The Innovation Journal: The Public Sector Innovation Journal, 5(2), 2000, article 1e6.


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

Previous: Section 2 Top: Table of Contents Next: Chapter 6

Chapter 6:

Managing Innovation in a Line Department:

Saskatchewan Transportation, 1971-1981


Eiling Kramer and Tom Gentles


The purpose of this chapter is to document the innovative nature of the Department of Highways and Transportation's programs from 1971 to 1981. The fundamental core of management in those years was to identify and produce results not indulge in processes. All programs and activities had to have a specified purpose. And the purpose was, insofar as possible, to be in hard terms. Or when it was not possible to measure in hard terms then the activity was to be measurable subjectively. So even a report had to set out what was intended. Without that identified intention how can one evaluate the results?

The decade 1971-81 was one of innovation for Saskatchewan Transportation due to the coming together of several conditions. The general policies of the Government supported change: innovative programs that we proposed were not automatically approved by the Budget Bureau or Treasury Board, but neither were they rejected out of hand. There was often considerable controversy over the potential value of the programs. This meant that the usefulness of the programs had to be carefully developed, weighed and presented to stand any chance of final acceptance. This need to provide careful justification aided the innovation process to a certain extent.

Within the Department, there was a large contingent of staff who had many years of experience, who were particularly well trained in the technical aspects of the work, and who were ready and willing to respond to the challenge. Most of the ideas for changes came from this group. The successful implementation of the programs was due entirely to their initiative and enthusiasm.

The conditions for change did not include an abundance of funding. There was very little extra real funding during the decade: the real budget level was almost exactly the same in 1981 as it was in 1971 even though traffic volumes and truck weights increased significantly during the period with resultant increased wear on the road system. Funds for the new programs came from changes in programs, new methods and savings in equipment operations and staffing costs.

Organization for Action

Changes in organization were clearly necessary in Saskatchewan Transportation. There had been no complete review for nearly 10 years, since a Woods, Gordon study of 1963. To gain the benefits of an outside opinion and to take advantage of the wealth of ideas and knowledge from Highways staff, a double-barreled approach was used. R. J. Genereux and Associates was selected to provide outside opinions and guidance. Genereux had been an employee of the Department of Highways before going into private engineering practice.

Several in-house committees were appointed to supplement the work of Genereux, on the subjects of long range planning, personnel policies, public relations, information for management, internal communications, social and environmental concerns, policies for development of the highway industry, and research and development. Thirty-nine departmental staff participated in this committee work. Other departments were invited to participate. The Departments of the Environment, Natural Resources and Municipal Affairs assisted with related aspects of the review.

The Department was reorganized basically as recommended by Genereux, in terms of organization, functions and the responsibility of each of the proposed units. Each of the committees contributed their reports and their recommendations were substantially implemented in the following few years.

Some of Genereux's recommendations were outside the control of the Department and were never realized. Foremost among these was that the Department should be confirmed as the Department of Highways and Transportation and should be assigned overall responsibility for transportation. Although the Department had been officially named the Department of Highways and Transportation as far back as 1934, actual responsibility for transportation had been mostly limited to that of the provincial highway system. Many elements had been allocated to other existing or newly created organizations. The grid road system had been assigned to Municipal Affairs, northern roads to the Department of Northern Saskatchewan, vehicle management and the Vehicles Act to the Highway Traffic Board under the Attorney General, transportation policy to the Transportation Agency under the Department of Agriculture. Consequently with no overall coordination, there were many inconsistencies such as that standards for certain grid roads were higher than the corresponding standards for provincial highways. There was considerable duplication of administration and engineering resources because of this lack of consolidation of transportation management.

Some important recommendations that were implemented in the following years included use of cost effectiveness techniques to assess planning, design, construction and operational programs; expanded research and planning activities; extended use of stage designed pavements to ensure that funds available for roads provided the maximum possible overall service; expanded highway safety programs; use of programs and procedures that would preserve the long-term stability of the highway industry; adoption of policies and procedures to reduce adverse social and environmental effects of highway construction; an increased staff training program; and enhanced public information programs.

Staff Development Policies

Capable, trained and enthusiastic staff are known to be a requirement for any organization that wants to be completely effective. Such a situation does not come about by chance. So a deliberate, planned program was instituted which had the objective of enabling staff to achieve their full potential. The Personnel Committee set up to supplement the Genereux study, chaired by M.. P. Kocur, made recommendations with respect to the need for a work force planning program, training and development of staff, transfers, and the conditions of work for labour service personnel. These specific recommendations were acted on during the following years.

The Minister, (1) with difficult circumstances during those trying years. Knowing how to deal with people may have come from my experience as a farmer, policeman, lumberjack, rancher and auctioneer. If something needs doing, you must find a way to get the job done! E. Kramer set out immediately to get to know the personnel in the Department, scheduled visits to all the head office groups and each highway district, and stopped at every maintenance and construction operation that happened to be on the route he was taking as he drove the province's roads. So during the first few years he had an opportunity to meet nearly all highway employees and believes they felt comfortable talking to him about the work they were doing and the problems they were encountering.

