WRITTEN ON November 8th, 2007 BY Ruth Kennedy AND STORED IN Government Procurement, Greener government IT, Transformational Government

Sustainability and the green agenda is an idea whose time has come globally, and it affects every part of the “transformational” agenda and the work of the government technology community – or so the attendees at a recent Ideal Government dinner agreed. The government is committed to it from the PM down, all our organisations are corporately committed to it and we’re all personally committed to it, whether it’s because we’re thinking of our children or because in many cases we’ve been told to be (and we do what we’re told).

The role of public-sector technology in this agenda is core to Cabinet Office’s evolving transformational government programme, to Defra as lead department, to large departments such as MoD (which already has stations going underwater). Local authorities see it as essential for efficiency and central to their duty of care to citizens. OGC leads on procurement and the auditors must assess effective stewardship of public assets.

It’s everybody’s problem and the downside is that therefore it can feel like nobody’s problem.The internal campaigners, formerly viewed with some suspicion, are now mainstream; campaigning organisations enter corporate agreements with global suppliers (cf WWF and HP). The Stern report, we’re told, had the global effect of making this a business issue, not merely a lobbyists’ issue.

There’s an argument that says the main weapon government has is its purchasing. If it sets standards and green criteria, the market will respond (cf ePeat initiative in US). The lead on this clearly lies with OGC, but OGC is not staffed or resourced to make green purchasing happen across the board.

The effect of legislation is not straightforward. The WEE directive put into law the idea that the best way to focus manufacturers on recycling and disposal is to make them take back waste electrical goods. But we hear that one huge IT supplier gets back barely 1000 tonnes of electronic equipment a year across Europe. Even five-year-old PCs have some re-sale value, and may turn up leaking toxic waste in India (as a shipload of ex-DWP machines recently did).

There’s a danger we get stuck on simple small points. Can we have ‘off’ buttons that actually turn our machines off? We have large networks configured so we can’t just turn them off. Sun says the answer is thin clients (to which Microsoft responds: what is the question?). But the cost of recasting a vast network like HMRC on thin clients would be vast; would that really contribute to sustainability?

There is a crucial question that’s perhaps being missed about public-sector lifestyle and working patterns in an e-enabled, carbon-constrained age. Overstaffed and inefficient working practices in inefficient buildings and too much travel are a far larger opportunity than ‘off’ buttons. To give a tiny example, the Cabinet Office, with 2000 staff, printed 35m pages last year – that’s 17,500 sheets per person.

One large telecoms-supplier-which-used-to-be-a-public-body which-shall-remain-nameless saves huge sums and tonnes of carbon with flexible and remote working and virtual meetings. When you have the right evidence, and know you can save £3500 per desk per year, improve productivity 21% and increase retention, it focuses the mind and provides a measurable business incentive for change. The change requires trust in staff and management. It’s a huge cultural shift; one person’s perk is another’s misery. It needs active and skilled management, and has to be introduced via HR, not the IT director.

For the public sector, ownership of the issue and governance are key. But today it takes weeks just to work out which bits of government cover elements of the sustainability agenda. Even then it’s not clear. Meanwhile suppliers are not offering the same services or promises to all departments.

The Cabinet Office project on this under the CIO reports shortly. The CTO Council, led by the big users, has signed up to a sustainable development agenda and meets soon to get serious about the IT carbon footprint. The trade association and a range of NGOs and NDPBs claim to be honing their plans for this agenda.

We need
– cleaner, better policies
– lean government with less travel and fixed office space
– effective standards and whole-lifecycle green criteria for purchasing (including IT)
– evidence about the carbon footprint and polluting effect of public-sector IT
– evidence about best practice in carbon footprint reduction and IT
– recommendations for what the IT community should do, which take into account the respective roles of buyer, seller and user.

Sustainability cannot be addressed in silos. The trio of social/political/economic levers need to be aligned and attacked relentlessly if progress is to be made, and made swiftly. We all see the need to win the race, but the question is who is going to go first?

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