Is rational incremental policy-making dead? It sure looks like it, leaving traditional social work policy practice in the lurch.

At its best, public policy-making is a fundamentally rational process, essentially a version of the practical problem-solving process at the heart of all forms of social work practice.

While details may vary, the core elements of the process are universally familiar: a problem is perceived and defined; next the problem is assessed, or analyzed; based on the assessment, measurable goals and objectives (desirable results or changes) are set; a plan is devised to achieve the desired results; the plan is implemented and eventually evaluated, whereupon the process may either come to a close (success!), or begin anew, most likely with a richer, experience-based understanding of the problem and how best to resolve it.

Problem-solving in the social work “macro” arena of policy practice has its peculiarities and nuances, but the core process is clearly relevant, even when we consider that public policy making – and perhaps most especially controversial social welfare policy making – takes place in a politicized context. “Political” policy making has historically sustained its essential rational core through the corollary process of incrementalism – a tweak here, an expansion or contraction there, of the the basic body of extant policy. No revolution, to be sure, but also no serious regressions from a middling reformist path; certainly no throwing out of the baby with the bath water.

Social work policy advocacy has relied heavily on incrementalism, in turn relying on the fundamental reasonableness of political policy makers with lingering concern for the common interest, and open to evidence as to what will help or hinder the furtherance of that interest. Even the sharpest critics of the overall system’s historical reluctance (if not refusal) to address structural failures have generally settled for laboring in the vineyards of incrementalism, counting their progress toward a more socially and economically just world in small steps.

Alarmingly, today’s social work policy practitioners have good reason – two good reasons, actually – to doubt the applicability of incremental progress, and with it the applicability of the rational problem-solving process itself.

The first reason for doubt is the frightening collapse of any workable consensus as to what constitutes the social welfare “common good.” One need not extoll the wisdom or virtue of the Democratic Party in recognizing that the Republican Party has become wholeheartedly the Trumpublican Party, in the process abandoning most of its historical commitment to providing at least the rudiments of a minimalist welfare state. More akin to a cult than a political party, it’s sole objective seems to be scuttling the Democratic Party policy agenda in hopes of regaining Congress and the White House in the 2022 and 2024 election cycles (with no little help from gerrymandered Congressional districts and voter suppression laws) – for, in short, political power for its own sake, without regard for the general welfare.

The second reason to question the applicability of rational incrementalism is the sheer enormity of the problems we face – COVID, the climate/biosphere crises and their cascading ravages, economic dislocations and disruptions, unprecedented levels of poverty, insecurity, “hate”-fueled violence, mental health disorders. When it seems as if the sky is falling, a system “tweak” suitable to staying dry during a gentle rainfall simply won’t do.

The question for social welfare policy practitioners long-accustomed to incremental tactics – What other tools do we have in our toolbox?

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