Select Committee on Environmental Audit Seventh Report

Reforms to the structures of Government

The new role for the Office of Government Commerce

60.  The Government response to this year's SDiG report represented something of a watershed. Even the very fact of a formal response was a major step forward, this being the first such Government response to an SDiG report. The response itself announced a number of major reforms designed to improve leadership and performance across Government. Key to this is a new role for OGC to lead across Government on delivery, not just of sustainable procurement, but of meeting the targets of the entire SOGE framework. There is a new Director General post of Chief Sustainability Officer, and a new Centre of Expertise in Sustainable Procurement (CESP), situated within OGC. CESP's objectives include overseeing department-by-department delivery plans by summer 2008, setting out how they will achieve their targets. The SDC were convinced that these were substantial announcements:

[…] we were extremely pleased by the Government's response which they published on the same day as our report in March. We were very, very pleased, we felt that a lot of the recommendations we had been making for the last two to three years have been taken on board […] We feel that is really giving it a high level profile that it has never ever had before.[70]

61.  At the same time, the SDC made some important points about what still needed to be done. Sara Eppel stressed that "there is only so much the centre can deliver", and that while the OGC could provide advice and training, "what they cannot do is deliver for the government departments. One of the key issues for us is that the government departments themselves need to have much more focus on how to deliver this."[71] Farooq Ullah spelt out a number of important questions about the departmental delivery plans that the Government response promised by summer 2008: "Will it be something that is an emergency, one-off situation? Will it be something that is replicated every year? How had they monitored progress against it? Who is responsible at the end of the day for assessing how sustainable that plan really will make government?"[72] Mr Ullah also stressed that the SOGE targets and SDiG reports were not the only things that departments—and those holding them to scrutiny—should focus on. Notably, he argued that more attention should be placed on departments' Sustainable Development Action Plans (SDAPs):

We really feel that the vehicle for delivering this whole programme of work is the SDAPs themselves. The SDiG report is one end of it, it is the backward looking assessment, but all of this information needs to feed directly back into each department's SDAP so that they can embed sustainability into the way they function as their core remit. Engagement in that SDAP development process by each department should get staff involved and it should be at a very fundamental level. Everything they do should be detailed into this action plan and taken forward. Hopefully in that way it will involve staff and create and engender behavioural change.[73]

62.  The departmental delivery plans that the Office of Government Commerce is overseeing are a major step forward. They should not be a one-off exercise, but should be done annually, to set out clearly what progress each department is making, and a revised series of actions needed to meet their targets in the light of that progress.

Incentivising and empowering managers and staff

63.  Another of the reforms announced in the Government Response to the SDC is that sustainability of the Government Estate will be one of the Cabinet Secretary's four corporate priorities for the civil service, and that all permanent secretaries will have SOGE targets and other key sustainability commitments built into their personal objectives. The SDC were clear that this would make a material difference—so long as the Cabinet Secretary was sufficiently demanding:

Permanent secretaries are required by the Cabinet Secretary […] to produce quarterly assessments on progress against their own targets. If sustainable operations and sustainable procurement is one of those, then that will keep a profile at least every quarter on how that department is doing on progress. I think that will be important but, at the same time, the Cabinet Secretary needs to be challenging the permanent secretaries on the delivery […][74]

64.  An important point that remains unclear is just what strength these targets and priorities have, in terms of the careers of senior individuals. WWF, for instance, commented:

Although, as one of the supporting mechanism targets states, [permanent secretaries] should have sustainability targets incorporated into their performance objectives it is not clear what penalties are involved for failure to meet these objectives. An effective risk and/or reward structure must be implemented if achievement of these targets is to be adequately incentivised.[75]

Another point that remains unclear is the extent to which the Cabinet Secretary will be accountable for Government performance—and whether a minister will assume responsibility for it. We asked officials whom the Cabinet Secretary would report to on this issue. They were unable to provide an answer.[76]

65.   We welcome the reform to incorporate sustainability goals in the personal objectives of the Cabinet Secretary and all Permanent Secretaries. We expect this to have a tangible effect on the forcefulness and coherence of departments' response to these issues, and look forward to the increase in accountability for such performance to Parliament this should bring. We recommend the Government clarifies which minister has overall responsibility for this agenda—preferably a senior cabinet minister. We also recommend the Government indicates how performance against these objectives will be reflected in terms of career rewards and prospects.

66.  We hope that these new personal responsibilities for sustainability will also provide a mechanism for encouraging senior civil servants to treat their departments' sustainable development action plans (SDAPs) seriously, and see to it that departmental policy is more consistent with sustainability objectives. In the future we may choose to review, department by department, the extent to which SDAPs are being integrated into departmental policies and activities.

67.  While the emphasis on making sustainability a priority of the senior civil service is obviously vital, it is important to ensure that staff at all levels receive the training and incentives required to mainstream sustainability into their work. The SDC told us: "The teams who undertake operational performance work are usually quite junior. Although the data is meant to be signed off at a very senior level, it is often a very mechanistic process, there is not a lot of resource and there are not a lot of people who are really focusing on this and seeing it as a priority".[77] This was a point seconded by the Environmental Industries Commission (EIC), which suggested that:

Although departments may have experienced environmental staff at "head office" level, those made responsible for implementing environmental management systems and initiatives typically are junior grades, often with little experience of environmental and sustainability issues. In many cases, they lack adequate resources and support from senior and operational management staff. Many consider that their efforts are not integrated into mainstream departmental management processes. Turnover of environmental management staff is high as, once they start to gain experience; they can find better-remunerated posts in the private sector (often in outsourced functions serving government). As we understand the situation, many of these people are paid the standard administrative grade salary, despite being expected to work in a specialist technical area.[78]

68.  This was reinforced by the Public and Commercial Services Union (PCS), who told us: "At the first green forum we held for our members and representatives last year many said that they were not aware of the Sustainable Development Action Planning (SDAP) process and were certainly not involved in it."[79] Other comments PCS reported from its green forum meeting included:

  • there is a lack of commitment at board, workplace and staff level to effectively tackle [sustainable development] issues
  • there is a general lack of awareness at all levels on [sustainable development] issues
  • the current structures in government department allow business streams to perform/operate in isolation around [sustainable development] issues rather than work together
  • there is a lack of knowledge when dealing with contractors and holding them to account around [sustainable development] issues
  • there is a lack of union involvement around [sustainable development] issues and it was felt that management in every government department needs to work with PCS to engender workplace change on this subject.[80]

PCS said that it would raise awareness and galvanise the efforts of staff if rights for time off for trade union activities were extended to environmental duties and training. We asked the Government for its views; it stated that in 2007 BERR had concluded it was premature to provide explicit time off rights to environmental representatives. The Government stated that Acas might choose to revise its Code of Practice on time off for union duties, but that "it is a matter for Acas to decide whether explicit advice or guidance about union environmental representatives should be added".[81]

69.  Beyond the senior civil service, personal responsibility for sustainability issues must be increased at all levels. This will require more training and incentives. The evidence we have received highlights the important role that operational staff in procurement and facilities teams have to play. We recommend that OGC works with civil service unions to ensure that staff are trained, motivated, and empowered to take a leading role in mainstreaming sustainability in Government operations.

70   Q6 Back

71   Q11 Back

72   Q11 Back

73   Q18 Back

74   Q15 Back

75   Ev 66 Back

76   Q57 Back

77   Q11 Back

78   Ev 49 Back

79   Ev 53 Back

80   Ev 54 Back

81   Ev 35 Back

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