Every effort was made to enable staff to achieve their full potential in whatever position they held. This was accomplished by training personnel in technical aspects of their work, administration and management, and also by encouraging them to participate in the work of provincial, national and international organizations. (2)

Paul Fitzel, Lorne Melquist and Roger Oberg were seconded in 1974 to the Canadian International Development Agency to study the highway department in Swaziland. Even the Deputy Minister was granted a one-year leave of absence in 1977 to participate in an Asian Development Bank highway project in Indonesia. The general management philosophy was to actively search for every opportunity to recognize and thank people for good work. After the mammoth effort to control the Lumsden Flood in 1974, for example, Kramer personally sent out several hundred letters thanking every person individually for their contribution to the success of the operation.

Occupational safety programs received special attention. All staff and their families were encouraged and given the opportunity to take first aid courses. (3) Work crews encountered some difficulty with vehicles speeding by the work operations. Requests to police to control traffic speeds were received sympathetically. However, they pointed out that the Vehicles Act was very vague in respect to driving past workers on the road. Because it was necessary to prove that the driver was traveling at a dangerous speed, it was almost impossible to obtain convictions. One R.C.M.P. Officer, thoroughly familiar with the Vehicles Act, suggested a solution: the highway crews should stake a cow in the ditch where they were working. The Vehicles Act was very definite in respect to the safety of cows, requiring that all vehicles slow down to 15 miles per hour when passing a cow and prosecution for speeding was easy. Although it didn't seem appropriate to stake cows in the ditch beside all work crews, this did encourage staff to promote a revision of the laws for the protection of work crews. This is the origin of the speed limits shown in the orange zones now posted wherever road work is in progress.

Emphasis was given to employment of women in field operations. Also regular opportunities were provided to participants in the University Cooperative Work program and in an international student exchange program (AISEC). Special programs were instituted to encourage handicapped workers to overcome their disabilities and contribute fully to their jobs and to themselves.

Probably the most specific evidence of the results of the program occurred during the strike of 1979. The strike started on 16 November 1979. It is probable the union management expected the condition of roads to suffer and that this would assist in achieving a favourable settlement. Highways management staff had the responsibility of keeping the roads open and free of ice. A program to train management staff in equipment operation was undertaken before the strike took place. A public information program was instituted to alert the traveling public to possible problems. Also special communications and contingency plans were set up. An overriding policy was adopted that good relations with union staff were to be maintained at all times. This meant no confrontation or other situations that might have lasting detrimental effects. The possible effect was noted in the Post Office when a confrontational approach was taken.

Union staff naturally supported the union in the strike. Relations between the union staff and management staff were preserved to the degree that on November 23 highways management staff were specifically rebuked by a senior cabinet minister for being on inappropriately friendly terms with the strikers.

Initial concerns were expressed about highway services being withdrawn from the public. It was soon evident, however, that the contingency plans in place, and round-the-clock work by management staff, were keeping the roads in suitable condition. (4) The condition of the roads during the strike, as measured by days of icing and days blocked, were at least as good as during normal times. The strike ended in early January with no adverse lasting results.

In retrospect it seems possible that the Department was ahead of the times with affirmative action in the 1970s, when most highways departments were not even cognizant of such issues. There is apparently much reluctance throughout Saskatchewan and Canada even today to develop programs to enable people to fulfil their maximum potential.

Communications with the Public

Staff were asked to be aware of all transportation needs in the Province and not just the needs for provincial highways. To achieve this a great deal of communication with the public was needed. So attendance at public meetings was encouraged and even mandated, where staff could explain highway programs and also listen to public complaints and public suggestions for improvements in operations.

To bring the public in on the decision-making process required a comprehensive, open information program so that they would be as knowledgeable as possible about the highway system. This program included such elements as construction signs that gave details on road costs, news releases and radio and television interviews.

To assist with this objective one of the first appointments was that of Martin Semchuk as Public Relations Consultant. (5)

Semchuk set about dealing with several hundred accumulated and unsettled claims from the public. This meant visiting the highway districts to inquire as to the engineering aspects of the claims and then calling on the claimant and endeavouring to negotiate just and proper settlements. During the first few years he disposed of the backlog of criticisms.

Letters of complaint from the public were monitored over the entire period and efforts were made to reduce the number. Complaints ranged in the order of 30 to 40 per month at the beginning of the period. They gradually declined in number until only two or three per month were being received toward the end of the 70s.

Service to the Public/Community Development

Preserving the viability of prairie farms and urban communities has received a great deal of attention in Saskatchewan. The attention did not always result in effective programs, however, as the population has continued to decline from 1936 up to the present time. Unfortunately, the programs of the Department of Highways and Transportation alone could not turn this around. An effective transportation service could help to preserve the communities that did remain, however. Before 1936 bad roads probably kept people in the farms and villages, but after 1946 people wanted access to the services of the cities. If they could not get them while living rurally then they would be inclined to move to the cities. So a number of programs were instituted to facilitate the provision of services to the prairie communities. These programs were generally not expensive but they did provide an improved level of service to individuals and to small communities of Saskatchewan. Following is a description of some of these programs.

