Changing How We Budget: Aaron Wildavsky's Perspective

By Jones, L R | Journal of Public Budgeting, Accounting & Financial Management, Spring 1997 | Go to article overview

Changing How We Budget: Aaron Wildavsky's Perspective


Jones, L R, Journal of Public Budgeting, Accounting & Financial Management


ABSTRACT. This article chronicles the analysis of budget reform initiatives by Aaron Wildavsky and his collaborators. Wildavsky's views remain relevant to contemporary debate about federal budget reform. Initiatives to control spending and improve the use of analysis in budgeting were central to Wildavsky's arguments. While he characterized budgeting as incremental he also favored some comprehensive changes through "radical incrementalism." Wildavsky developed a behavioral theory of budgeting and believed that efforts to seek a normative theory were largely a waste of time. He offered reforms to control the deficit and reduce entitlement spending but understood the incentives that cause Congress and the executive to resist change.

INTRODUCTION

Aaron Wildavsky described and analyzed the dynamics of political behavior and budgetary culture over a period of thirty-two years. He informed us that politics is the art of compromise to produce a budget that distributes dissatisfaction relatively equally to the parties involved in negotiation. Wildavsky demonstrated that incrementalism inevitably results from the necessity for forging compromises over taxing and spending policy in a democratic political system. Incremental change is slow, and it is not bad once you get used to it (Jones and McCaffery, 1994; Wildavsky, 1978). Instead of pursuing radical reform, he cautioned that it is our expectations that need to change. We should neither want nor expect rapid and comprehensive budgetary reform. Still, this conclusion did not prevent Wildavsky from providing plenty of advice on how the budget process should be changed. The following two quotations provide insight into his perspective on budget reform:

A large part of the literature on budgeting in the United States is concerned with reform. The goals of proposed reforms are couched in similar language -- economy, efficiency, improvement, or just better budgeting ... However, any effective change in budgetary relationships must necessarily alter the outcomes of the budgetary process. Otherwise, why bother? Far from being a neutral matter of "better budgeting," proposed reforms inevitably contain important implications for the political system, that is, the "who gets what" of governmental decisions (Wildavsky, 1961: 186).

... [B]udgeting is a subsystem of politics, not visa versa - because of the current tendency to overload budgeting. As much as I respect the importance of budgeting and the talents of budgeteers, to substitute budgeting for governing will not work (Wildavsky, 1992b: 439).

This article documents Wildavsky's views on budget theory, why he believed pursuit of normative theory was a waste of time, and what he objected to in proposals for positive theory. His main contribution was to provide the field with valid descriptive theory. Wildavsky believed that it was far better to comprehend budgeting through observation of the behavior of participants than to speculate over theoretical allocative issues. His theory was assembled on the basis of analyzing what people actually do in competition for resources rather than on classical prescriptions of what they ought to do or what rules they ought to follow. Wildavsky defended many of the classical and normative principles of budgeting but rejected others. Review of his work shows that he disagreed with a number of the principles identified by Howard (1973: 5) and others as necessary criteria for budgeting, including comprehensiveness, unity, exclusiveness and annuality.

Wildavsky concluded early in his career that successful agencies and budget advocates develop and execute planned budgetary strategies. They quantify outputs to the greatest extent possible, tie measures of accomplishment back to the previous year's base, and cultivate relationships with their political sponsors and budget controllers. Agencies that perform these tasks well gain a marginally larger share of the budgetary pie. …

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