The Innovation Journal: The Public Sector Innovation Journal, 5(2), 2000, article 1b.


Is Innovation a Question of Will or Circumstance?

An Exploration of the Innovation Process Through the Lens of the Blakeney

Government in Saskatchewan, 1971-82


Edited by Eleanor D. Glor

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Governments of the 1980s and 1990s have lived through enormous change but they are not the only ones that have actively created change. Is Innovation a Question of Will or Circumstance? An Exploration of the Innovation Process Through the Lens of the Blakeney Government in Saskatchewan is the story of how the most consistently innovative government in Canada-the Government of Saskatchewan-implemented innovation during the 1970s. This story of successful innovation has much to teach those who are attempting to create innovation today, not just because they must but because they want to.

While two studies have considered the policy and program innovations of the Blakeney government (Glor, 1997; Harding,1995), and two others have discussed management strategies and leadership (Blakeney and Borins, 1998; Gruending, 1990), none has examined how this government created innovation. In Is Innovation a Question of Will or Circumstance? eight participants in the government map strategies, mechanisms, processes and stories of an innovative government. This material is then used to explore the nature of the innovation process.

Is Innovation a Question of Will or Circumstance? is a study of the nature of the innovation process through the prism of the Saskatchewan government of 1971-82-a government previously demonstrated to be innovative (Glor, 1997a). It asks "How can the innovation process be understood? Is innovation a question of planning and will or does it emerge from an environment as the product of specific determinants and processes? Is Innovation a Question of Will or Circumstance? identifies, assesses and validates the two main ways in which people use the concept of public service innovation. (1)

Framing the questions is David Wilson's understanding of the old distinction between voluntarism and determinism. Voluntarism is explored as an approach to innovation by identifying key strategies, structures and processes in central agencies, line departments and specific initiatives. Then it addresses whether putting in place the internal correlates of innovation is key to successful innovation. Innovation is also considered from a determined perspective, looking at the province's economic, social and political history and considering whether the government had the trait of innovativeness. Finally the book looks at some of the processes at work inside the government and in Saskatchewan that influenced its interest in and capacity to be innovative. Is Innovation a Question of Will or Circumstance? concludes by examining the value of voluntaristic and deterministic perspectives on innovation and lessons to be learned from each.

Studying the Unique: How Does Public Sector Innovation Happen?

To discover how one government innovated successfully, Is Innovation a Question of Will or Circumstance? dissects the innovation process in a government that introduced a very large number of innovations-160 policy and process innovations during an eleven-year government. By investigating how the central agencies organized themselves to plan, implement and monitor a major change agenda, how line departments implemented innovations and addressed horizontal problems, the planning and implementation process is revealed. By identifying the 34 administrative innovations introduced by the government, by pursuing three innovations-the program management and information system (PMIS), potash, and the Department of Northern Saskatchewan (DNS)-from beginning to end, by exploring the history, traits and processes of government in Saskatchewan, the determinants of innovation and the innovation process in Saskatchewan are uncovered. Some of the operations were themselves innovative, overall the processes generated a competently, effectively and efficiently managed government. The processes not only served the ongoing management needs of an active government, they also provided the means to implement the innovations. An examination of the procedures not only describes the processes, it also highlights the needs of a government implementing a significant change agenda.

Is Innovation a Question of Will or Circumstance? considers the government's administration from the perspective of its innovations. It answers such questions as: What processes did the government use to create its innovations? What procedures were needed to manage innovations over time? What skills were needed? What techniques did the government use to coordinate such massive and ongoing change? Is Innovation a Question of Will or Circumstance? also addresses the comparative questions: Was the government's administration innovative? Benefiting from hind-site, this book is a unique attempt to analyse how a government was able to be innovative, assessed through the eyes of its managers.

This is the rational structure of Is Innovation a Question of Will or Circumstance? The authors also proffer a more personal side of the government. They illustrate the singular characters of the participants and the unique nature of the processes created. From administrative reformer (Wallace); to reluctant nationaliser of potash caught up in a secret operation (Burton); to independent, some thought pugnacious minister of highways (Kramer); to dissatisfied program developer who became minister and initiated his truly innovative process (Hammersmith), a sense of how the Blakeney government functioned comes alive through these authors' stories. Their comments on issues of mutual interest reveal some of the dynamics that affected innovation in the government.

