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The Science of "Muddling Through"

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David Smailes

on 8 November 2018

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Transcript of The Science of "Muddling Through"

The Science of "Muddling Through"
Lindblom isn't offering a viewpoint that is contradicting Simon's idea of how rational choice should be used

But he is refining how Simon describes the limits of what we can know and how we should then make decisions
Lindblom is writing this piece in the 1950's, a time where there is a great deal of confidence placed in the use of data for rational choice decision making
Dominating the scene in the 1950's was an approach to decision making that Lindblom terms the "root" method
"Root" Method:
start by identifying your goals or objectives
then figure out all the different means by which you can get there
a "good" decision is one where you pick the most appropriate means to achieving your goal
to do that, you have to take into account every possible factor
and a good theoretical approach (a strategy) can help guide you with all of this
That all sounds pretty good, but imagine we are trying to decide what to do about poverty or terrorism -!
Lindblom thinks there is a better way to do all of this - he calls it the "branch" method
Take the first point: the "Root" approach says we should identify our goals and then select the best ways to achieve our goals.

But the "Branch" approach argues our goals are not so easily defined - instead, they are intertwined with our analysis of alternatives, so we can't be easily guided by the first in choosing the second
So we can't really make a decision about the "best" means for achieving our goals since the two get mixed in together.
The branch method argues a "good" policy is one that we can generally agree on, even if we don't agree on whether or not it is the "best" way to achieve our goals
Our perspective is limited to what we can know, so there is no way we can consider EVERY relevant factor
Instead we make a series of decisions (branches off of other branches) which allow us to make comparisons and figure out where to go from there
We call that approach "incrementalism"
It would take superhuman
brain power to make that work
How many different ways can you think of to end poverty?
Rational-choice theory isn't that far removed from the "root" method - it do believes we should identify the "one best way" to do things based on listing the alternatives, considering the consequences of each and weighing those consequences.
But even Herbert Simon agreed a lot of that is beyond our capacity to know - he just thought we should stick to it as best we can.
Small decisions are made, each one branching off the last, so we can address problems by trying something, comparing the results and then either going further (if it worked well) or retreating (if it looked like a mistake)
Advantages:
few mistakes
reversible
easier to plan next steps
politically expedient - easy to get done and avoids major conflicts
Disadvantages:
less able to solve big problems
unable to cope with emergency
too much "in the box" thinking
"Flash" fallacy
Incrementalism tends to guide administrators because it fits with their perspective:
agency focus means a limited perspective (Flash again)
"fire alarm" orientations lead to short-term problem solving rather than long-term planning
the political environment of Congress and POTUS contribute to this
But don't forget the advantages of "muddling through" as well:
we have administration that is much less likely to make big mistakes
we have a greater amount of flexibility in dealing with challenges (as opposed to a "grand plan" from the Root method)
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