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Incrementalism in Policy Reform

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PPGPortal > Home > Concept Dictionary > I, J > Incrementalism in Policy Reform

Incrementalism in Policy Reform 

Incrementalism is a policy-making process that produces decisions that are only marginally different from past practice.

(Wayne Hayes. The Public Policy Web.


Pal and Lindblom note that incrementalism in policy reform is very common, and that policy usually does not change in "leaps and bounds."

Democracies change their policies almost entirely though incremental adjustments. Lindblom, 1959, pp. 84.

In contrast to a rational approach, incrementalism may be more realistic because it allows policy-makers to address complex issues incrementally. Decisions are made by comparing options A, B and C - not necessarily by examining all potential options (due to time and resource constraints that exist in the real world). Policies are pursued step by step, and are adjusted along the way based on whether or not they are bringing us closer to sought-after outcomes. Eventually goals are met, but this is through constant adjustment as the policy is implemented and evaluated based on its progress towards achieving intended goals. Choices are made through consideration of what has been done in the past, and polices unfold gradually, taking shape according to the realities of a given situation.

Criticized for not being radical enough and for lacking a clear vision of what outcomes are ultimately desired. However, each step is less risky, and eventually we see transformative change. May better capture what policy-making looks like on a day-to-day basis, because goals do shift over time, and it is not always possible to know how an intended policy is going to play out.


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© University of Toronto 2008
School of Public Policy and Governance