By CivilServiceWorld

09 Feb 2010

The latest figures show that government bodies are making patchy progress towards their 2010-11 targets for sustainable operations. Ruth Keeling examines both what’s helping them improve, and what’s holding them back.

There is now just one year until the government reaches one of the major deadlines in its targets on the sustainable use of energy and water, travel and waste disposal on its own estate. The latest data, published in December and verified by the Sustainable Development Commission, shows that it has maintained its four-out-of-five star rating, with a slight overall increase in its performance.

But that’s a generalised, pan-government score: at a finer grain the picture is mixed, with elements of very good practice, some bad news, and even some ugly truths about how departments are calculating their performance. Progress across government against the individual thematic targets is also varied – so while government is almost on track on its target to reduce carbon emissions from offices, and set to exceed its vehicle emissions target, performance remains poor on a number of mandatory requirements.

These ‘mandated mechanisms’ include making sustainability assessments of new, refurbished and relocated buildings; the introduction of Environmental Management Systems (EMS) to plan and carry out sustainability work; and the adoption of Carbon Trust standards. Various departments’ failures to fulfil these requirements mean the SDC has awarded the government only two stars for the mandated mechanisms – no change since last year, but down from three stars in 2007.

This last piece of news is a cause of dismay for William Jordan, the government’s chief sustainability officer. “It is disappointing, but we are working hard to correct this,” he says. Part of the problem, says Fiona Ross, director of the Centre of Expertise in Sustainable Procurement (CESP), is a lack of awareness about which buildings need to be environmentally assessed – people don’t realise that relocations should be assessed as well as new and refurbished buildings, for example. Education is the key, says Ross, and CESP has already started a series of communication activities with practitioners. Jordan says he expects to see results next year.

On the flip side, Ross and Jordan both say they are very pleased with the Carbon Disclosure Programme, in which suppliers to 14 departments have calculated and made known their carbon emissions. Ross describes the work as a world first, which has elicited the interest of the US government. Rebecca Willis, vice-chairman of the SDC, has also welcomed this work. “One encouraging thing we’re seeing is government developing a vision for sustainable procurement, asking how government can make a difference through what it buys,” she says. “It’s about setting your goal and working out how to get there, rather than making incremental improvements.”

What’s in; what’s out

One of the biggest complaints that the SDC made following its analysis of the 2008-09 figures concerns the Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) decision to remove the Royal Parks from its waste and recycling figures, past and present. As a department spokesman explains, they and CESP “agreed that the Royal Parks cannot be held accountable for the amount of waste left in their parks by the public”.

The SDC is very unhappy with this decision. “It is completely against the spirit of things,” says Willis. “They should do some public engagement and education, put some recycling bins in. There is a lot of opportunity there and what they’ve actually chosen to do is put it in the ‘too difficult’ box.” Fiona Ross, at CESP, says she and her team are working with DCMS, and SDC, to establish the right baseline and return Royal Parks to the fold.

Similarly, the Treasury has dropped the Royal Mint from its water and waste targets, due to the sheer volume of raw material needed in the money-making process. The problem here is that departments must meet the targets, but the inclusion of agencies is discretionary. Commentators such as the SDC have long demanded the mandatory inclusion of non-departmental public bodies – perhaps on their own account, as some dwarf their parent departments.

At the other end of the spectrum, there are tiny departments whose inclusion in the targets seems nonsensical. The Export Credit Guarantee Department (ECGD), for example, employs 210 people and rents a couple of floors in a private sector building occupied largely by non-government organisations.

The majority of the performance data relating to its office is arrived at by taking a simple floorspace percentage of the entire building’s overall performance. As a result, the department has very little influence over the sustainability of its estate beyond encouraging staff to switch off computers and recycle paper.

William Jordan, the government’s sustainability chief, says this “goes to the heart of who should be in and who should be out” of the figures. “There are some bodies that are very small and have only a minimal contribution to the data.”

The new generation of targets – expected to be published in the next few months – should provide much more clarity on this issue and add more organisations to the mandated list, he says. In the meantime, CESP is also improving data quality so that it can introduce independent verification of figures at the end of this year.

The target regime

These new targets are currently being negotiated with departments. Due to be published – according to the latest prediction – by March, they’ve come in response to long-standing calls for a review. The SDC has repeatedly pointed out that departments can hit some targets even when their performance worsens, and it believes that other targets – such as that for vehicle emissions – are too narrow (see 'Travel', below).

Beyond Jordan’s statement that there will be more clarity over which organisations are being assessed, little is known about the new targets. The SDC’s Willis says that ideally they will “reflect what the government is asking the country as a whole, and the individual, to do”; that is, to match the G8 commitment to cut CO2 emissions by 80 per cent by 2050.

Willis believes that decisions like dropping the Royal Parks from the figures are made because departments prioritise hitting the targets, rather than improving sustainability; the system can create perverse incentives. “The challenge for us is to make sure those targets align with what needs to be done in the real world,” she says.

Still, some departments and CESP do find the time for activities which are outside the target regime. The Carbon Disclosure Programme (CDP) with suppliers is an example of this – and William Jordan says it is unlikely to be included in the new system, either.

Sharing ideas

One of the key developments in recent years has been the emphasis on sharing best practice: the government signalled this 18 months ago by creating CESP, and Jordan says a cross-departmental initiative like the CDP would have struggled to do as well without the centre’s staff pushing the agenda.

The same applies within departments – particularly large ones like the Ministry of Defence (MoD), which has the biggest estate in Whitehall: 240,000 hectares of land, 40,000 buildings, and a £300m annual energy bill. As a result, its efforts have a large impact on whether the government meets its overall sustainability targets – it was responsible for nine-tenths of total pan-government reduction in carbon emissions from offices.

Since 2008 the MoD has started to coordinate its efforts, with the creation of Defence Estates’ Central Programme Office for Energy. Its head, Matt Foley, says that previously “there had been quite a disjointed approach”, with the three forces failing to share best practice. His strategy has been to improve the quality of information that the MoD has about its estate: “if you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it”, he says.

The introduction of smart meters on 90 per cent of the estate will provide data for an Environmental Management System (EMS), set to go live next year, which will identify where work will have the biggest impact. He also intends to introduce more robust energy requirements for Defence Estate’s contractors from 2012 onwards. Foley says there is fantastic work being carried out by committed staff in parts of the estate, “but that should be shared across the estate rather than bubbling up in pockets”.

Foley is also keen to share the MoD’s experience with other Whitehall departments and, last week, he travelled from Sutton Coldfield to CESP in London to talk to colleagues about his department’s experience with smart metering. “A number of departments are setting up smart metering; rather than them go through the pain, the learning curve that we went through, they can talk to us,” he says. “Departments are at different stages; the key now is to work together.”

The sharing of ideas is not all a one-way street. The MoD is about to hold sustainability awards as a way to celebrate the work of staff and inspire others; it’s an idea that Foley took from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. CESP director Fiona Ross, appointed when the government revamped its central oversight of the sustainability effort, says this engagement and cooperation has been one of the great things she has seen in her 18 months in the role.

“I’ve seen so much effort from the departments. The practitioners’ forum has grown from 20 to 100 people, and we are getting much more interest than before,” she says. “Departments may be saying they’re struggling with this or that, but I’d rather have those conversations than not."

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