Why digital sustainability is ‘as big and important as cybersecurity’

The role that sustainability plays in legacy transformation is often overlooked. However, its potential to create ultimate cost and energy savings while driving user experience should make it a fixture in government digitalisation plans.  

This is according to Adam Turner, Head of Government and Public Sector Sustainable ICT and Digital, based in the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), who insists digital sustainability is “as big and important as cybersecurity.”

He says it accounts for between 10 and 20% of every decision that's made for new digital attacks across government and yet: “it is still not being treated seriously enough.”

Turner manages the issue across government alongside Chris Howes, Defra’s Chief Digital and Information Officer and Senior Responsible Owner (SRO). He says there are two sides to digital sustainability: reducing the impact of digital estates and leveraging technology to create more sustainable practices. 20200228_162644

According to Turner, neither are fully understood. "There is still limited capability and awareness of the reality of digital sustainability in the public sector," he says.

This something Turner is determined to change. The challenge is in untangling common misconceptions around what digital sustainability really means and how to get there. "The word sustainability is misleading because what this is really about is responsibility and resilience.” 

‘Greener by default’

In recent years ICT and digital services have largely been considered to be getting “greener by default” Turner says. As the public sector has the general move towards digitisation and roll out new technology like the Cloud -  innovations that are perceived to be more energy efficient -  organisations have adopted a mindset whereby “they don’t need to think about digital sustainability.” 

In this instance, the term ‘cloud’ is highly misleading; data is still stored in very physical data centres that use huge amounts of electricity to power. To put this reality in perspective, the global carbon footprint of ICT is between 4% and 10% and greater than that of the aviation industry, with global energy use from ICT projected to grow from 6% to around 25% by 2050.

A report by Defra found that while the industry was reporting an overall decrease in carbon footprint, “the truth behind these figures is that our impact has just been offshored to our suppliers and service providers,” it states. 

The latest Greening Government Commitments agenda focuses on this idea that while technology is often seen as a solution to supporting environmental sustainability, it is also part of the problem.

The agenda prioritises three key areas: the first is working towards meeting net zero emission targets by 2050 or sooner, with suppliers required to commit to the target, the second is to support the circular economy and the third is to meet transparency commitments with supply chain data on carbon and social impacts. 

A lack of transparency

Despite the positive uptake of the Greening Government agenda and the introduction of carbon reporting mechanisms, Turner says the continued consumption of digital services remains problematic.

In particular, issues remain around a lack of transparency from providers in specific areas relating to the services consumed, meaning accurate reporting on energy consumption is still one of the biggest challenges facing the public sector. 

According to Turner: “most, if not all, public sector organisations are not able to provide accurate measurements of their cloud carbon emissions due to a lack of quality data from their suppliers.”

Defra has recently updated its UK Government Carbon Footprint to capture Scope 3 for assets in an effort to address this. This involves measuring carbon emissions that occur across a company’s entire value chain - something Turner says is “still largely out of reach” for many public sector organisations due to complications in calculating the full scope of emissions.  

Cross-government thinking

As awareness grows, there is an opportunity for more cross-government thinking around digital sustainability. 

Turner leads the Sustainable Technology Advice and Reporting (STAR), a network of government departments, agencies and academia groups that work to influence digital transformation and to inform spending and policy decisions across government.

“The goal is to harness the collective buying power of government to influence and change industry,” Turner says. The big achievements here, he adds, have been forcing government technology suppliers to provide cloud-based carbon reporting, as well as the introduction of a sustainability clause in the Technology Code of Practice (TCoP), which allows the Cabinet Office to check the sustainability (Carbon, Cost and Social Impact) requirements of any new project to make sure they are aligned with the Greening Government ICT and Digital Services Strategy. 

Defra has also formed the Government Digital Sustainability Alliance (GDSA), formerly the Defra e-Sustainability Alliance, which was launched at last year’s COP27 to take the issue pan-government. Membership is made up of existing or prospective suppliers to the UK Government with the aim of “breaking down traditional organisational boundaries” to share knowledge, Turner says. 

“It’s about moving from having a group of people who are interested in the topic, to bringing together a community of people - outside of contracts - who are focused on actually delivering outcomes and expanding the collective knowledge around sustainability,” Turner explains. “It helps us get one government view of engagement with the industry.” 

The charter is currently running three working groups - the circular economy, scope three emissions and the ecological impact of technology - with the intention of getting members to share their learnings around these issues across government through the STAR network and the Government CTO Council.

So far there are twelve members, representing a large percentage of tier one and tier two suppliers. Turner adds that there is a recruitment campaign underway to bring more companies onboard, partly through the STAR network and groups like the Circular and Fair IT Pact - an international procurement-led partnership and sub-group of the UN Environment Programme. 

Turner says he remains “very selective” about membership. “There are hundreds of organisations that want to sign, but they have to be able prove that they have something to offer, whether its recommended models of procurement or supply of digital services in the most circular way possible, I want to know what they can bring to the party.”

Prioritising sustainability skills

There is still a shortage of expertise and knowledge on the issue, with sustainability not yet recognised as part of the Digital, Data and Technology skillset. 

Turner is currently pushing for every government department to have a digital sustainability hire but admits “there's still no defined career path for this yet.”

This is someone with the right capabilities who can formulate a strategy around digital sustainability that is specific to the needs and abilities of the organisation, each of which will look very different.

“Unfortunately I see a lot of cases where departments think they understand a topic, they write a policy document that will say they need all of this stuff in order for it to be sustainable, and they end up with something that is more expensive."

Having someone to shape and drive the agenda means new policies are applied “appropriately and proportionately,” Turner says. 

“A lot has changed since I started working on this issue, but there is still work to be done for sustainability to be seen as a fundamental part of government legacy transformation and digitalisation.”

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