For complex problems, the first of these two approaches is of course impossible. Al- though such an approach can be described, it cannot be practiced except for relatively sim- ple problems and even then only in a some- what modified form. 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 the time and money that can be allocated to a policy problem is limited, as is always the case. Of particular importance to public ad- ministrators is the fact that public agencies are in effect usually instructed not to practice the first method. That is to say, their pre- scribed functions and constraints—the politi- cally or legally possible—restrict their atten- tion to relatively few values and relatively few alternative policies among the countless alternatives that might be imagined. It is the second method that is practiced. Curiously, however, the literatures of deci- sion-making, policy formulation, planning, and public administration formalize the first approach rather than the second, leaving pub- lic administrators who handle complex deci- sions in the position of practicing what few preach. For emphasis I run some risk of over- statement. True enough, the literature is well aware of limits on man’s capacities and of the inevitability that policies will be approached in some such style as the second. But attempts to formalize rational policy formulation—to lay out explicitly the necessary steps in the process—usually describe the first approach and not the second.1 The common tendency to describe policy formulation even for complex problems as though it followed the first approach has been strengthened by the attention given to, and successes enjoyed by, operations research, sta- tistical decision theory, and systems analysis. The hallmarks of these procedures, typical of the first approach, are clarity of objective, ex- plicitness 0f evaluation, a high degree of com- prehensiveness of overview, and, wherever possible, quantification of values for mathe- matical analysis. But these advanced proce- dures remain largely the appropriate tech- niques of relatively small—scale problem—solving where the total number of variables to be considered is small and value problems re- stricted. Charles Hitch, head of the Economics Division of RAND Corporation, one of the leading centers for application of these tech- niques, has written: I would make the empirical generalization from my experience at RAND and elsewhere that oper- ations research is the art of sub—optimizing, i.e., of solving some lower-level problems, and that diffi- culties increase and our special competence di- minishes by an order of magnitude with every level of decision making we attempt to ascend. The sort of simple explicit model which operations re searchers are so proficient in using can certainly reflect most of the significant factors influencing traffic control on the George Washington Bridge, but the'proportion of the relevant reality which we can represent by any such model or models in studying, say, a major foreign-policy decision, ap- pears to be almost trivial.2 Accordingly, I propose in this paper to clarify and formalize the second method, flames G. March and Herbert A. Simon similarly characterize the literature. They also take some im- portant steps, as have Simon’s recent articles, to de- scribe a less heroic model of policy-making. See Or- ganizations (john Wiley and Sons, 1958), p. 137. 2“Operations Research and National Planning—A Dissent," 5 Operations Research 718 (October, 1957). Hitch's dissent is from particular points made in the article to which his paper is a reply; his claim that Operations research is for low-level problems is widely accepted. For examples of the kind of problems to which op- erations research is applied, see C. W. Churchman, R. L. Ackoff and E. I... Arnoff, Introduction to Opera- tions Research (john Wiley and Sons, 1957); and 1. F. McCloskey and J. M. Coppinger (eds.), Operations Re- search for Management, Vol. II, (The Johns Hopkins Press, 1956). Copyright Cleared by Book T eclz \ THE SCIENCE OF “MUDDLING‘THROUGH” . 81 much neglected in the literature. This might be described as the method of successive lim- ited comparisons. I Will contrast it with the first approach, which might be called the rational- comprehensive method.3 More impressionis- tically and briefly—and therefore generally used in this article—they could be character- ized as the branch method and root method, the former continually building out from the current situation, step-by-step and by small degrees; the latter starting from fundamentals anew each time, building on the past only as experience is embodied in a theory, and al- ways prepared to start completely from the ground up. Let us put the characteristics of the two methods side by side in simplest terms. Rational-Comprehensive (Root) 1a. Clarification of values or objectives distinct from and usually prerequisite to empirical analysis of alternative policies. 2a. Policy-formulation is therefore approached through means-end analysis: First the ends are isolated, then the means to achieve them are sought. 33. The test of a “good" policy is that it can be shown to be the most appropriate means to desired ends. 4a. Analysis is comprehensive; every important rele- vant factor is taken into account. 5a. Theory is often heavily relied upon. Assuming that the root method is familiar and understandable, we proceed directly to clarification of its alternative by contrast. In explaining the second, we shall be describing how most administrators do in fact approach complex questions, for the root method, the “best" way as a blueprint or model, is in fact not workable for complex policy questions, and administrators are forced to use the method of successive limited comparisons. Intertwining Evaluation and Empirical Analysis (lb) The quickest way to understand how values are handled in the method of successive lim- ‘I am assuming that administrators often make pol- icy and advise in the making of policy and am treating decision-making and policy—making as synonymous for purposes of this paper- ited comparisons is to see how the root method often breaks down in its handling of values or objectives. The idea that values should be clarified, and in advance of the ex- amination of alternative policies, is appeal- ing. But what happens when we attempt it for complex social problems? The first diffi— culty is that on many critical values or objec- tives, citizens disagree, congressmen disagree, and public administrators disagree. Even where a fairly specific objective is prescribed for the administrator, there remains consid- erable room for disagreement on sub-objec- tives. Consider, for example, the conflict with respect to locating public housing, described in Meyerson and Banfield's study of the Chi- _______________..___-—————-————————— Successive Limited Comparisons (Branch) 1b. Selection of value goals and empirical analysis of the needed action are not distinct from one an- other but are closely intertwined. 2b. Since means and ends are not distinct, means-end analysis is often inappropriate or limited. 3b. The test of a “good" policy is typically that vari- ous analysts find themselves directly agreeing on a policy (without their agreeing that it is the most appropriate means to an agreed objective). 4b. Analysis is drastically limited: i) Important possible outcomes are neglected. ii) Important alternative potential policies are neglected. iii) Important affected values are neglected. 