Public sector leadership on sustainability
Peter Madden, chief executive of Forum for the Future, describes how few public sector organisations have fully embraced sustainable development and its potential to create public value.
Public sector organisations are central to the delivery of sustainable development. Every aspect of their role – from education to environmental services, from planning to social care – shapes how people live their lives.
Most public sector organisations in the UK accept the sustainability imperative and over the last two decades have been pursuing a range of policies and strategies to demonstrate their commitment. A few have developed a truly joined-up approach, with policy, strategy, resources and delivery all lined up to achieve sustainable development. But such paragons are rare and patchy approaches are much more common.
A year or so ago, the Welsh Assembly Government asked us: “What would it look like if we were to become the leading public sector organisation on sustainable development?” This should have been easy for us to answer, with 12 years’ experience of working with public sector bodies under our belts, and a whole host of case studies to draw on.
However, when we dug a little deeper, we found that although there are some great examples of best practice out there, there are few organisations that have really got it right and that are taking a systemic approach to sustainable development, with policy, strategy, resources and delivery aligned. We wondered why that might be.
The business case for sustainable development has been well made over the years, and many of our top companies are now finding the opportunities in taking a sustainable approach, and seeing the risks in not thinking about the long-term. But public sector bodies seem to be more commonly focused on a compliance approach, and reacting to legislation as it is implemented.
We concluded that the public value case for sustainable development has not been well made. In our recent report Stepping up: a framework for public sector leadership on sustainable development we attempt to open up that debate, and show that sustainable development can create public value through addressing market failure, building resilience and renewing the social contract.
This is particularly important, now, for a public sector facing swingeing budget cuts. Given the bleak spending climate, can public sector organisations stay true to their commitments to carbon reduction, sustainable regeneration, ethical procurement, greener healthcare and a wealth of other new practices and initiatives?
In theory, yes. If sustainable development thinking is no use to you in times of austerity, it is no use at all, and hard times should be when it proves its worth. Sustainable development was created as a concept to address the pressing problem of environmental degradation and its impact on human welfare – the mother of all recessions. But for municipalities, health trusts, police authorities and the many other providers of public services, it’s very tempting to cut spending on expensive-looking ‘green’ activity when you have to slice 5% off the salami – whether that means abandoning projects or closing down the teams and strategy units set up to run them.
It’s a much braver choice to use sustainability principles to guide where to wield the knife, and, more to the point, to use the same thinking to find efficiency gains, new ways of working, and deliver greater public value.
Doing that means understanding how sustainability relates to the core business of the organisation and its success in the long term. So it’s a paradox that whilst the business case for sustainable development is regularly articulated and used as a justification for corporate investment by the firms we work with – the public value case for similar action is seldom expressed. This leaves public bodies with only patchy and partial arguments for their sustainability commitments in tough times.
We hope that ‘Stepping up’ can demonstrate how sustainability principles hold the key to creating public value in austere times. In the report, we set out how forward-looking public bodies can go beyond the business case to address market failure, build resilience and reinforce the crumbling social contract when they use sustainability thinking to create public value.
What does that mean in practice? ‘Stepping up’ sets out a nine-point plan for public sector organisations wanting to take the lead in using sustainability to deliver better services. It starts with ‘making the case’- setting out that basic argument – examines linking policy and delivery, and goes all the way through to building a learning culture and running demonstration projects. And there’s a self-assessment tool to check where you are on the journey – from ‘At Risk’ (of failing to comply with legal obligations and suffering financial and reputational hits) to ‘Systemic’ – one of those rare paragons using sustainability principles to maximise efficiency and public value creation over time.
Some are well down this road. Others have barely begun. ‘Stepping up’ picks out some of the best examples of progress from around the world, whether public or private. Swedish city Vaxjo’s use of bioenergy, innovative food procurement by PCTs in Cornwall, Vodafone’s stakeholder engagement process, the GLA’s approach to policy integration, and InterfaceFLOR’s investment in staff capacity show how early adopters are pointing the way.
But we believe any organisation can be a leader on sustainable development, and those that grasp the challenge in these difficult times of public sector spending cuts will emerge strongest, with more efficient services, more productive relationships with their communities and partners, and better prepared for the environmental shocks that lie ahead.
For more information and to download the Stepping Up report for free, visit the Forum for the Future website.
Forum for the Future is the UK’s leading sustainable development NGO. It works internationally with government, business and public service providers, helping them to develop strategies to achieve success through sustainability, to deliver products and services which enhance people’s lives and are better for the environment, and to lead the way to a better world.
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