Reflecting Upon the Seminal Public Administration Article, “The Science of Muddling Through” and How It Relates to Criminal Justice Policy and Practice

In the spring of 1959, Charles E. Lindblom, published an 11-page academic article in Public Administration Review. The article was entitled, “The Science of Muddling Through.” This article contained few words but had enormous insight on how public policy evolves and develops. Fifty-five years later, its message is still relevant. As time passes, we assume that lessons learned from the past become irrelevant—not true in this case. Lindblom’s article is as relevant today as it was in 1959.

Boiling Down Lindblom’s Theory

Lindblom examined public policy implementation. He developed theory that identified two distinct processes by which public policy decisions are made: (1) the Rational Comprehensive (Root) Method and (2) the Successive Limited Comparison (Branch) Method. In theory, public policy, program innovation, and change are often viewed as components in a “means-end” analysis. We identify the goal (end) and then methodically chart a rational course of action to achieve the goal (end). In the Rational Comprehensive (Root) Method, all possible alternatives are considered; evaluative research is utilized; stakeholders are identified; consensus is gained; and a time-table is established. The desired public policy change or program implementation then proceeds in a logical sequence from initiation to completion. Lindblom acknowledges the theoretical foundation upon which the Rational Comprehensive (Root) Method is based but contends that it seldom works in the real world of public policy formation and program implementation. First, research is always subject to
critical analysis and is often refuted by other research. For example, “Do we know definitively how to best deploy police officers for crime reduction?” Which is best—random patrol, hotspot policing, pulling levers policing, community policing, problem-oriented policing, or a combination of two or more approaches? If zero-tolerance works in New York City, will it work in Los Angeles or Miami? And, as we saw with the zero-tolerance and stop and frisk policy of the New York Police Department, the “unleashing of the police” had a considerable negative (unanticipated) consequence of increased citizen complaints against the police and of police harassment complaints with racial overtones.

Secondly, it is simply impossible, even assuming that “the best” policy can be identified, that a sequenced means-end analysis can be charted. It is even more unlikely that every unanticipated implementation problem can be identified, dealt with, and resolved. There are simply too many stakeholders with divergent opinions and the political capital to interrupt and/or torpedo the entire process.

Thirdly, politicians often implement policies and programs with total disregard for research regarding what works and what doesn’t work. For example, research generally supports the notion that simply hiring “more police” has no direct correlation to “reduction in crime.” Yet, a newly elected mayor of a city that is facing an increasing rate of crime may have campaigned on a promise to hire more police officers. It sounds good to the public and may be a good political strategy, but in the end, it will not serve to influence the crime rate in any significant manner.

Lindblom contends that public policy is seldom implemented using the Rational Comprehensive (Root) Method, and, alternatively, it is most often implemented using the Successive Limited Comparison (Branch) Method. First, as with the Rational Comprehensive (Root) Method, the goal (end) is established; however, in the Successive Limited Comparison Analysis (Branch), we acknowledge that the process of implementation (means) will need to be modified along the way due to unforeseen, unpredictable factors. In other words, in formulating public policy, Lindblom describes the Successive Limited Comparison (Branch) Method as a process whereby we start off with baby steps, evaluate the policy or program as it evolves, and make successive limited adjustments along the way. Such a process recognizes the need and willingness to make compromises and revise the process (means) during the implementation stage.

In order to provide an example, years ago, as the Executive Director of the Illinois POST, I decided that public policy and law enforcement would benefit from instituting a mandatory statewide program to allow for the delicensing of police officers who committed certain criminal offenses, who violated standards of police ethics, or who committed acts involving moral turpitude. There is no doubt that this was a worthy goal: “get rid of bad cops.” All stakeholders were invited to provide input. In the end, the stakeholders sup-ported a Police Delicensing Act, but there were disagreements on what specific crimes should be included in the delicensing legislation. Theft, sex crimes, drug sales—all no brainers. What about solicitation of a prostitute? Also, there was less agreement on including moral turpitude components within the legislation. Ultimately, it was necessary to revise the language of the legislation to pass the Police Delicensing Act.

It could be argued that I sold out, that I should have stayed the course, and that I should not have compromised. Yet, understanding the political realities at the time, I and others knew that the legislation would never pass without the stakeholders’ full support. The conundrum was, “If my goal was to attain a full loaf of bread, do I push on, ignoring obvious challenges and distracters; or, alternatively, if I know I can get a half a loaf of bread now, do I take it, knowing full well that I can come back at another time and go after the other half of the loaf?” This is the Successive Limited Comparison (Branch) Method. This is how public policy and program implementation works in the real world.

It is important to note that Lindblom did not characterize the Successive Limited Comparison (Branch) Method in a negative light. To the contrary, he made the point that “muddling through” is not only the method by which public policy and program implementation most often proceeds but that the method has many inherent advantages.

Thomas J. Jurkanin, PhD
Senior Editor

Lindblom, C. (1959, Spring). The science of muddling through.