by Michael Hayes
Professor of Political Science
My research focuses on the public policy process with a particular emphasis on something called “incrementalism.” According to the model’s originator, Charles Lindblom, rational decision-making is typically precluded by disagreements among participants over how we should make value tradeoffs and what consequences will flow from various policy alternatives. As a result, policies emerge instead from a highly pluralistic and conflictual process in which a multiplicity of participants with different values, perspectives, information, and interests contend over policy. Participants tend to focus on proposals that differ only marginally (incrementally) from previous policies, partly because larger changes are political nonstarters and partly because building on past policies enables us to learn from experience, evaluating what worked and what did not and modifying policies accordingly.
For this political process to yield “good” results, three conditions must be met:
1) all interests affected by a policy must be represented in the policy-making process;
2) there must be no significant inequalities in power or influence among the players; and
3) the policy process must permit frequent reevaluation of policies and modification where necessary.
Policy outcomes are typically incremental changes at best; how could they be otherwise where attention is limited to incremental alternatives and participants then bargain and compromise? Large (nonincremental) change is still possible, however, through a succession of smaller steps that accumulate over time. Although it is impossible to “solve” problems fully through a once-and-for-all rational process, this is not as disabling as it seems because we can converge on solutions over time through subsequent policy cycles. (Lindblom calls this iterative process seriality).
If rational decision-making is in fact impossible most of the time, the real question is not whether to operate through incrementalism (which is basically inevitable) but rather how to make sure incrementalism is operating properly. As noted above, this means all affected interests must be represented, major imbalances in power among interests need to be remedied, and the political system must allow for periodic reevaluation and modification of policies.
While all of us, I think, would like to make sure Colgate is a welcoming place for all students, we also value academic freedom in the classroom. This creates a potential value tradeoff: to what extent do we have to limit free speech in order to accommodate student sensibilities? How do we arrive at a proper balance? There are also disagreements over consequences of various approaches. Will policies embodying zero tolerance for hate speech end up curbing the pursuit of truth in the classroom? Will faculty members worried about how students might react to topics they raise respond by avoiding certain topics altogether? Can we find ways to curb undesirable speech without suppressing desirable speech?
How can we say what the “best” policy is where two or more sides adhere to very different values? And how can we be sure which alternative to choose when we don’t know enough to predict their respective consequences accurately? Under such circumstances it is smart to build on past policies, confining our attention to modifications that differ only slightly from the status quo. Radical new steps (“We will do this!”) galvanize opposition. More important, people who should be on the same side—because we really do all want to make Colgate a welcoming place while protecting academic freedom—end up polarizing in opposition to one another.
As we move forward we need to be realistic about the reality of tradeoffs among values that we cherish as well as the limitations on our ability to predict consequences of any policy we adopt. We should build on a past policy that gets many things right—more than statements from the administration would imply. And as we address this important issue over the next few months we need to make sure all affected interests have a voice in the discussion and that no groups are disempowered. Above all, we have to design an ongoing process that permits us to revisit these enduring issues on a regular basis, permitting us to learn from inevitable mistakes and modify policies accordingly. No one should expect to get everything they want from this first round of discussions; indeed, if anyone gets everything they want from it, the process will not have worked properly. At the same time, no one should expect us to get this right the first time; unanticipated and often undesirable consequences will flow out of any procedures we adopt. The key is to treat this as an ongoing process of trial-and-error, of convergence over time on a workable policy, rather than a pitched battle between polarized groups determined to prevail. I think we are all better than that.