Operation Open Roads was a program to provide a light pavement connection, from the community to the highway system, for hundreds of towns and villages that were not located on a highway. This program provided dust free driving to nearly 25% of Saskatchewan residents, about 240,000 people, and saved at least three cents per car mile. One Rabbit Lake beneficiary reported that he saved about $250 on his forty round trips per year to North Battleford. Operation Main Street provided a paved main street in towns and villages. This modernized hundreds of main streets for urban business convenience. It included communities near the highway system and also those away from it.

The Community Signing Program served road users by advising them of services provided in each community. A single large sign was installed on each side of the community with symbols representing various services such as food, lodging, gas and so on. These signs informed the public and provided businesses with an advertising outlet. By consolidating the information, the rights of road users to highways uncluttered with advertising signs was also preserved. This program has been copied by several other highway jurisdictions. Unfortunately, in Saskatchewan, private advertising signs have recently been permitted. The result is that a multitude of advertising signs are now strung out along highways near many communities.

Other programs included transportation of the handicapped, a hot line for winter road information, map boards in the north, assistance to municipalities for gravel investigation and the right of municipalities to use department-owned gravel reserves.

Each winter, roads were opened to northern communities including Uranium City. That road was a particular challenge as it meant traversing several hundred miles of forest, marsh, rivers and lakes. Lake Athabasca was the main challenge and danger. Despite loss of some equipment, the work was performed year after year without a fatality to department staff. (6)

On a different level, many highway section headquarters were developed in the smaller towns and villages in Saskatchewan. To the maximum extent possible local people were hired to fill positions on the highway crews stationed at those decentralized depots. More than half the department's employees were permanently stationed in small towns and villages, as a result. This program was a deliberate effort to benefit the economy of rural centres through local employment.

In winter in Saskatchewan the soils, including highways, freeze down to a depth of almost two metres, so damage on roads, due to trucks, is virtually nil. However weight limits for trucks were always kept the same in winter as in summer. This was changed. Extra weights were allowed as soon as the roads froze. Transportation costs were significantly reduced, particularly for farmers involved in hauling grain to elevators.

Environmental and Heritage Protection

The Department took the lead in environmental protection when the situation warranted. Such an occasion was construction of Number 4 Highway where it crossed the site of Telegraph Flats, the original site of the Town of Battleford. Funds were provided to Museum of Natural History staff to undertake the necessary investigation. This resulted in the discovery of the cellar of the original Hudson's Bay Store that the Indians had burned. Recovery from the cellar included 27 sickles, 15 scythes, 11 hand saws and large quantities of nails, glass and china from the 1880s.

An old nineteenth century pile trestle bridge across the Battle River, in that same area, had been used to carry trains traveling between Biggar and Battleford. It had been slated for destruction. However it has been preserved in response to Department of Highways initiatives.

One and a half sections of natural trees, grass lands and prehistoric Indian camp sites north of White City had been held by the Department as a gravel reserve. It had not been managed properly and so was used as a local dump area and was badly over-grazed by locally owned cattle. Parts of it were being disposed of for uses that would have destroyed its value as a natural area. The area was turned over to the Department of Natural Resources on the condition that it be converted into a nature preserve. This has been done; the area is now known as the White Butte Recreation area. It is a popular spot for hundreds of families who use it for cross country skiing(currently 700 people each week) and other recreational activities. Schools use it for nature studies.

Another program cleaned up old gravel pits that had been left in appalling condition over the previous fifty years. Specifications were developed for working new gravel pits to make certain that the situation was not repeated.

Recognition of historical and cultural values was supported wherever possible. One program in this regard was to name certain highways. This program included naming 55 Highway the Kelsey Trail, number 13 Highway the Redcoat Trail and Highway 955 from La Loche to Cluff Lake the Semchuk Trail.

Relations with Suppliers: Contractors and Equipment Suppliers

Strengthening the road building industry received priority consideration in many ways. The road building contractors of Saskatchewan have historically played a vital role in providing for the efficient grading, graveling and paving of the Saskatchewan road network. These contracting units were almost all small operations where the owners were also the managers. This meant contractors who knew their business and knew what Saskatchewan needed in the way of roads. It also meant considerable competition for road projects. This has kept costs down to rock bottom at all times. Under these circumstances there was always a danger that the industry could be damaged by such factors as a run of bad weather or a sporadic flow of contracts that bankrupted contractors. This could eliminate them forever from future bidding competition. As a result, it was in the interests of Saskatchewan that the contracting industry remain healthy.

