The policy garbage can


in Politics, Psychology

“March and Olsen… began with the assumption that both the rational and incremental models presumed a level of intentionality, comprehension of problems, and predictability among actors that simply did not obtain in reality. In their view, decision-making was a highly ambiguous and unpredictable process only distantly related to searching for means to achieve goals. Rejecting the instrumentalism that characterized most other models, Cohen, March, and Olsen (1989) argued that most decision opportunities were:

‘a garbage can into which various problems and solutions are dumped by participants. The mix of garbage in a single can depends partly on the labels attached to the alternative cans; but it also depends on what garbage is being produced at the moment, or the mix of cans available, and on the speed with which garbage is collected and removed from the scene.’

Cohen, March, and Olsen deliberately used the garbage-can metaphor to strip away the aura of scientific authority attributed to decision-making by earlier theorists. They sought to drive home the point that goals are often unknown to policy-makers, as are causal relationships. In their view, actors simply define goals and choose means as they go along in a policy process that is necessarily contingent and unpredictable.”

Howlett, Michael, M. Ramesh, and Anthony Perl. Studying Public Policy: Policy Cycles & Political Subsytems: Third Edition. 2009. p. 152 (paperback)

See also: The Thick of It

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