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Capability building to embed sustainable development in policy making: a personal view

Minas Jacob re-joined Defra in April 2011 after nearly five years at the Sustainable Development Commission (SDC). He gives a personal view on his current lead role on capability building for sustainable development.

This article is part of a series of reviews one year on from publication of the Government’s Mainstreaming Sustainable Development vision.

My first role at the SDC was to set up the sustainable development watchdog function, scrutinising the Government’s performance against its own sustainability targets. I then, as director of sustainable development in Government, led the scrutiny, engagement and capability building programmes, three mutually supportive areas of activity. Understandably my evidence to the Environmental Audit Committee on the future of sustainable development in Government only a few months earlier was very fresh in my mind on my first day back at Defra.

Capability building for sustainable development

I now lead on sustainable development capability building, a role Defra took on from the SDC as part of the Government’s programme for mainstreaming sustainable development in its business. I have, in a sense, come full circle.

To say that I ‘lead’ on capability building misrepresents the situation. I am part of an excellent team working on the mainstreaming of sustainable development with colleagues across Defra and other government departments. I am also part of a wider team, the highly experienced cross-Whitehall Sustainable Development Group, comprising representatives of every government department, who share learning, test ideas and new initiatives, and provide honest and supportive feedback on what’s needed to mainstream sustainable development in Government.

The cross-Whitehall Sustainable Development Group is the hub of sustainable development capability building in government, but there is so much activity across Defra and the rest of government to build sustainable development capability that it would be impossible to capture it all. This activity ranges from sharing learning on specific projects to departmental awareness campaigns and seminars on specific themes.

How to build capability?

So what does it mean to ‘build capability’ for sustainable development in government? And where’s the best place to focus efforts on such an ambitious endeavour, given the size and complexity of government and the sustainable development agenda itself?

To risk stating the obvious, our real task is to help people drive performance improvements where they make a difference, improvements which help get results that count in the real world. We have to do this in a way that avoids dependency on Defra’s sustainable development team – or any other – and which leads to fundamental and enduring improvements in how departments understand and manage their business. That’s mainstreaming!

Priorities for improvement

There are many ways to identify priorities for sustainable development performance improvement in Government. In my experience the more specific you get the easier it becomes to do so. Identifying the key leverage mechanisms and other activities which drive improvements is a good place to start, and categorising these into the areas of governance, policy, operations and procurement, and people is a tried and tested method.

Examples of mechanisms we’ve been focusing on are impact assessments, business planning, and the Civil Service Core Competencies (which set out the skills that staff need to do their job well, at all levels and no matter where they work). Advances in these areas can apply significant leverage to departments’ wider decision making. Embedding sustainable development criteria into core competencies, for example, provides the overall context for assessing individuals’ performance and encourages us all to take personal responsibility for making progress. It also provides a framework for assessing learning needs and raising performance on particular areas.

We are also exploring how to provide people with the opportunity to discuss and learn about the application of sustainable development principles in their everyday work. For example, we are developing sustainable development master classes, and liaising with Civil Service Learning (CSL) on its new policy curriculum. And we are looking at how to use the knowledge and experience of external stakeholders to support learning on sustainable development in the Civil Service.

The tools for performance improvement

All this is far from straightforward. Agreeing priorities for capability building through improved mechanisms and other activities that drive performance improvements can take a huge amount of effort and negotiation. However, as I said earlier, the more specific you get the easier it becomes to make progress. But whatever the specific content of an organisation’s capability building activities, progress can be very difficult indeed without a number of higher level mechanisms operating in tandem. I believe it is how these mutually supportive tools are employed together that makes the real difference:

  • Honesty about performance, and honesty about the context, obstacles and enablers for that performance (ie transparent reporting);
  • Effective relationships within government and with external stakeholders;
  • Encouraging challenge throughout policy development and implementation – for individuals, within departments, within government and from outside government;
  • Helping people to understand and feel motivated about sustainable development, and to take personal responsibility for playing their part.

These are the high level drivers for performance improvement – getting them right is at the heart of effective capability building.

Where are you coming from?

In my work on sustainable development at the SDC and Defra I have often been reminded of simple advice once given to me on holiday in Rhodes. Phoning the hotel for directions after losing my bearings on a walk in the surrounding countryside I was told “Yes, you want directions back to the hotel, but where are you coming from?”. It’s a question I keep in mind in all my capability building work – where are you coming from?

This article is one of a series of reviews on progress in the first year since publication of Mainstreaming Sustainable Development, the Coalition Government’s vision for sustainable development. Read all the articles here…

Next article: Ministerial leadership and oversight: progress review »

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