The Minister instituted regular breakfast meetings with the contractors. At these meetings the contractors and the senior department staff discussed problems frankly. Many ideas advanced at these meetings were adopted as standard policies and procedures. One perennial problem had been that of contractors being forced to continue work on a project even though weather conditions made it impossible to perform productive work. Arrangements could often be made to allow the contractor to work elsewhere until weather conditions improved. The meetings also brought to light the fact that money owed to contractors was not being paid because of additional verifications that were needed. Where the contractor was not responsible, a system of paying interest on money owed was developed.

A very useful policy set by the government at one stage was that supplier invoices should be paid within a reasonable amount of time. A monthly information system was put in place by the government to show, for each provincial department, the actual number and percentage of invoices paid within the specified period. The Highways Department consistently met the policy although thousands of invoices were involved and most of them had to be sent to the districts and smaller management units all over the province for appropriate certifications. This was very important as far as highway suppliers were concerned, and demonstrated the usefulness of having a visible management information system.

The department had historically preserved a government-owned road building capability. These "government outfits" were commonly used for special types of work where uniformity and scheduling were particularly important and for particularly difficult situations. This work included construction of the many wooden bridges required for provincial highways and municipal roads. Work was streamlined so that a bridge crew could move in and build a bridge in three days. The lightly paved "oil treated" roads were also mostly done by these government crews. The work was organized so that production of a mile of surfacing a day was not unusual. One of the first appointments was that of Dennis Belliveau as Manager of the entire fleet of government equipment used for road and bridge building.

Construction of Number 47 Highway north of Estevan is an example of difficult work conditions. This road was built during an especially wet year and through a particularly wet area of the Province. Progress was slow due to the very wet soils encountered. One of the public relations difficulties encountered was that the reason for slow production was always assumed to be because these were government crews. Here the Department was able to show the real problem by opening up part of the work to private tender. The bids came in greatly in excess of the costs of the work by the government crew.

It is worthy of note that the contractors appointed both the Minister and Dennis Belliveau to the Board of Directors of the Saskatchewan Road Builders Association after our retirement from the Department.

Special Programs

In the interest of strengthening local communities some additional programs were instituted. One of the main communication problems in Saskatchewan had always been the river crossings. A very efficient ferry service had always been in place, but these could not provide service in the spring and fall and during dry periods in the summers. Consequently a bridge construction program was implemented to enable year-round transportation at the most critical locations. This included new bridge construction at Maidstone, Maymont, Gronlid, Lloydminster and Buffalo Narrows.

The construction of the Buffalo Narrows bridge was particularly challenging because the depth of water prohibited conventional construction. Engineers constructed the bridge on land; it was then winched out over the river. A barge, which had been partially filled with water so that it was almost at water level, was then floated under the bridge. The water was pumped out of the barge to lift it and the bridge. The barge was towed to the bridge site and positioned so that the bridge was over the preconstructed abutments. The water was then pumped into the barge again so that the bridge was lowered gently onto the abutments and the barge could be towed away.

As well as assisting local communities with construction and maintenance of local airstrips, the department undertook to provide adequate airports at regional centres. This included airports at La Ronge, Meadow Lake, Hudson Bay, Prince Albert (airport extension), Buffalo Narrows and Lloydminster (cost-shared with Alberta and the federal government). This program greatly facilitated the Saskatchewan Air Ambulance Service.

The construction of thousands of kilometres of very thin pavements had always been a challenge. The theoretical life of such roads was only a few months. With very careful construction and regular maintenance, however, these roads could be made to last for six to twelve years depending on traffic, soil and moisture conditions. Without that program there would still be thousands of kilometres of gravel roads with consequent dusty and muddy conditions. The success of the program depended on considerable research and testing of alternative methods of construction. One of the construction methods developed was to use ground-up car and truck tires mixed with asphalt. The rubber made the asphalt mix more flexible so that the pavement could deflect under vehicle loads without breaking up to the same degree as ordinary asphalt mixes. The system also had the advantage of using materials that were going to waste and were causing an environmental hazard in some places.

Planning and Budgeting

Particularly since the early 1960s the governments of the USA, Canada and various provinces had tried to introduce program budgeting, the system of clearly defining the cost and the output of all programs so that the value could be judged and a decision made as to whether the program should be increased, decreased or dropped altogether. To this day governments have had limited success, as the reports of government auditors regularly point out.

The Department of Highways and Transportation was the first Saskatchewan department to introduce program budgeting. The components of every program including the construction, maintenance, bridge and other delivery programs were assessed in order to define what was actually being produced for the money allocated. This also applied to the management programs. Every senior manager identified the things he expected to accomplish during the coming year and the funds required. Four meetings each year were held with each senior manager at which progress was discussed and any required changes in direction approved. There were many interesting outcomes from this program. Some are as follows.

One of the problems of providing road service in Saskatchewan has always been the very great length of roads needed to serve the sparse and scattered population of the province. Engineering and management techniques were available to enable highway managers to provide the best possible service with limited funds. However there were problems in doing this. There had been a feeling among some in government that "if you're going to do something, do it right." Applied to road building this meant that roads should be paved to last. That is quite easy to do as far as the engineering is concerned, but such roads cost three or four times as much as lightly built roads even considering the extra cost of maintenance required for the lightly built road. With limited funds many roads would not get improved at all. The most cost effective solution for a large system is to spread the available funds over the system using light pavements. This is so that all road users can gain the advantage of driving on paved roads although the roads may not be first class.

