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Mainstreaming sustainable development in policy: progress review

A year on from publication of the Coalition Government’s vision for sustainable development, Defra’s Sustainable Development Team reviews progress on mainstreaming sustainable development in policy making.

This report is one of a series of progress reviews across the themes of the Mainstreaming Sustainable Development vision.

Embedding sustainable development into policy making through monitoring business plans

Each Government department has a business plan which sets out their key priorities and actions to achieve the radical structural reforms needed to deliver the Coalition’s Programme for Government. Business plans are high-level concise documents which change the way that departments are held accountable by the public for putting policies into practice. Number 10 leads on the business plan process providing advice and guidance on plans’ content and by publishing updates on departments’ progress in meeting their commitments. Embedding sustainable development through business plans is a key opportunity to ensure that sustainability runs from the centre and throughout Government.

Business plans are reviewed quarterly by the Minister of State for Government Policy, Oliver Letwin, and he oversees their revision for each new financial year. Part of Oliver Letwin’s remit in reviewing and revising business plans is to challenge secretaries of state on the integration of sustainable development into their business plans, to ensure sustainable development is mainstreamed as far as possible, and at the highest level, in the Government’s policy making.

Defra’s Sustainable Development Team continues to take lead responsibility for supporting Oliver Letwin in reviewing departmental business plans for their sustainable development credentials and provides necessary expertise to Defra’s business plan team, Number 10 and Cabinet Office. During the 2010/11 financial year, for each quarter, we provided an analysis of departmental business plans to Oliver Letwin to inform his discussions with secretaries of state.

The next major review of business plans is taking place now. The 2012/13 raft of business plans are due to be published this spring. This is an opportunity for departments to update their plans and set out new commitments. Defra’s sustainable development team has been working closely with Number 10 and with each government department, drawing on stakeholder expertise, to provide support and advice to ensure sustainable development is embedded in the revised business plans.

The Green Book

The Green Book is HM Treasury (HMT) guidance for all departments, providing a framework for the appraisal and evaluation of all policies, programmes and projects. The Green Book sets out the key stages in the development of a proposal from articulating the rationale for intervention and setting objectives, through to options appraisal and, eventually, implementation and evaluation. The Green Book describes how the economic, financial, social and environmental assessments of a proposal should be combined and aims to ensure consistency and transparency in the appraisal process throughout Government.

1. New Environmental Guidance

In addition to the overall framework provided by the Green Book, there is a wide range of supplementary guidance containing more detailed advice on particular issues and applying the Green Book in specific contexts. HMT has now published new supplementary guidance on accounting for environmental impacts in policy appraisal. This will enhance the capability of policy makers across government to value the natural environment when appraising policies.

2. Social Impacts and Wellbeing

Assessing the social as well as the economic and environmental impacts of policies at the appraisal stage is critical, and it is the Prime Minister’s view that, taken together, initiatives such as these may be the most quietly radical things this government is doing.

Defra developed a conceptual framework (pdf) in April 2011 to guide our work on understanding the relationships between the social impacts of policies, their effects on the UK’s underlying produced, human, social and natural capital, and implications for wellbeing.

This was followed up by the publication in December of a paper (pdf) which addresses how to assess and integrate evidence of social impacts and wellbeing into valuation and appraisal using multi-criteria analysis. It draws on the HMT Green Book guidance on appraisal and evaluation, the HMT Magenta Book guidance on evaluation, the Social Impacts Taskforce’s work, as well as wider work on environmental valuation.

The Cabinet Office is now considering how best to reflect wellbeing in policy design and appraisal with implications for how we link together social impacts, wellbeing and the overall sustainable development agenda.

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 consider the relevant evidence on the positive and negative effects of such interventions, and enhance transparency of decision making.

The Impact Assessment Toolkit, Overview and Guidance documents were all revised in August 2011 with improvements to how sustainable development is integrated. These documents can be found on the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) website.

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: Leading by example: progress review »

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