Widgetized Section

Go to Admin » Appearance » Widgets » and move Gabfire Widget: Social into that MastheadOverlay zone

Intractable Problems and Government

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization. 

By Ben Tafoya
March 4, 2019

The United Kingdom’s government is moving toward an uncertain future over its decision to leave the European Union, a debate that has been raging for several years now. The United States government just suffered through its longest shut down in history over fallout from differences over issues related to border security, immigration policy and budget priorities. Israeli politics are rattled by a new party coalition that included a faction previously considered out-of-bounds. This coalition might wind up in a new government as near-term hopes fade for resolving the fate of a Palestinian homeland.

These issues represent intractable problems in the public sphere. Why do policymakers have such difficulty with these matters? Why do they drag on and dominate public discussion even when there are well-known deadlines and consequences for missing specific dates? Are the problems institutional? Are they political?

In 1959 the late political economist, Charles Lindblom, wrote an essay about the process of incremental change in government which he termed, “Muddling through.” Critical to his framework, Lindblom observed that in the United States, both parties had similar goals, but a significant difference in tactical policies to achieve those goals. As such he saw public administrators as evaluating actions that fit the various constrained alternatives and measuring them against the costs and benefits as perceived by the involved interests. Public administration relies on these interests to speak out about complex solutions that may have unintended consequences. The policymaking process would rely on small, incremental changes.

Revisiting this framework after a generation, Lindblom wrote in 1979 that incrementalism is his preferred method of seeing policy change. He uses incrementalism in place of the idea of overarching reform—what he called synoptic analysis. He felt that while incrementalism was incomplete, it addressed smaller and immediate problems, and it met the political needs of a system designed around veto powers which belonged to major actors. Lindblom also identifies incremental change as a debate with lower stakes where those same actors (the ones with veto power) lose little in the process. A broader, synoptic change would encounter both problems in policy (in terms of complexity) and politics.

This framework was not meant as an apology for modest progress on significant problems. Even in 1979, Lindblom identified challenges such as the energy and the environment as requiring substantial changes in policy. He thought that incremental change would lessen the chance of the breakdown of social consensus that moved administration toward higher goals. However, he anticipated that would occur through rapid use of incremental reforms and a political system not adverse to revisiting issues to make the solutions more “complete.”

As we have experienced both in the United States and on an international basis, many of these issues present challenges because the Lindblom framework has deteriorated or is no longer applicable. In the United States, partisan competition is such that it is next to impossible to gain any concession on legislation. The Affordable Care Act is a case in point. Flaws were not corrected, but the subject of lawsuits shifted from one party to another. Opportunities to make the law more generous or efficient were non-starters due to partisan objections to the goals of the bill.

A parallel set of events is going on in the UK over Brexit. Voters approved the idea of leaving the European Union by a narrow margin in 2016. Since then, the government has struggled to find a way to meet the demand to leave vs. the constraints of a tightly bound system of law, regulation and custom that has developed over time. The issues split across the parties, which makes consensus on goals challenging to reach. The terms and conditions of separation require cooperation by European leaders who are not subject to the political winds in the United Kingdom. Among the issues is the status of the border between the two parts of Ireland (a challenge spanning hundreds of years that still confounds the UK today). With a hard deadline for the end of March, it is unclear what direction the current Parliament will take to resolve the issues.

Voting patterns across the world, particularly in economically advanced nations, show exceptional political divides between urban and rural voters. The pattern repeats itself in the United States, the United Kingdom, and Austria for example. It seems assured that profound political, geographic and demographic divides make the path of incremental change more problematic. As such, legislative acts become longer and more complicated, so there is a reluctance to revisit issues. In the United States, we hear this from those who feel that protecting the gains made by ACA are more important than trying to expand benefits through Medicare for All. If incrementalism is not politically feasible, doesn’t that make the argument for using synoptic change as the goal? This would make clear to the polity what the purpose is of policy change in a particular area. So when candidates or incumbents lay out a commitment to broad policy goals, it is a helpful device for policy discussions in the United States that will continue toward implementation after an election.

Author: Ben Tafoya is an adjunct faculty member at Northeastern University. He can be reached at [email protected] and is a former academic program director at Walden University. All opinions and mistakes are his alone.

1 Star2 Stars3 Stars4 Stars5 Stars (6 votes, average: 4.00 out of 5)


The American Society for Public Administration is the largest and most prominent professional association for public administration. It is dedicated to advancing the art, science, teaching and practice of public and non-profit administration.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *