Revisiting Budgetary Incrementalism

Zahid Shariff
The Evergreen State College, Olympia, WA, USA
Keywords: incrementalism, rational-comprehensive, base, fair share

  1. Introduction
  2. Basic Issues
    2.1 Larger connections
    2.2 Some distinctions
    2.3 Characteristics of budgeting
  3. The Demise of Incrementalism
  4. Broader Context, Limited Horizon
    4.1 Gentlemanly government
    4.2 Denouncing reform
    4.3 Either/or
  5. Contradictions: Holding on and Letting go
    5.1 Rejecting and accepting
    5.2 More inconsistencies
    5.3 Policy and counseling
  6. Encountering Change
    6.1 Reducing and increasing conflict
    6.2 Governmental (in)capacity
    6.3 Imbalanced perspective
    6.4 Sympathy and inaction
  7. Return to Basics
    7.1 Theoretical building blocks
    7.2 Different kinds of incrementalism
  8. Conclusions
    Biographical Sketch
    Aaron Wildavsky was most closely associated with the notion of budgetary
    incrementalism. He tried to make the remarkably plausible phenomena – that the
    budget of any year in most cases is likely to be only slightly different from the last, or
    the next, year – into a theoretical construct and an empirically sound proposition. But
    he invested some ideological capital in it too, since he believed that incrementalism was
    linked with fragmented political structures, decentralization, market economy, and
    social interaction. Those who opposed budgetary incrementalism were invariably
    identified by him as the ones wanting to embrace rational-comprehensive decisionmaking which was, in turn, identified, in his mind, with a unified, planned, and
    centralized social interaction. This perspective on budgeting prevailed in the United
    States for almost three decades, and the credit for that goes to his steadfast defense of it
    PUBLIC ADMINISTRATION AND PUBLIC POLICY – Vol. II – Revisiting Budgetary Incrementalism – Zahid Shariff
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    through his many publications and his harsh denunciation of its critics.
    Eventually, however, Wildavsky abandoned budgetary incrementalism. He did so for a
    variety of reasons. I revisit its short and unhappy life, and conclude that his claims on
    many occasions were questionable, ideological, inconsistent or too vague to measure.
    For example, the consequence of conceding the death of incrementalism was not, as he
    had said so often in the past, its replacement by rational-comprehensive decision
    Similarly, after arguing against those who had been suggesting that growing percentage
    of entitlements in the American federal budget rendered incrementalism obsolete, he
    suddenly embraced that view without any explanation. Yet another contradiction was
    his position on conflict (“dissensus”), which he argued was avoided by incrementalism
    since only parts, not the whole, of the budget was dealt with at one time. But then he
    suddenly discovered the desirability of dissensus-producing changes: the federal budget
    process reform in 1974 (with emphasis on the whole in which the parts had to fit), and
    the constitutional amendment to balance the federal budget (which would make budget
    a zero-sum game)! Wildavsky seemed motivated by ideological considerations. As long
    as incrementalism produced the politically appropriate budgetary results, he supported
    it, but when it did not, he pronounced its demise.
  9. Introduction
    The very large number of eulogies by eminent scholars at the untimely death of Aaron
    Wildavsky appropriately stressed his considerable contributions in a variety of fields.
    The superlatives used when praising his life’s prolific writings clearly revealed how
    large the shadow that he cast was. The breadth of his knowledge was often combined
    with an ease of communicative style in writing and speaking that were quite remarkable.
    Few scholars attain his stature; fewer still exert the influence in so many areas as he did.
    As sufficient time has elapsed since his death in 1993, it may be appropriate to revisit
    his legacy in one area that had a profound impact in public administration: his theory of
    incremental budgeting. (No implications or inferences are to be drawn from this article
    about his theoretical and empirical work in several other fields.)
    The significance of incrementalism in the United States is hard to exaggerate. It lies,
    first, in the fact that the debate and conflict over governmental preferences must now
    proceed, as never before, with a heightened awareness of the fiscal framework; the
    fiscalization of public policy is not just another trendy phrase .And when budgetary
    decisions are being made, it is believed that it is incrementalism with which we have to
    contend. Second, incrementalism, soon after it was launched by Wildavsky, was quickly
    exported to many areas of theoretical interest and public policy debates, where its
    attractiveness and applications were ultimately based on the belief that it had concrete
    and empirical validation in fiscal processes and outcomes. Too often, it provided
    another justification for timidity or caution. The news that budgetary incrementalism is
    now not only defunct but was originally built on shifting sands, when fully digested, is
    likely to release a lot of creative energy in a variety of contexts that had previously been
    stifled by stern references to its undeniable factual validation. Third, its demise
    represents a greater loss to government budgeting because it is an area of study in public
    PUBLIC ADMINISTRATION AND PUBLIC POLICY – Vol. II – Revisiting Budgetary Incrementalism – Zahid Shariff
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    administration that is not known for theoretical diversity. While some are not sanguine
    about the gap in budgetary theory being filled any time soon, and discourse theory does
    not look promising, Rubin is hopeful that budgetary theory will now “mushroom…over
    the next few years.” With the theoretical deck cleared, her expectation seems plausible.
    How well did the theory of incremental budgeting explain budgetary processes and
    outcomes before Wildavsky abandoned it, and why did it take so long for that to
    happen? These are the major issues explored here.
  10. Basic Issues
    2.1 Larger connections
    Any analysis of Wildavsky’s contributions should start with an acknowledgment of his
    successful effort in lifting the study of government budgeting from a dull, arid, and
    neglected concern to a lively, and sometimes even profound, level of intellectual
    discussion. He accomplished this in many ways. “Perhaps the ‘study of budgeting’ is
    just another expression for the ‘study of politics,’” he wrote, “yet one cannot study
    everything at once, and the vantage point offered by concentration on budgetary
    decisions offers a useful and much neglected perspective from which to analyze the
    making of policy”. Until he made those connections, “the fact that budgeting involves
    politics, was best not acknowledged in writing.” The breadth of his vision enabled the
    rubric of budgeting to expand in ways that facilitated the discussion of fiscal policy,
    Congressional rules and informal norms, political ideology, rationality and its
    limitations, trust and conflict, and even human nature. Because of his writings, the
    anticipated drudgery of teaching or enrolling in a course in budgeting often receded, as
    a variety of stimulating ways of viewing its many dimensions opened up. That is no
    small feat.
    2.2 Some distinctions
    The development and popularity of incrementalism, in one sense, are relatively easy to
    understand. It confirms the “dailyness” of our lives, where change is slow and gradual.
    It reflects also the practical advice offered frequently about testing the water before
    leaping into the uncharted ocean; reducing the costs of failure when undertaking new
    initiatives; and keeping open the possibility of quick retreat. Wildavsky also
    distinguished and contrasted incrementalism from another way of viewing decision making which is often called “rational-comprehensive.” The expectations associated
    with the latter (which are sometimes exaggerated) follow a process that includes
    knowing the goal to be achieved, identifying all the means of accomplishing it,
    calculating the costs and benefits of each one of them, and letting the comparisons
    among them determine the optimum decision or choice. Since the constraints both of
    time and resources are enormous, it is not so hard to show that rationality of this kind is
    rarely, if ever, relied on by decisions makers in the public sector. In addition to
    incrementalism, Simon’s notion of “satisficing” and Lindblom’s “muddling through”
    were offered as more realistic notions of what the decision-makers actually do.
    (Incidentally, while these limitations of decision-makers in the public sector often
    attract intense and concentrated attention, they apply in varying degrees to the private
    sector as well, a fact that is often ignored when perceiving differences between political
    PUBLIC ADMINISTRATION AND PUBLIC POLICY – Vol. II – Revisiting Budgetary Incrementalism – Zahid Shariff
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    satisficing and market rationality.)
    2.3 Characteristics of budgeting
    But budgetary incrementalism, while it relied partly on such folksy wisdom and was
    eagerly distinguished from the rational-comprehensive model, had certain specific
    characteristics that went far beyond these considerations. They were repeatedly
    described by Wildavsky, perhaps most fully in The Politics of the Budgetary Process,
    which became a widely read and cited work over the years, and went through four
    editions. The major elements of his incrementalism, which were noted at the federal
    level (but began almost immediately to be applied at all levels of government), may be
    quickly summarized:
    • Traditions: Bureaucratic agencies pad their budgetary requests, the budget office
    trims them, and the House Appropriations Committee acts as the “guardian of
    the purse”, from which appeals are sometimes taken to the somewhat more
    generous Senate Finance Committee;
    • Fiscal outcomes: Debate and discussion over an appropriation Bill are over the
    requested increase or increment (called the “fair share”) over last year’s
    appropriation (called the “base”), which is often left unexamined;
    • Atmosphere: Budget committees operate in an environment of trust, deference to
    the committee chairpersons, secrecy, and loyalty to the committees’
    • Assumptions: The budget is expected to record all fiscal commitments
    (“comprehensiveness”,) which are reviewed once a year (“annualarity”). while
    the spending level remains fairly close to the revenues generated (“balance”);
    • Process: Congress deals with one part of the budget at one time (i.e. one
    appropriation bill, and then another, and occasionally a revenue bill as well), and
    this fragmented and sequential pattern avoids the conscious linking of means
    with ends.
    An attempt was made to reinforce the validity of some of these characteristics of
    incrementalism by applying mathematical rigor. Actual appropriations of federal
    agencies were explained through simple linear decision rules through eight equations.
  11. The Demise of Incrementalism
    But all that changed. In The New Politics of the Budgetary Reform, Wildavsky
    abandoned incrementalism. That dramatic development was based on his
    acknowledgment of some important changes. Much of the government spending now
    escaped annual review, he argued, with 46% of the federal budget going to entitlements
    and 14% to interest on the accumulated debt. Of the rest, 28% was allocated for defense,
    which only left 12% as discretionary spending, and much of the annual budget fights
    were about this relatively small proportion. Furthermore, the Appropriation Committees
    were not allowed to regulate the massive expansion of federal credit; only for the
    amounts by which the debtors defaulted did these off-budget figures surface in their
    deliberations. These developments violated the expectations of comprehensiveness,
    PUBLIC ADMINISTRATION AND PUBLIC POLICY – Vol. II – Revisiting Budgetary Incrementalism – Zahid Shariff
    ©Encyclopedia of Life Support Systems (EOLSS)
    annualarity, and balance. Incrementalism was dealt another blow by the 1974 Budget
    and Impoundment Control Act, which made it virtually impossible for the old budget
    committees to adhere to norms of secrecy and loyalty, and required the new budget
    committees to connect the means (i.e. revenues) with the ends (i.e. spending).
  12. Broader Context, Limited Horizon
    4.1 Gentlemanly government
    A scholar should be clear, Wildavsky insisted, “as to what he is about and to make his
    intentions clear to others. To be above board, to put one’s cards on the table is an
    essential requirement of scholarship”. Since he regrettably did not fully meet that
    requirement, it is perhaps appropriate to put his cards down on the table for him. What
    they reveal is that he was an ardent supporter of neo-conservative ideology, greatly
    disturbed about the events of the 1960s, pained by the existing claims on government
    and the adding of new ones, discouraged by the federal government doing more and the
    states less, and convinced that governmental initiatives were often misdirected or
    wasteful.To a degree, budgetary incrementalism served these ideological interests very
    well, as one would expect its reliance on gradual accommodation to change in an
    atmosphere of secrecy, manageable conflict, trustworthy leaders, and informal norms to
    do. These are unmistakable signs of very considerable satisfaction with gentlemanly
    government. “The insiders had a monopoly on budgetary information, and they did not
    share much with the outsiders. In that world, budgets were made by government talking
    to itself”. But budgeting was only a part of the general perspective, that included faith in
    secrecy and deal-making that was beyond the reach of popular pressures.
    Despite complaints about elitism and decisions favoring “special interests” made
    “behind closed doors in smoke-filled rooms”, so often made about budgeting by the
    U.S. Congress, Helco and Wildavsky in The Private Government of Public Money
    demonstrated that in terms of public participation, openness of the decision process, and
    ultimately, service to the public good, things could be worse.Wildavsky, and his
    followers, did not seem to have noticed that as these values and practices were
    celebrated, others—civil rights, openness, accountability, and inclusiveness—were
  13. ignored

Caiden, N. and White, J. (Eds.) (1994). Public Budgeting & Finance14 (Spring). Symposium on “Aaron
Wildavsky: An appreciation.” [Contained articles by leading scholars of budgeting eulogizing Aaron
PUBLIC ADMINISTRATION AND PUBLIC POLICY – Vol. II – Revisiting Budgetary Incrementalism – Zahid Shariff
©Encyclopedia of Life Support Systems (EOLSS)
Davis, O.A., Dempster, M.A.H, and Wildavsky, A. (1966). “A theory of the budgetary process.”