Roads need to be maintained, however. It was a constant struggle to get the required funds in the maintenance budget, yet such funds were crucial to the strategy. The construction and maintenance programs were not considered together by the government or Budget Bureau staff, although they were very clearly related and obviously had the same objective. Also the public had to be convinced: when they saw a new road requiring maintenance within a year or so they tended to criticize the engineering. True engineering is not just building a road that will last, however. That is easy to do. The challenge is to build a road that provides a suitable level of service, at least cost, when both the construction and the maintenance costs are considered.

The road maintenance program was divided into the categories of surface patching, ice control, snow control, traffic signs, paint striping, mowing and administration. Each of these sub-programs were tested to determine what could be achieved at different budget levels. The mowing program for example was tested at reduced levels. Some expected that there would be many complaints due to the ragged appearance of roadsides caused by uncontrolled growth of vegetation. In fact very few people noticed. About the only letters received came from conservation minded individuals commending the Department for the improved habitat for birds. Consequently, the mowing program was reduced to provide only for weed control, sight distance at intersections and snow control in winter.

The snow clearance program was measured by the hours or days it would take to restore the service after an icing storm or a snow storm. Budget cuts simply meant an increase in the time to restoration of service, so the costs of any specified level of service could be determined.

This should have made the government funding decisions easier. It is probable that it did not, however, at least at the beginning. Budget Bureau officers would regularly open budget discussions with the question "What is the least amount of money you can get by on next year?". The answer "Zero dollars! But of course the level of service will fall to zero" was not the answer wanted. After a few years the question was no longer asked and the level of service was used to some extent as a basis for making budget decisions. When the government later attempted to introduce the PMIS program budgeting system the Department was allowed to continue the use of its own system.

Although actual expenditures on transportation did increase during this period from 60 million to 160 million dollars as shown in Figure 1, any real increase was lost due to inflation.

Figure 1: Saskatchewan Highway Expenditures, 1960-96

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Achieving efficiency is the process of trying to get the very most in the way of public service from the funds allocated for a particular program. This can be done by using appropriate equipment, suitable materials and best work processes. Also effective management programs such as management information systems, staff development and research play an important role. Each management support program was assessed to make certain it was as effective as possible at the time. This made possible the reduction of the cost of management from 9% of the total program to 6.5%.

During budget fine tuning it was often decreed that the budget should be reduced by some percentage, accompanied by the edict "But don't reduce the level of service-just do things a bit more efficiently." Although the department's pro-active management put it at a disadvantage in face of these across-the-board cuts, the program budgeting system effectively eliminated that fallacy. The department was able to show that measures to achieve efficiency and effectiveness were always in use to the maximum extent possible. Budget cuts could be assessed in terms of reduced service.

A management information system was instituted so that progress on all programs was monitored regularly. Effective management requires development of specified objectives or targets and a program to measure and report on results at regular intervals. Without these two matching components effective management of any program or system is a myth. The British Government has now set out a Citizen's Charter (July 1991) that includes these two aspects of management to some degree. "Targets should be published, together with full and audited information about the results achieved." It's possible that the Department of Highways and Transportation was ahead of the times in this respect as well as some others.

Intergovernmental Coordination

An early action was to catalogue the federal government programs available for road improvement in Canada. There were many programs but Saskatchewan was not participating in any of them. Consequently, as far as federal assistance for roads was concerned Saskatchewan was receiving less than any other province. Out of $484 million spent on roads by the Federal Government only $2 million was spent in Saskatchewan. (7) A case was made for federal government contributions to roads in Saskatchewan under the various programs. Federal government contributions increased to $11 million dollars per year over the next few years.

In 1973 Minister Kramer proposed a Western Highway Ministers conference to discuss common problems and to pool the resources of various studies and experiments going on in the individual provinces. It was agreed that this was a good idea and the first Western Highway Ministers Conference was held in North Battleford in 1973. The experiment caught on and each year after that until 1981 each province in turn was host to a conference that turned out to be of great value to all.

Through these meetings it was possible to develop a common western approach to many highway problems. One matter of concern to all the Western Provinces was the Yellowhead Highway. It was the obvious route for a second Trans Canada Highway. However various provinces had different standards and different route numbers-through these meetings it was possible to get agreement on standards for the highway. Highway numbers were changed so that the Yellowhead Highway is now number 16 all the way through Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Alberta and British Columbia. This common approach strengthened the position of the provinces in negotiations with the federal government for assistance for a second Trans Canada. Although it was possible to obtain sporadic assistance for selected sections of the road the Ministers were unsuccessful in getting an agreement for assistance on the entire road as a second Trans Canada.

The Traffic Safety Initiatives

A high level traffic safety division was established in the department early on. Al Popoff, formerly of the City of Saskatoon's Engineering Department, was appointed to head the unit. This unit was instrumental in the success of the seat belt program across North America and also of other traffic safety initiatives.

The stage had been set for improvements in traffic safety. A committee of the legislature chaired by Arthur Thibeault of Kinistino Constituency studied the problem and submitted a comprehensive set of recommendations for improved highway safety. The report was adopted by the Legislature. Minister Kramer was appointed by the Premier to chair a ministerial committee charged with carrying out the recommendations in the report.

One of the most far-reaching recommendations in the report, and perhaps the most sensitive to implement, was to legislate the mandatory use of seat belts. At that time only Ontario had a seatbelt law in place and it was not being enforced very thoroughly. Only one obscure county in the entire United States had a seat belt law. There was opposition to compulsory use of seat belts from a vocal group on the basis that it infringed on personal rights. This was despite laws already in place in many jurisdictions requiring use of helmets by motorcycle riders.

Certain things were known about the use of seatbelts; these facts served as a foundation for the Saskatchewan program: First, seat belts saved lives and reduced injuries. The degree of reduction in severity of accidents surprised even the advocates of seatbelts. This evidence came from countries that had already implemented and enforced seat belt laws, Australia being a prime example. Research evidence from crash tests also showed the great potential of seat belts if only people would use them. Second, no amount of publicity or proof would induce the average person to use seat belts. A lifetime habit of not using seatbelts was just not going to be overcome in any reasonable period by publicity alone. The evidence for this came from several countries. England in particular had implemented intensive campaigns to educate the public on the benefits of seatbelts. Seatbelt use never exceeded 20%. And even that fell right back when the campaign eased off. Third, people would use seat belts if there was a law in place requiring the use of seatbelts and if governments and the police seemed to believe in them to the extent of enforcing the law. People are law abiding and do want to do the right thing. Again the evidence came from several countries including England and Australia. Fourth, the group in Saskatchewan who were considered to be most open-minded and receptive were the high school students.

Consequently a public information program that included T.V. demonstrations was mounted. A group of volunteer speakers covered the high schools of the province showing slides and demonstrating the effectiveness of seatbelts. An exhibit was shown at many public events such as fairs to demonstrate the actual effects of using seatbelts. This included the "Convincer" that enabled people to safely experience the effects of a slow speed collision. Highway signs were installed and bumper stickers were issued to encourage use of belts.

The result of this campaign was that seat belt use went up from 10% to 20% and held constant while the campaign was being conducted. This was almost exactly what had been predicted. But another expected result came into play: The general public, possibly influenced by the high school students, came to favour the use of belts although they would not use them. This change in attitude set the stage, and in 1978 the government passed a seat belt law with little opposition. With nominal enforcement seat belt use immediately went up to 70% and now is in the 90-95% range in Saskatchewan.

From Saskatchewan and Ontario, seat belt laws have spread across Canada and have overwhelmed that bastion of personal freedom, the United States. Signs there don't say "please use your seat belts." They simply say "Buckle up-it's the law." The group of advocates, and the general public, in Saskatchewan can take credit for the extent of seat belt use and the thousands of lives that have been saved through this program.

Minister Kramer personally advocated a "Seat Belt Survivors Club." Anyone who had been saved from death or serious injury by using seatbelts could join. At no cost of course. In the next few years hundreds of applications arrived in the minister's office. Some were thankful descriptions of events, such as the young woman who was involved in a high speed roll-over accident. She stated that when the vehicle came a stop she was still holding her baby safely in her arms. Some were quite sad such as the woman who wrote of her collision accident. Her seat belt saved her from injury, but she had not insisted that her young son beside her wear his belt and he was killed in the collision. By 1980 there were almost 2000 members of the club. Minister Kramer personally signed each of the membership certificates and letters that went out to every applicant. The Seat Belt Survivors Club idea was picked up and implemented by a number of agencies.

Many other programs were developed and some existing programs were strengthened because of the implementation of the Thibeault Report. The results were evident in accident statistics as a decreasing rate was apparent by 1975 and this continued throughout the decade. Two to three hundred lives had likely been saved and 12,000 injuries prevented by 1980. The reduction in severity of injuries is impossible to estimate.

The Innovation Process

Saskatchewan Highways created and managed an innovative department and set the stage for implementation of a substantial number of innovations. Highlights of this process included active, people-oriented management, management by results and a focus on accountability. The Department emphasized service delivery by listening to staff, suppliers and the public. It developed community and horizontal concerns like the environment and heritage issues. It was responsive and improved its operations through research-based increases in efficiency, with an emphasis on prevention. Naming initiatives helped to communicate them more effectively to the public and reflected a concern with communication.


The 1970s were a time of creative management and innovative programming. Changes in methods and policies always seem to generate some caution on the part of government bodies that have been formed to make certain that line departments work efficiently and have effective programs. During this period 27 government bodies had some control over the programs and policies of the Department of Highways. At various times these bodies had to co-operate for programs to be implemented and managed effectively. Inevitably, this led to debates when Highways had a firm position on a particular policy. A great deal was accomplished during the decade under review, however.