This book presents, therefore, a number of case studies of administrative (2) innovation and the case study of a government that introduced a good deal of innovation, and a methodology for exploring the innovation process. But was the government administratively innovative? The management strategies and administrative innovations are presented for central management, including PMIS (chapter 1); planning, financial management, accounting and administration (chapter 2), managing economic development (chapter 3), and communications and coordination (chapter 8). The Blakeney government's approach to four specific program areas is outlined: the potash take-over, managed through a central secretariat reporting to cabinet (chapter 4), the creation of DNS (chapter 5), managing transportation issues (6), and creating labour reform (chapter 7). These explanations are then used to explore whether the innovative Blakeney government is best understood from a voluntary or determined perspective. Section 3 considers:

  • Whether change in the Blakeney government was an example of planned change and implementation, how successfully and innovatively it was planned, and whether it created the internal correlates of innovation (chapter 9);
  • What determined how innovative the government was and whether the government should be considered to have the trait of innovativeness;
  • Innovation as a process, and whether innovation in the Saskatchewan government can be seen as occurring within the population ecology and life cycle models.

The conclusion suggests that the authors have considered the government primarily from a voluntaristic perspective, but also addressed many deterministic issues, such as politics, Saskatchewan's boom/bust economy, and the unique social history of the province. The book concludes that both voluntaristic and deterministic analyses are valuable, and identifies lessons to be learned from each perspective. Rather than identifying one best way to approach the innovation process, it explores the process from several perspectives and attempts to generate understanding from each of them.

Still Relevant Today?

Is the experience of a government of 25 years ago still relevant today? When asked in the 1996 Institute of Public Administration of Canada biannual survey of deputy ministers and municipal chief administrative officers what they saw as the critical issues over the upcoming three years, chief executives of Canadian governments responded: rethinking and reshaping government, repositioning the public service and leading change; restructuring programs and service delivery; redesigning accountability frameworks and performance measures, and revitalizing the public service. (Marson, 1997) In 1998 they saw the management issues similarly, as rethinking and reshaping government, repositioning public organizations and managing the change process, redesigning and improving service delivery for citizens, reframing systems of performance measurement and accountability, renewing and revitalizing the public service, and building a high performance public service for the next millennium (Marson, 1999) The administrative innovations introduced by the Saskatchewan government addressed many of the same problems public services face today: policy planning, effective implementation, horizontal service and policy coordination, more effective services and programs, alternate service delivery mechanisms and management (crown corporations), financial management including unfunded pension liabilities, revitalization of the public service, and public disclosure. The similarities between the issues addressed then and those confronted today are striking-the differences are ones of quantity rather than quality.

Some of the Saskatchewan process innovations described in this book have not yet been widely adopted-they potentially remain a source of good ideas. Some of these process innovations are just now being adopted by other governments, as they begin to address problems the Saskatchewan government confronted first-problems such as unfunded liabilities in public pension and other contributory funds, the need for results-based funding and reporting. As a whole this book contributes to understanding how one government created an administration and an environment that supported innovation, through both voluntary and deterministic factors.

Is Innovation a Question of Will or Circumstance? will interest those concerned with reorganizing government to suit new environments, and improving public administration. It will be of special interest to public servants and private sector employees initiating and implementing innovation and working with bureaucracies to bring about change. As government moves out of retrenchment into a more active yet economical mode, the experience of a frugal innovator acquires distinct interest. Because it explores these ideas through an analytic framework Is Innovation a Question of Will or Circumstance? will also be useful in courses on innovation, political science and public administration and will help point public servants to the most important areas. Governments introducing major change agendas and wanting to be innovative might do well to review Saskatchewan's experience.

Eleanor D. Glor
February 28, 2000


1. Innovation "is the conception and implementation of significant new services, ideas or ways of doing things as government policy in order to improve or reform them." Glor, 1997, p.4

2. Administration refers to the support functions of the government, that make the substantive work possible, e.g. human resources, assets management, finance, administration, planning, auditing.

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Last updated: December 5 2013