American Political Science Review 60 (September), 529-547. [An attempt to provide quantitative
validation for incrementalism]
Dempster, M.A.H. and Wildavsky, A. (1979). “On change: Or, there is no magic size for an increment.”
Political Studies, 27 (September), 371-389. [Defense of incrementalism based not on size of increment
but regularity of relationships between agencies and Congress]
Gosling, J. J. Budgetary politics in American governments. New York: Garland Publishing. [A textbook
in the field of government budgeting]
Jones, L. R. and McCaffery, J. (1994). “Budgeting according to Aaron Wildavsky: A bibliographic
essay.” Public Budgeting & Finance 14 (Spring), pp. 16-43. [Literature review of incrementalism as
viewed by Wildavsky]
Joyce, P. G. (1996). “Jesse Burkhead and the multiple uses of federal budgets: A contemporary
perspective.” Public Budgeting and Finance16 (Summer), 59-78. [A different perspective provided by
another well-known scholar in bugeting]
Lindblom, Charles. E. (1959). “ The ‘science’ of muddling through.” PAR 21, 78-88. [A seminal work in
public administration that presents an alternative to incrementalism]
McSwite, O. C. (1997). Legitimacy in public administration: A discourse analysis. Thousand Oaks, CA:
Sage Publications. [A major work in post-modernist understanding of public administration]
Neuby, B. L. (1997). On the lack of a budget theory. Public Administration Quarterly, 21 (Summer),
131-142. [Review of budgetary literature which gives considerable attention to Wildavsky]
News & Views, (1990). (published by the American Society for Public Administration Section on
Budgeting and Financial Management). [A professional society’s newsletter]
Ruhin, I. (1990). “Budget theory and budget practice: How good the fit?” PAR 50 (March/April), 179-

  1. [Review of budgetary theory in view of changed fiscal and economic circumstances]
    Schick, A. “From the old politics of budgeting to the new.” Public Budgeting & Finance 14 (Spring),
    135-144. [Critique of changes in budgetary processes enacted by Congress]
    Sementelli, A. J. and Herzog, R. J. (2000). “Framing discourse in budgetary processes: Warrants for
    normalization and conformity.” Administrative Theory & Praxis 22 (March), 105-116. [An attempt to
    understand budgetary realities in a post-modernist framework]
    Simon, H. (1947). Administrative Behavior. New York: Macmillan. [A major work that showed the
    flawed assumptions of scientific management]
    Steinfels, P. (1979). The neo-conservatives. New York: Simon and Schuster. [A review and critique of a
    group of influential scholars, many of whom were liberals before they turned conservative]
    White, J. (1994). “(Almost) nothing new under the sun: Why the work of budgeting remains
    incremental.” Public Budgeting & Finance 14 (Spring), pp. 113-144. [A spirited defense of
    incrementalism even after Wildavsky had abandoned it]
    Wildavsky, A. (1964). The Politics of the Budgetary Process. Boston: Little, Brown. [It launched
    incremental budgeting and became probably the best known work in government budgeting.
    –. 1971. The Revolt of the Masses. New York: Basic Books. [A collection of Wildavsky’s essays that
    reveal his strongly-held conservative views, particularly against what many viewed as the gains made in
    the 1960s.
    –. 1985. “The once and future school of public policy.” The Public Interest 79 (Spring), 25- 41.
    [Reflections on starting the first school of public policy in the principal publication of the neo conservatives]
    –. 1988. The New Politics of the Budgetary Process. Glenview, IL.: Scott, Foresman. [Here Wildavskly
    abandoned incrementalism after defending it fiercely in the past]
    PUBLIC ADMINISTRATION AND PUBLIC POLICY – Vol. II – Revisiting Budgetary Incrementalism – Zahid Shariff
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    Biographical Sketch
    Zahid Shariff is Member of the Faculty at The Evergreen State College, Olympia, Washington. Dr.
    Shariff’s research and teaching interests are focused in a number of areas. One is public administration,
    where he concentrates on public administration theory and fiscal policy, and has published several
    relevant articles in Social Science Quarterly, Social Policy, Administration & Society, and in edited
    books. A second area is international affairs and comparative policy and administration, and in that field
    has published articles in The Annals of the American Society of Political and Social Science, Public
    Management and Policy, and Lahore Journal of Economics.

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