POL 3221:
Spring 2003

Rationality Vs. "Muddling Through"

This is a synopsis of Lindblom's classic article (1959), "The Science of 'Muddling Through'". We are studying it to highlight a long-standing division in public administration approaches. The phrase, "muddling through", comes of course from the pride the British take in "muddling through somehow", seeing their bureaucratic decision process as a muddle but still getting the job done. But why the oxymoron of calling this muddle a "science"? This was Lindblom tweaking the whiskers of the dominant approach to public administration at the time: an approach that believed that scientific analysis could solve the political problems faced by public administrators.

The late 1950s, when the article was written, was the heyday of rationalism, where it looked like various forms of rational / technical analysis (game theory; optimization algorithms) would bring a scientific approach to what had hitherto been a distasteful political process. (This was the period when Robert MacNamara and his "whiz kids" were revolutionizing the administration of Ford through use of such analyses. He went on to attempt the same thing in the Pentagon, where he ran into the political realities of the various armed services.) This same feeling—that everything could be solved by a scientific approach—was found in social science generally with the domination of "behaviorism". (Which continues to this day [2003].)

Lindblom essentially says that a rational / technical approach is not possible, and he offers an alternative—or at least an explanation of why the despised political maneuvering of administrative decisionmaking may not be as bad as it appears.

Lindblom's perspective is seen in two other areas related to public administration: budgeting (incrementalism [Wildavsky]) and political structure (pluralism, e.g., Robert Dahl). In economics it is related to Nobel Prize-winner Herbert Simon's work on limited rationality.

The "Root" (a.k.a. "Rational-Comprehensive" or "Means-Ends Relationship" ) Method

The "Branch" (a.k.a. "Incremental") Method

Conclusion:  Public administrators must concentrate on agreement on actions (actual policies), not on abstract arguments for adopting those policies.

Comparing Two Approaches to Administrative Management and Decisionmaking

  Rational-legal [Weberian] perspective Political [Longian] perspective
Method of decision making Rational-comprehensive Limited rationality
Lindblom's term for this method Root Branch ("method of successive limited comparisons")
Nature of political system Technocratic Pluralist
Nature of bureaucracy Rational-legal (Weber) Administrative power (Long)
Budgetary process Zero-base budgeting (ZBB) Incremental budgeting (Wildavsky)
Goal of policy process Maximizing; optimizing "Satisficing" (sufficing)
Noted theorists or proponents [See the Huddleston bliography] Herbert Simon; James March; Charles Lindblom. (Simon won the Nobel prize in economics for his work on "satisficing" in organizations.)

Questions for Study and Review

  1. Lindblom says a lot about the interrelationship of means and ends in decisions. (a) Take any reasonably complex decision in your own life (e.g., what to major in; who to marry; where to attend college or graduate school; what car to buy; what friends to invite over for pizza), and try to list and rank all the ends without consideration of the available means. (You can stop after you've listed at least fifteen ends.) (b) Discuss how successful you were in separating means and ends. [The example we used in class was helping a friend celebrate his 21st birthday, presumably by taking him out to a restaurant for dinner. Another example discussed briefly in class was that of the Director of Parks & Recreation considering what policy opportunities exist to meet complaints by high school students that there aren't any places in Duluth that have things for people their age to do.]
  2. Analyze the following dialogue you might have with yourself one evening in terms of Lindblom's perspective:
  3. According to Lindblom, what problems prevent us from doing comprehensive analyses, and how do they prevent us?
  4. "The science of muddling through" is an oxymoron (self-contradictory phrase). In what sense can Lindblom call his "branch" method a "science"?

Page URL: http://www.d.umn.edu/~schilton/3221/LectureNotes/3221.RationalityVsMuddlingThrough.2003.Spring.html
Page Author: Stephen Chilton
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Last Modified:  February 18, 2003
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