These 27 bodies had to be persuaded if programs were to be implemented and managed effectively; this sometimes required firm positions that were occasionally not well received. It was never an assumption that the Department knew what it was doing and could manage its programs effectively without interference. This lead to some difficulties particularly with the Budget Bureau staff. On one occasion a senior departmental official was accused of intimidating a Budget Bureau officer. That Budget Bureau officer had served in the British Army and had participated in the training of Idi Amin. The charge could only be considered ludicrous. It did result in the need for several meetings before the matter was clarified, however.

On another occasion the Department was accused of "wheeling and dealing" to get budget levels approved and of not providing enough information to support budget requests. A request for examples produced not a single one. The basic feeling was there, however, that the Department was up to no good despite the evidence to the contrary. So considerable time and energy was required to prepare the ground for change and to steer changes through the necessary processes. Even the communications set up with the contracting industry were suspect and on one occasion departmental staff were warned not to listen to the contractors. The Department did receive permission once, to present the facts in respect to highway budgets to the Government MLA's. Such a presentation was never allowed again.

The conclusion must be that the public appreciated the programs and the quality and effectiveness of the management during that period. This was not recognized within the government, however. Support and encouragement from other government bodies is crucial in the long run. It was not forthcoming.

Selecting good people, delegating responsibility and rewarding excellence seemed to us the only way to build a department that would function in the public interest. Management by results was the guideline. This sparked the imagination and improved the morale of the entire Department. The rule of errors was used as a basic principle. This rule is that it doesn't matter how many errors a person makes. The only thing that matters is whether the agreed upon results are obtained." The Department's record of accomplishments (Appendix A) lists more than 100 initiatives carried out from 1972-1981, bearing witness to a great deal of enthusiasm throughout the Department.

We believe the highlight of the many programs was the Safety Program. The introduction of compulsory seat belts was brought in with a minimum of public resistance, although there was opposition in the Cabinet and caucus. Minister Kramer survived many battles in-house to get permission to bring in the legislation. The fact that the Canadian Safety Council estimates that 1000 lives were saved during the first 10 years, must make the initiative known as Safety '77, the major accomplishment of the decade. Meeting the challenge of the Lumsden flood successfully on short notice speaks to the organizational ability of departmental staff. Reducing the cost of administration by approximately 25% was unusual for the 1970s. Employment and promotion of women was ahead of many line departments during that period. Sensitivity towards the environment, recognizing historical names, halting construction and paying for an archeological dig at Battleford, indicated an attitude not usually associated with departments of transportation.

Whatever success was achieved during that interesting decade, credit must be given to the Blakeney style of leadership that allowed departments to use their initiative to provide public service to the extent that limited funds would permit.


Appendix A:

Department of Highways & Transportation:

Accomplishments 1972-1981


  • Safety Award for equipment operators
  • Heavy equipment operator training program that resulted in the employment of women as equipment operators
  • Employed women in categories previously held only by men, i.e. engineering technicians on survey crews and in field laboratories.
  • Introduced management by objectives
  • Introduced an operating program budget system
  • Administration costs reduced from 9% to 6.5% (25% reduction)
  • Developed strategy to increase federal assistance from close to nil to $11 million per year
  • Developed equipment standards for better evaluation and control of equipment requirements
  • Established engineering design capability for lake ice crossings
  • Interest paid to contractors on overdue accounts
  • Technical advances to improve the display of information and reduce the cost of printing the official highway map
  • Technical advances to improve the printing of a construction map to display annual construction activities of the department
  • Expanded community meetings to explain department programs and assess public reaction and acceptance.
  • Developed techniques to display information or equipment of historical significance.
  • Winter road to Uranium City.
  • Administered truck weight system to include Regional Municipality roads
  • Program to make gravel from departmental pits available to Regional Municipalities.
  • Employment in small communities
  • Assistance for gravel testing to rural municipalities.


  • Higher weight system in winter to assist grain trucks, when ground is frozen and overweight is no problem.
  • Developed over-height warning signs (using pulsed infra-red signals)

Surfacing Design and Construction

  • Adopted and improved high float asphalt emulsions and used them for graded aggregate seals.
  • Developed airborne ground resistivity measurement system for locating buried sand and gravel deposits.
  • Adopted soft asphalts as standard re-surfacing binder material.
  • Experimented with full depth soft asphalt mixes
  • Used rubber-asphalt material for crack sealing
  • Used reclaimed rubber for rubber-asphalt seal coats.
  • Recycled old pavements.
  • Thinner pavement structures to accept local failure conditions instead of maintenance free pavements.
  • Evaluated pavement recycling methods.
  • Used light aggregate for seal coat and as an aggregate for a recapped pavement.
  • Used waste Lagoon Ash from coal fired generating plant as a base and sub-base under paved highways.
  • Plant mix of cold mixes into stockpile using drum mixers in lieu of road mixing.
  • Developed a non-destructive system for determining dynamic modulus of pavement and subgrade layers.
  • Replaced asphalt concrete with seal coats.
  • Economical pavement designs (e.g. pavement B)
  • Rubber crumb seal coats
  • Experimented with using sulphur as asphalt extender.
  • Used sulphur in asphaltic paving and maintenance mixes
  • Used reclaimed rubber in asphaltic seal coats.
  • Surface Management System.

