Published online by Cambridge University Press: 20 January 2009
The theory of incrementalism is a long-standing and influential perspective on policy making and resource allocation in the public sector. Previous research on social services budgeting suggests that resources are allocated incrementally, although there has been some debate as to whether this would persist in an era of prolonged expenditure restraint. Incremental budgetary outcomes are operationalised as percentage changes in budgets pro-rata with percentage changes in the total budget, and as stable shares of total expenditure for each activity. Data for 99 English social service departments supports incrementalism in that budget shares change by only 1.8 per cent, but percentage allocations depart from pro-rata incrementalism by a mean of 74 per cent. The comparison of the two summary indices over time supports those who have argued that prolonged restraint would encourage non-incremental budgeting, but change in the agency's total budget does not consistently predict budgetary outcomes. The effect of restraint on incrementalism varies with the measure used and across the component activities of the measures, but there is enough evidence to suggest a significant decline in the level of incrementalism in social service departments. In particular, non-incremental budgeting is strongly associated with the growth of day centre expenditure on the mentally ill and the elderly before 1982–3, and after that with the pursuit of the ‘community care’ strategy within state provided services for the elderly and children. Incrementalism as a general theory of agency budgeting is limited in its ability to explain variations in the degree of incrementalism between agencies, between component budgets and over time. The conclusion suggests that further research should seek explanations for these variations in the varying balance of the competing forces which shape outcomes in welfare bureaucracies and in the relationship between these forces and the organisation's environment.