5b. A succession of comparisons greatly reduces or eliminates reliance on theory. ________________.___——-———————— cago Housing AuthorityA—disagreement which occurred despite the clear objective of provid- ing a certain number of public housing units in the city. Similarly conflicting are objectives in highway location, traffic control, minimum wage administration, development of tourist facilities in national parks, or insect control. Administrators cannot escape these con- flicts by ascertaining the majority's preference, for preferences have not been registered on most issues; indeed, there often are no prefer- ences in the absence of public discussion suffi- cient to bring an issue to the attention of the eleCtorate. Furthermore, there is a question ‘Martin Meyerson and Edward C. Banfield, Politics, Planning and the Public Interest (The Free Press, 1955)- Copyright Cleared by Book Tech 41 , _._._ _ ________ __ _____.________ _._ .___..__ _ _, 42 \ 82 PUBLIC ADMINISTRATION REVIEW of whether intensity 0f feeling should be con- sidered as well as the number 0f persons pre- ferring each alternative. By the impossibility of doing otherwise, administrators often are reduced to deciding policy without clarifying objectives first. Even when an administrator resolves to fol~ low his own values as a criterion for decisions, he often will not know how to rank them when they conflict with one another, as they usually do. Suppose, for example, that an ad- ministrator must relocate tenants living in tenements scheduled for destruction. One ob- jective is to empty the buildings fairly promptly, another is to find suitable accom- modation for persons displaced, another is to avoid friction with residents in other areas in which a large influx would be unwelcome, an- other is to deal with all concerned through persuasion if possible, and so on. How does one state even to himself the relative importance of these partially con- flicting values? A simple ranking of them is not enough; one needs ideally to know how much of one value is worth sacrificing for some of another value. The answer is that typically the administrator chooses—and must choose—directly among policies in which these values are combined in different ways. He cannot first clarify his values and then choose among policies. A more subtle third point underlies both the first two. Social objectives do not always have the same relative values. One objective may be highly prized in one circumstance, another in another circumstance. If, for ex- ample, an administrator values highly both the dispatch with which his agency can carry through its projects and good public relations, it matters little which of the two possibly con- flicting values he favors in some abstract or general sense. Policy questions arise in forms which put to administrators such a question as: Given the degree to which we are or are not already achieving the values of dispatch and the values of good public relations, is it worth sacrificing a little speed for a happier clientele, or is it better to risk offending the clientele so that we can get on with our work? The answer to such a question varies with circumstances. The value problem is, as the example shows, always a problem of adjustments at a margin. But there is no practicable way to state marginal objectives or values except in terms of particular policies. Thatone value is preferred to another in one decrsron srtua~ tion does not mean that it will be preferred in another decision situation in which it can be had only at great sacrifice of another value. Attempts to rank or order values in general and abstract terms so that they do not shift from decision to decision end up by ignoring the relevant marginal preferences. The sig- nificance of this third point thus goes very far. Even if all administrators had at hand an agreed set of values, objectives, and con- straints, and an agreed ranking of these val- ues, objectives, and constraints, their mar- ginal values in actual choice situations would be impossible to formulate. Unable consequently to formulate the rele- vant values first and then choose among poli- cies to achieve them, administrators must choose directly among alternative policies that offer different marginal combinations of val- ues. Somewhat paradoxically, the only practi- cable way to disclose one’s relevant marginal values even to oneself is to describe the policy one chooses to achieve them. Except roughly and vaguely, I know of no way to describe— or even to understand—what my relative eval- uations are for, say, freedom and security, speed and accuracy in governmental decisions, or low taxes and better schools than to de- scribe my preferences among specific policy choices that might be made between the al- ternatives in each of the pairs. In summary, two aspects of the process by which values are actually handled can be dis- tinguished. The first is clear: evaluation and empirical analysis are intertwined; that is, one chooses among values and among policies at one and the same time. Put a little more elaborately, one simultaneously chooses a pol- icy to attain certain objectives and chooses the objectives themselves. The second aspect is related but distinct: the administrator fo- cuses his attention on marginal or incremen- tal values. Whether he is aware of it or not, he does not find general formulations of objectives very helpful and in fact makes spe- cific marginal or incremental comparisons. Two policies, X and Y, confront him. Both promise the same degree of attainment of ob- jectives a, b, c, d, and e. But X promises him somewhat more of f than does Y, while Y promises him somewhat more of g than does Copyright Cleared by Book T eclt KR THE SCIENCE OF “MUDDLING THROUGH” 83 X. In choosing between them, he is in fact offered the alternative of a marginal or incre- mental amount of f at the expense of a mar- ginal or incremental amount of g. The only values that are relevant to his choice are these increments by which the two policies differ; and, when he finally chooses between the two marginal values, he does so by mak- ing a choice between policies.5 As to whether the attempt to clarify ob- jectives in advance of policy selection is more or less rational than the close intertwining of marginal evaluation and empirical analysis, the principal difference established is that for complex problems the first is impossible and irrelevant, and the second is both possible and relevant. The second is possible because the administrator need not try to analyze any values except the values by which alternative policies differ and need not be Concerned with them except as they differ marginally. His need for information on values or objectives is drastically reduced as compared with the root method; and his capacity for grasping, comprehending, and relating values to one an- other is not strained beyond the breaking point. Relations Between Means and Ends (2b) Decision-making is ordinarily formalized as a means-ends relationship: means are con- ceived to be evaluated and chosen in the light of ends finally selected independently of and prior to the choice of means. This is the means-ends relationship of the root method. But it follows from all that has just been said that such a means-ends relationship is possible only to the extent that values are agreed upon, are reconcilable, and are stable at the margin. Typically, therefore, such a means- ends relationship is absent from the branch method, where means and...
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