Winter 1996 - Volume 5 Number 1
Policy Innovation in the Saskatchewan Public Sector, 1971-1982
North York, Captus Press, 1997
It is a rare occasion that we see the terms policy, innovation and public sector in the same document, let alone in the title of a book. In Policy Innovation in the Saskatchewan Public Sector, 1971-1982, Eleanor Glor and the contributing authors break that tradition by presenting a series of reflections on innovative government policy initiatives spearheaded by the New Democratic Party government and its Public Service during the Party's 1971-1982 term as the governing body in Saskatchewan.
This book explores the innovations, both productive and not so productive, that were undertaken by Premier Allan Blakeney and major stakeholders for the majority of his 11 years in office, and how the relationships between the Premier and stakeholders contributed to the success or failure of his endeavours to be an innovative government leader. What the authors clearly communicate is that no single person can bring about reform in the socio-economic and political life of any province; in addition to political astuteness and having the support of a willing team, the authors note that successful reform requires alliances, trust, a belief in people, a willingness to risk, and a tolerance for ambiguity.
Like leaders in today's learning organizations, Allan Blakeney is profiled as one who sought to create a climate in which public servants and his ministers felt relatively free to risk and make mistakes, and to learn from them. Community leaders welcomed the delegation of power from on high and they embraced the opportunity to shape their own destinies on the ground. Blakeney understood the linkages among bureaucracy, government, people and communities, and he instilled a sense of empowerment and ownership of policy initiatives to the community level through an art of top-down governing and bottom-up planning said to be held only by those politicians who excel.
From the account of innovations undertaken by the NDP government and implemented by the public service, several factors may have converged to shape Allan Blakeney's vision and government policy for Saskatchewan. These factors may be best understood by looking through the lens of the stakeholder reading the book.
Civil servants and heads of crown corporations will relate to the difficulties faced by any bureaucrat who has an interest in any innovation in the public sector; they also know how critical their internal support is in the process of designing and implementing successful government reform.
Politicians will say that serving an apprenticeship under the guidance of Tommy Douglas would place any politician at the forefront in creating her or his vision of social and political reform; they will also understand the importance of external support for government reform.
Industry leaders may say that the financial and managerial acumen which Allan Blakeney displayed in securing the future of Saskatchewan's natural resources and communications industries stand as hallmarks of stewardship over public corporation, and they understand the political challenges of striking a balance between industrial progress and environmental maintenance in government reform.
Members of community organizations and activist groups who worked with Allen Blakeney will say that the combination of his bureaucratic and ministerial apprenticeships enabled him to employ a type of leadership that was timely for Saskatchewan of the 1970's; one which saw stakeholder participation and ownership as central to long-term success. These readers will understand the value of community education, community development, and community ownership in government reform.
The highlights which may be seen as central to innovation in the public sector were Allan Blakeney's belief in people, his willingness to experience adversity to promote change, and the support he had garnered around the province from his role as a public servant and the various political offices held over his career. As an example, Allan Blakeney had faith in the ability of farmers to work with scientists and academics to make the right decisions in crop production methods, and he knew that the academics and scientists would learn equally from the practitioners.
On the other side of the equation, despite having the support of influential senior public servants and the public, Blakeney's attempts to implement drug and dental reform met with opposition from powerful and organized lobby groups whose vested interests lay in their controlling all aspects of their businesses versus public interests.
Who should read this book, and why? Aspiring and current politicians should read it to gain a sense of what and what not to do in shaping agendas for political, social and economic reform. Public servants should read it to reflect on whether they see their role as one of balancing public interests against political interests, or as one of carrying out the political will of a governing party by compromising public interests.
Community and aboriginal leaders should read the book to gain a sense of progress which can be made when organizations include themselves in the reform process and make a concerned effort to affect change at the community level in the interests of their memberships. Educators and other developers of human resources should read the book to see how Blakeney's vision to create colleges without walls and opt out of federal initiatives to construct training facilities around the province left today's provincial government in the enviable position of not having to maintain a huge training physical infrastructure, while other provinces are either closing facilities or struggling to maintain them in the face of ever-rising maintenance and operating costs. Linked to this innovation was the development of a province-wide library system and the proponents' stated feeling of freedom to be vocal in their pressuring government to fund the system.
Affirmative action groups and labor leaders can read about the origins of a worker's right to refuse unsafe work and of workers' rights to inclusion on workplace health and safety committees, the origin of equal pay for similar work, the establishment of protection against double breasting, the right of workers to run for political office, and the prudence of public servants in creating a responsive and fiscally responsible workers' compensation system.
Finally, all Canadians should read the book to gain an understanding of how co-operation and vision on all sides led to the creation of First Nations' and Metis' focused education and training institutions, and how these institutions have shaped the development of Canada's first peoples and communities in Saskatchewan. Other governments can use this model of co-operation and Nationbuilding in bringing about similar reform.
Having said the forgoing, readers must remember that this laudatory account of the Blakeney era of government was written from the perspectives of stakeholders who held roles and considerable sway in the reform areas they reviewed. The contributors tend to focus on what worked for the Blakeney government and they do not critique the impractical elements of public policy of that era; especially in the much-debated ability of any government or bureaucracy to competently operate and maintain heavy industrial holdings or to maintain a controlling presence in the business aspects of health services.
In reflecting on the issues covered in Policy Innovation in the Saskatchewan Public Sector, 1971-1982, the vision of Allan Blakeney, and other leaders who shared his foresight, left Saskatchewan as a comparatively resource-rich province which derives significant income through its telecommunications and power utility crown corporations and its investments in mining, oil and gas, and other resource-based holdings. One public policy innovation that emerged to hold a significant position in today's global economy is the Crown Investments Corporation, an agency responsible for investing the income from other Crowns. Given the non-renewable resource share of Saskatchewan's economy in mining and oil and gas sectors and a future dependency on alternative income for the treasury, that public initiative may stand the test of time as being distinguishable from the others.
Kevin P. Quinlan, Ed.D. is the Director of Vocational / Technical Education, Faculty of Education at the University of Regina. He can be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org .
• The views expressed by the authors are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of The College Quarterly or of Seneca College.
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