a clock in a field

Government shifts in policy and infrastructure can fall into two categories: radical vs incremental change. Each approach carries its own set of advantages and disadvantages, shaping the course of a country’s political trajectory. Radical change, characterised by sweeping overhauls and revolutionary shifts, is vastly different from incremental change’s gradual progression and steady adaptation.

By understanding the nuances of each approach, policymakers can better navigate evolution in societal thinking and needs.

What is radical change?

fists raised above a skyline to symbolise radical change

Radical change in government refers to a significant change and overhaul of a particular set of laws, policies or overall structure of an existing system.

It usually means starting again from scratch, rather than trying to fix what’s already in place. Radical changes can be effective in driving meaningful decision-making that reflects strong public opinion or a shift in societal thinking.

This can be tricky to facilitate on a large scale as it can change fundamental aspects of government and people’s lives. However, when done well, the radical approach can be a powerful process that drives thinking forward into the 21st century.  

Advantages and Disadvantages of Radical Change

Radical change has historically targeted the parts of governance where incremental change simply isn’t enough. It allows the opportunity for a clean slate with quicker results than incremental changes allow.

Often, this goes back to human rights, and fixing a system that has been broken for many demographics, such as the abolition of slavery in the United States. It addresses deep-seated issues where it’s imperative the status quo is challenged.

On the other hand, the problem with radical changes is that there’s no adjustment period. It’s the reason many revolutions fail, and comes with a real risk of disruption that negatively effects all within a society.

Ultimately, human beings like time to get used to new ideas, which can be problematic in the case of radical change. That being said, it’s sometimes entirely necessary and fundamentally the right thing to do to push society forward.

Examples of radical change

EU puzzle piece with Britain pulled out to represent Brexit

Brexit: The UK leaving the EU, although done in stages, is an example of radical change as it came down to one ultimate vote. Instead of making changes within the existing EU framework, Brexit overhauled the UK’s relationship with Europe and the EU in one fell swoop.

Revolutions: Revolutions where the lay people overthrow governments and install their own new leaders in their place, is an example of radical change. This has happened multiple times throughout history, sometimes leading to a complete change in democracy that still reverberates today. Like the American Revolution and similar campaigns in other countries that freed them from British rule.

Abolition of Slavery: Addressing fundamental issues in human rights policies and treatments of marginalised people, events like the abolition of slavery was one big governmental radical innovation that eradicated systemic issues with fundamental systems across the country. Although it didn’t solve the problems people of colour have faced, it was the catalyst that led to significant social and moral transformations in society’s perception.

What is incremental change?

three blocks with the words step by step and an arrow pointing upward

Incremental change is the idea that slow and steady wins the race. Like the boiling frog analogy, only not necessarily a bad thing, incremental innovation creates structures and policies across a large time period with an end goal in mind.

Rather than overhauling systems as they stand, the incremental approach means making small adjustments in law and policy gradually, until the idealised approach has been reached. Incremental change can lead to meaningful progress within the existing framework of government.  

Advantages and Disadvantages of Incremental Change

Fundamentally with incremental change, citizens have time to adjust to an idea. Policy changes can be tested on a small scale before being rolled out en masse, and with stakeholder engagement through consultation reports.

This means they had a part in the process, and therefore are less likely to oppose the changes made. Arguably, it therefore allows a greater opportunity for all voices to play a part and therefore could be a stronger pillar for incremental improvement over time.

On the flip side, this means giving stakeholders a lot longer to voice concerns and create roadblocks to stymie policies that aren’t to their advantage. It’s a much slower way of changing the world, which can fail to address underlying systemic issues.

Examples of incremental change

half life half dead tree to symbolise climate change

Climate change: Most government policies that address environmental factors and the ongoing climate crisis rely on incremental change. The route to net zero carbon is one that governments are tackling over a period of years, aiming to achieve their net zero goals by 2025 or later. In a similar way, new policies and societal changes like car-free cities and clean air zones are implemented with the intention of reducing overall air pollution over time.

Pension age: This could arguably be seen as a negative incremental change and a great example of the boiling frog analogy. Prior to 1995, the pension age for women was set to 60, however, it was agreed that it should increase to match the men’s age of 65. Rather than announce this as one 5 year increase which could upset and disrupt political favour, the government elected to slowly phase the policy in over a 10 year period from 2010.

Digital technology: It’s extremely difficult to utilise radical change on infrastructure, such as is the case with digital connectivity. You can’t expand access to high-speed broadband and networks overnight; it takes investment and regulatory reforms to address this. But in doing so in small incremental steps, the government is providing accessibility to all, no matter where they live in the country, allowing them greater access to the digital world, and therefore allowing a wider demographic of citizens to weigh in on important changes that take place via statutory consultations on digital platforms.

So, radical vs incremental change: which is better?

As we’ve covered, there are advantages and disadvantages to both. Ultimately, governments need both radical and incremental changes to reflect shifts in attitude and the needs of citizens. With continuous improvement we steadily work toward a stronger infrastructure and future reform; however, when tackling fundamental biases and systemic problems in society, sometimes a more radicalised approach is necessary.

All in all, it’s a delicate balancing act that requires strategic management by governments and stakeholders.

By understanding the nuances of each approach, policymakers can better navigate evolution in societal thinking and needs.