AND POLICY ANALYSIS
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 .)
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
- Specify all ends (distinct from means). [NOTE: "Ends" means "values
to be pursued" or "goals", not "specific outcomes"
or "ways the situation should end up". Thus "going to law school"
is probably not an "end" to you; rather, it would be one specific
means toward satisfying the end of "being able to get a job and survive".]
- Specify weights for all the ends. In other words, indicate how important
the various goals are relative to each other. [Note the assumption that different
parties will be able to agree on the relative importance of the various goals.]
- Examine all possible sets of means. [Note the assumption here that we can
think of all possible sets of means—or even all reasonable sets of means.]
- Evaluate each set of means against ends, assigning a score to how well the
given set of means achieves each end. [Note the assumption that we have the
ability and resources to do these evaluations.]
- For each set of means, calculate its overall measure based on the weighted
average of its scores on achieving the different ends.
- Choose the set of means with the highest weighted score.
The "Branch" (a.k.a. "Incremental") Method
- Ends and means are intimately intertwined, i.e., we often know our ends
only from consideration of the means we are contemplating.
- Only a few means are considered ... [Assumes that managers have limited
time and other resources (including information)
to decide, so they can only do non-comprehensive analysis.]
- ... and only those which don't represent too much of a departure from the
status quo. (Thus the name, "branch method", where each policy branches
off to another.)
- Evaluation of the means is crude, in that many consequences are ignored.
(This ignoring of consequences often occurs because a full analysis is not
- Choice among the means is determined by agreement among interested parties
rather than by summary indicators arising from the analysis.
- Agreement is the only empirical indicator of virtue, because values are
not usually clear-cut or even shared.
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
|Lindblom's term for this method
||Branch ("method of successive limited comparisons")
|Nature of political system
|Nature of bureaucracy
||Administrative power (Long)
||Zero-base budgeting (ZBB)
||Incremental budgeting (Wildavsky)
|Goal of policy process
|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
- 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.]
- Analyze the following dialogue you might have with yourself one evening
in terms of Lindblom's perspective:
According to Lindblom, what problems prevent us from doing comprehensive
analyses, and how do they prevent us?
"The science of muddling through" is an oxymoron (self-contradictory
phrase). In what sense can Lindblom call his "branch" method a "science"?
- "What book should I read?"
- "Well, what are my goals?"
- "Amusement. Learning something about people. Increased professional
- "What about that book lying beside my bed?"
- "Yeah!--and that reminds me that my bedside is too messy, so I guess
I should add 'cleaning up messy spots in the house' to my list of goals.
Now, where does that leave me?"
- [As youlook around, you notice that messing up the top of your TV there
are four videotapes you ordered but haven't watched. "Maybe I should
make that 'reading books and viewing videotapes'."
Page URL: http://www.d.umn.edu/~schilton/3221/LectureNotes/3221.RationalityVsMuddlingThrough.2003.Spring.html
Page Author: Stephen Chilton
Link to Home Page: www.d.umn.edu/~schilton/index.html
Last Modified: February 18, 2003
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