Traffic Safety

  • Developed comprehensive traffic accident data collection and analysis system.
  • Safety '77 campaign
  • Safety improvement programs for highways. 1979 level = $1.3 million.
  • Grass Roots public education about seat belts, 1976; 15,000 persons addressed.
  • 1978-79 - Design and implementation of a new provincial traffic accident information system.
  • Signage programs - community, regional park, campgrounds, city maps, northern directories.
  • Hotline for road information.
  • The Seat Belt Survivors Club.
  • Safety engineering studies in a selected number of towns.
  • Reduced rate of accidents on provincial highways system from 24% of total to 12% of total.
  • Adopted in 1977 a comprehensive Urban Traffic Safety Program.

Bridge Design and Construction

  • Bridges at Maidstone, Maymont, Gronlid, Lloydminster and Buffalo Narrows
  • Fabricated towers for erecting steel truss bridges.
  • Towers also used for transporting trusses intact for distances in excess of one hundred miles by securing either end of the truss and then using two fifth wheel equipped tractor-trucks.
  • Towers used as temporary bridges to span crossings up to 35 feet.
  • Fabricated a crane system on a low-bed semi-trailer for setting precast concrete bridge stringers.
  • Fabricated hinged steel bridge structures for crossing pressure ridges on Lake Athabasca.
  • Fabricated an automatic cutting torch holder for cutting out damaged areas of steel girders after being struck by over-height loads.
  • Use of high density, low slump concrete for thin bonded overlays on bridge decks.


  • Constructed new central testing lab.
  • Developed television guidance system for traffic striping premarker.
  • Developed advance warning sign for protection of over- passes from collisions by over-height vehicles.
  • Designed and built a pavement test track.
  • Developed and improved drum-mixers and adopted them for hot mix paving and maintenance stockpiling.
  • Introduced the use of high speed pavement marker.

Air Transportation

  • In 1974 the department completed a major revision of The Airport Assistance Program to improve the level of assistance of Municipal and private airports.

Subgrade Design and Construction

  • Use of portable nuclear gauges as standard compaction control test method.
  • Used Fly-ash cement-sand mixtures for pressure grouting cavities around culverts.
  • Developed use of lime to improve qualities of highly plastic clays.


1. For my own part, I think that the desire to innovate came from my background as a product of the Dirty '30s on the farm, when I learned to "make do." There was a day to day challenge to cope

2. For example, Merv Clark was promoted from the position of Pavement Engineer to that of District Engineer, Swift Current. He was encouraged to continue his participation with Canadian and American pavement research organizations. This led to his appointment as the Canadian representative on a pavement research committee of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development. His fellow participants still remember his work there.

3. This was put to good use many times such as when Graham Tuer encountered a car burning beside the road with the driver trapped inside. Because of his training he was able to control the fire long enough to rescue and thus save the life of the driver.

4. I was concerned that union management had been less than honest with the union membership. Christmas was on the way. Good people were out on the picket line without pay. At one stage I rose in the Legislature to report on how the Department of Highways was coping with the situation. I referred to Larry Brown, the executive secretary of the union, as "the Grinch who stole Christmas." This was a rather delicate statement to make. However it is probable that even some union members supported the remark. Reaction was very favourable and is evidence that unorthodox tactics can serve a good purpose. E. Kramer

5. Semchuk had a reputation as a sincere, honest and dedicated person who knew the province thoroughly and was respected by all who knew him. He had been an MLA from the Meadow Lake Constituency, and was known for his feat in taking a cat train of supplies from Meadow Lake across country to Uranium City during several winters in the late 1940s. Semchuk was particularly proficient in managing negotiations and astute in making suggestions for needed programs.

6. A close call occurred in one case when a grader was operating on Lake Athabasca. The ice thickness had been checked and was OK, but suddenly the ice broke and the grader went to the bottom. Equipment was operated without doors so that drivers could quickly evacuate if necessary. However, the accident happened so quickly that the driver had no time to get out and went in with his machine. He came up in the hole the machine had made and was able to get out of the water. At forty below zero his wet clothes turned solid in a few minutes. When some of the crew came by in a pickup a short time later they were unable to bend him to get him into the heated cab. They had to lay him in the back and carry him to the cook car that way. He was thawed out and was back to work a few hours later even though he was offered a few days off to recuperate. The grader was fished out of the water a few days later.

7. Reported by Minister Kramer at a Saskatchewan Tourist Association meeting July 27, 197


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Last updated: December 6 2013