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Mainstreaming sustainable development: progress so far

Defra’s Head of Sustainable Development Jonathan Tillson reviews progress since the publication in February 2011 of Mainstreaming Sustainable Development, the Coalition Government’s vision for sustainable development.

A further update on progress has now been published, one year on. See Mainstreaming Sustainable Development: one year in.

In February this year the Government announced a package of measures to make sustainable development central to the way government operates: from making policy, to running our buildings and purchasing goods and services. This is being delivered through four work streams:

As the lead department for sustainable development, Defra is coordinating and driving activity across government, and using its expertise to support the Cabinet Office and other departments in mainstreaming sustainable development. We have had a productive first six months establishing our ways of working, strengthening cross government relationships and securing some early wins in embedding sustainable development in government policy and operations. Progress in each of these areas is reviewed in more detail below.

Enhancing ministerial leadership and oversight

Cabinet business

The Secretary of State uses her membership of the Home Affairs, Economic Affairs and Reducing Regulation Cabinet committees to champion this agenda and aim to ensure that agreed policies are consistent with the Government’s vision for sustainable development. Our team supports her in this role and we are looking at a broader range of policies from all departments for their sustainable development credentials. This also allows targeted engagement with other government departments at an earlier stage of policy development.

Embedding sustainable development into policy making

Business plans

The commitment to review departmental business plans in relation to sustainable development principles is a significant component of the mainstreaming package. Our team provides support to Oliver Letwin, the Minister for Government Policy, in preparation for his quarterly business plan challenge sessions with each secretary of state. In the same way, we will support the annual process to refresh business plans.

We have established a network of departmental leads within the Defra sustainable development team to develop the policy expertise and help the other departments with embedding sustainable development in their policy-making. The next major refresh of business plans will be in April 2012.

Capability building

Capability building was a function transferred from the Sustainable Development Commission when it ceased to operate in March 2011. We are developing a capability building project to increase the proportion of government policies that take account of sustainable development.

The capability building project will be informed by discussions with colleagues across government, and will address governance, people, policy, and operations.

In practice this means understanding which activities in government can leverage the required change, engaging the support of lead departments, and seeking to make the most efficient use of government-wide resources devoted to capability building. It will also mean looking at Defra’s own capability as we become a smaller, more streamlined department. Two examples of this work are embedding sustainable development in impact assessments and the Green Book (see below).

Impact assessments

Impact assessments help the policy-maker fully understand the consequences of possible government interventions in the public, private and third sectors and they enable the Government to present the relevant evidence on the positive and negative effects of such interventions.

Defra has contributed to the recent review of the impact assessment guidance to better mainstream sustainable development throughout guidance documents. The revised documents are available on the BIS website and simplify the presentation and understanding of the proposed policies, evidence, and impacts on business. Defra is also in the process of updating the SD Specific Impact Test to update the document and improve its accessibility.

The Green Book

The Natural Environment White Paper (NEWP) highlighted that later in 2011 we will publish new supplementary guidance to the Green Book, on accounting for environmental impacts in policy appraisal. The Green Book is the basis on which the Government assesses the costs and benefits of different policies. The aim of the new supplementary guidance is to consolidate work that has been undertaken on valuing the environment with a focus on providing practical steps to valuing the natural environment in policy appraisal.


The Green Book will also be revised to fully take account of policies’ social impacts. A new test for all policies will be developed to demonstrate not just how they help reduce public spending and cut regulation and bureaucracy but how they create social value too. In light of this, the Treasury is considering how best to reflect wellbeing in policy design and appraisal.

The Social Impacts Taskforce (SITF), which was set up and co-chaired by Defra to improve the incorporation of social impacts into analysis of costs and benefits, is developing supplementary guidance to sit alongside the Green Book, to provide practical guidance to departments. The first of these, Valuing Non-market Impacts, by the Department for Work and Pensions, was published on 25th July, coinciding with publication of the National Statistician’s Report on the National Debate on Measuring National Wellbeing. This is part of the programme of work, led by the Office for National Statistics (ONS) to develop new independent measures of wellbeing so that, by summer 2012, we will be the first developed country in the world that is able rigorously to measure progress on more than just GDP.

Leading by example

Greening Government Commitments

The Greening Government Commitments build on the Prime Minister’s pledge to be the “greenest government ever”, driving efficiency while reducing environmental impacts. On the 6th July, the Cabinet Office announced the Government’s successful performance against its ambitious target to cut central government carbon emissions by 10% within a year. The Government has exceeded the target: cutting emissions by 13.8% and saving £13 million in energy bills. Going forwards, the Greening Government Commitments commit us to cutting greenhouse gas emissions and waste by 25%, as well as reducing water use and procuring sustainable and efficient products by 2014/15 (from a 2009/10 baseline).

Greening Government performance will be guided by a ministerial steering group chaired by Oliver Letwin.

Up-to-date data is published online to improve transparency and accountability. All ministerial headquarters, for example, now publish information on their real-time energy consumption on-line, making performance data more accessible to others in government as well as the wider public. More open and timely reporting should encourage the sharing of best practice with those outside government and should also stimulate healthy challenges to how government manages performance.

Transparency and independent scrutiny

In line with the overall government approach to enhance transparency, we are making more up-to-date data and information available to help the public to judge whether our policies and reforms are having the effect they want. Defra’s sustainable development team is currently drawing up a schedule of publications, which will be available soon, to inform stakeholders and interested parties when data and information will be available for scrutiny.

Sustainable development indicators

In the February announcement we committed to revising the sustainable development indicators to measure and report our progress and plan to publish the new indicators by the end of the year for full public consultation. We are inviting stakeholders to give their initial views on this – please see the separate article on SD Scene: Defra invites feedback on developing new indicators.

The new set of sustainable development indicators will build on many years of experience of measuring and reporting progress on sustainable development, and will link with initiatives here and internationally to measure wellbeing. The indicator set will be used to inform policy development as well as to enhance transparency of progress.

External expertise

It is vital that the Government has access to expertise and evidence on sustainable development. The Sustainable Development Research Network (SDRN) has received Defra funding for a further three years, which will allow us continued access to academic, business and individual expertise in support of our objectives. SDRN aims to facilitate and strengthen the links between providers of research and policymakers across government. We have broadened the scope of the SDRN to cover emerging areas such as the social impacts of climate change.

Stakeholder engagement

Stakeholder engagement was a function transferred from the Sustainable Development Commission when it ceased to operate in March 2011. We are developing our enhanced stakeholder engagement capability to enable the teams mainstreaming sustainable development to draw on the expertise of stakeholders, and facilitate communication and challenge. This capability will build on the work of Defra and SDC, including supporting other government departments in their engagement of stakeholders, and information on these activities will be publicised through SD Scene.

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