20. 03. 2008

Holding government to account

You probably won’t believe it, but our collective hearts sink every time the Sustainable Development Commission has to publish its annual report on the Government’s progress against its own sustainability targets – quite simply because the significance of the Government’s own performance in this area is enormous. Enormous in terms of impact on the private sector, on local authorities, and indeed on private citizens, and if the Government’s performance is rubbish, then the knock-on effects are really bad for sustainable development in general.

And for the last five years, the Government’s performance has been rubbish. Last year, commenting on the 05/06 results, David Miliband (then the Defra Secretary of State) performed the best collective mea culpa on behalf of government as a whole that we’d ever seen. It sounded really impressive – “never again, got to put our hands up on this one” – and so on. Unfortunately, despite the eloquence, nothing changed from that point on.

So this year’s report isn’t much better – as you’ll see if you check out the SDC’s website. Some really good stuff (28% of electricity from renewables, easily meeting the target of !0% by 2008, some rubbish stuff (two-thirds of Departments not on track to reduce emissions of CO2 by 12.5% by 2010), and a lot of what I would describe as just marking time. I find all this so depressing that I now hate having to comment on it. In fact, this year, I opted out of all media work around our report.

But next year (my last as Chairman of the SDC, as I step down in July 2009) is going to be different. Happily, the powers that be in Number 10 and the Cabinet Office have suddenly woken up to the fact that this kind of systematic hypocrisy (lecturing everybody else but barely lifting a finger oneself) just doesn’t make any sense – and is quite seriously damaging for one’s reputation.

The Cabinet Secretary, Sir Gus O’Donnell, has now charged all Permanent Secretaries with “getting it sorted”, and they have been told that performance on both sustainable operations and procurement will be included in their objectives (a recommendation that the SDC first made four years ago). At the same time, the Office of Government Commerce has moved with uncharacteristically speed and purpose to improve the quality of data management, agreed proper Delivery Plans, set up a centre of excellence for sustainable procurement, and bring some serious leadership to bear on this hitherto neglected area of government performance.

Hallelujah!

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20. 03. 2008
Stuart Singleton-White

This Government is in serious trouble. Much of what it has to say, many of the promises it makes, are simply not believed any more. Gordon Brown can not for long be the quiet PM taking his time to act, taking his time to even take a decision. As the SDC report shows the Government performance is, overall, lamentable. Worse than lamentable if you strip out the MoD! It show’s that despite the fine words the actions by this government, both politically and by its senior officials, scream that it is not yet treating climate change and sustainable development as any kind of priority.

Sir Gus O’Donnell’s announcement is to be welcomed, though I look forward to the first permanent secretary losing his job for not taking the issue seriously; then we might begin to see change.

There are three simple things this Government could do now in relation to it own estate. Sort out its buildings and ensure it does not build or refurbish any buildings without the most up to date energy efficiency and low carbon building technologies, sort out its procurement practices so it is stimulating business and industry who are producing and selling products and services which contribute to sustainable development and reduced emissions, and ensure its transport fleet is the most efficient and low emission available. On the latter it should stop listen to the likes of Mr Hutton and Lord Jones and simply say that if British industry can’t deliver we will go to those who can. This would send the strongest single yet that British industry needs to wake up!

But the most important thing it can do is stop making excuses and start taking firm action. I look forward to your increasingly strong criticism of Government as you head into your last year as Chair of the SDC Jonathon.

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