Government sustainability: it's not easy being green

Alarm was my outstanding emotion after hearing about the public sector’s sustainability struggles at last year's Government Transformation Summit. Delegates’ collective anxiety signals the need for swift and significant change.

That’s not to say participants at the discussion table were either inert or wholly uninformed when it comes to seeking or even implementing solutions. It’s more a case of any ‘bottom-up’ activity needing to be supported with ‘top-down’ direction.

In some ways, our experiences of other events prepared us for the level of delegate uncertainty around successful approaches to sustainability. Following sessions in London and Edinburgh we were deluged with requests for information and support about aspects we discussed, such as measuring and managing carbon.

The conversations we had at Government Transformation Summit affirmed our feeling that action must be taken by the people choosing to make changes, who are then in charge of implementing them; but also the requirement for greater clarity and policy at a leadership level.

Priorities are part of the problem. We live in a challenging era for the public purse, and as a consequence organisations are juggling a wide range of considerations: managing squeezed budgets, building skills, hybrid working models, and a host of other initiatives. It’s evident that many stakeholders don’t know exactly where to focus, or why.

Green approaches to sustainability

Some actions are being taken by individuals and the organisations they work for.

These might include approaches such as green procurements in IPO, for instance. But nobody at the table was able to highlight an integrated, measurable and well-communicated plan for net zero within their organisations.

For sure, there is an urgency across the public sector to tackle green issues head-on, but conflicting priorities and a lack of common approaches is harming efforts.

It’s hard to make the right, sustainable decision - and the perception that such decisions can be costly is probably true at present, regardless of the potential rewards. Add in the aforementioned lack of senior-level mandate, and departments are simply making changes in response to a few directives and best endeavours.

All of these shortcomings mean initiatives are infrequently joined up and miss their target of economies of scale and greater impact.

Share and share alike for success

Kin+Carta is now a certified B Corp, government sustainability expert and a sponsor of the Civil Service Environment Network. Drawing on this experience and capability we did our best to answer sustainability questions at the table.

There are many - often relatively simple - actions departments can take that will help government build a head of steam in this area:

  • Join the Civil Service Environment Network - to learn, get support and potentially advocate for more meaningful change

  • Continue to make changes as individuals - but be sure to share them with others as much as possible, to increase the reach of the ideas

  • Measure the impact of activities and actions as much as possible - then use these outputs to propose new decisions and change; for example, banning early face-to-face meetings to allow more sustainable commutes (and arrive at a more pleasant hour to wake up!)

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