Embedding sustainable development across Government, after the Secretary of State's announcement on the future of the Sustainable Development Commission - Environmental Audit Committee Contents


Written evidence submitted by Cisco

SUMMARY

  1. The decision to withdraw funding from the Sustainable Development Commission (SDC) should be seized upon as an opportunity by Defra to provide real leadership, join up activity across government and to put in place a single cross-government policy designed to reduce unnecessary travel.
  2. We believe that the Government's drive to become the "greenest government ever" should be broadened out to include reducing emissions associated with travel, and we call for a much greater emphasis to be placed on using communications-based alternatives to travel like video conferencing.
  3. To fully realise the role that video conferencing can play in reducing emissions across government departments, we believe that greater incentives need to be put in place to encourage a step change in current practice. Departments should rank means of travel hierarchically based on carbon emissions per mile, cost to the public purse and other considerations like improved safety, with a central Defra policy dictating this and departments strictly enforcing it.
  4. In this very tight Spending Review, we believe this area has considerable potential as a further source of efficiencies and savings. Testament to this, the SDC's most recent report states that government is saving £60-70 million a year as a result of moves towards more sustainable operations, and that further progress in this area has the potential to save hundreds of millions more, for example by reducing travel.

INTRODUCTION

1.  Cisco is a leading global provider of visual communication products and services. We design, develop and market systems and software for video, voice and data, and provide sales, support and value-added services in more than 90 countries worldwide.

2.  Governments throughout the world are using visual communications to speed up decision-making, provide public servants with increased access to experts and reduce their environmental impact. We have been at the forefront of this development. In the UK, we work with a range of public sector organisations including the emergency services, schools and local education authorities, universities, primary care trusts and central government departments. We also provide services for some of the leading private-sector companies in the country.

3.  The inquiry is wide-ranging and deals with a number of areas which it would not be appropriate for us to comment on. Our expertise relates to the use of communications-based alternatives to travel like video conferencing across government. In this response, we set out the findings of our latest research into the use of the technology by government departments, and our recommendations for how this could be improved, switching government departments away from unnecessary travel towards a more financially and environmentally sustainable way of working.

CONTINUING THE WORK OF THE SUSTAINABLE DEVELOPMENT COMMISSION

4.  Over the past decade we followed the work of the SDC closely, and worked with commissioners on several occasions. The period saw the SDC emerge as a critical friend of Government and its scrutiny, capability building and policy advice saw slow, but significant progress across government departments - both in terms of day-to-day management and in embedding sustainability considerations into the policy making process.

5.  In the context of this very tight Spending Review, we recognise that difficult decisions have to be made by government, not least Defra's decision to withdraw funding from the SDC from the next financial year. We pay tribute to the important contribution the SDC made in putting sustainability on the political map, and in making government operations more sustainable. This work must now be taken forward by Defra from within government.

6.  In this period when Defra considers how it can take the lead role on sustainability in place of the SDC, it is important that the department acts quickly to maintain the momentum. Defra should now produce a detailed plan setting out how it will maintain a degree of independence from Government in order to fulfil its watchdog role, and explain the mechanism by which it will measure progress and hold government to its pledge to become the "greenest government ever".

7.  As part of this process Defra should recognise the potential of this area as source of further efficiencies and savings for government departments. Moves towards more sustainable operations are already saving £60-70 million every year according to the SDC's most recent annual report. These savings are just the tip of the iceberg, and further progress in this area has the potential to save hundreds of millions more, often without significant new investment.[13]

8.  For example, the public sector currently spends around £3.03 billion a year on travel. Whilst we know some travel is unavoidable, evidence from the private sector suggests travel spend can be reduced by as much as 30% through better use of communications-based alternatives to travel like video conferencing. This means there may be potential for the public sector to save as much as £900 million a year, as well as to significantly reduce carbon emissions. This figure excludes the additional savings on hotel and subsistence costs that would result from reduced travel, as well as the staff time efficiencies that would follow.

OUR RESEARCH

9.  As part of this inquiry, the Committee will consider the latest sustainable development performance data across government departments. To add to your evidence base, we would like to share the findings of our most recent Freedom of Information-based (FOI) research into the progress of government departments in reducing unnecessary travel through communications-based alternatives to travel like video conferencing.

10.  The following table provides details of responses received to FOI requests from February 2010, which asked for details of the number of video conferencing units owned by each government department. We have placed them next to figures from 2007 to allow for direct comparison.
Department Number of VC units 2007Number of VC units 2009
Department for Business, Innovation and Skills 22*28
Cabinet Office 2115
Department for Children, Schools and Families 6099
Department of Communities and Local Government 418
Department for Culture, Media and Sport 33
Ministry of DefenceNo response received 300
Department of Energy and Climate Change Did not exist3
Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs 1517
Foreign and Commonwealth Office 53249**
Government Equalities Office N/A 0***
Department of Health36 57
Home Office 1410
Department for International Development 111170
Ministry of Justice 16 25
Northern Ireland Office 77
Scotland OfficeNo response received 2
Department for Transport 89
HM Treasury 147
Wales Office 2 2
Department for Work and Pensions 275 349

* Then the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform.

** The Foreign and Commonwealth Office also has 12,500 WebEx licences for online video conferencing.

*** Although the Government Equalities Office does not own video conferencing units, it does make use of the equipment owned by other departments.

11.  The following table provides details of responses received to FOI requests from February 2010, which asked for details of the number of video conferences taking place in each government department. We have placed them next to figures from 2007 to allow for direct comparison.
Department Frequency of VC use 2007 Frequency of VC use 2009
Department for Business, Innovation and Skills Daily*No records
Cabinet Office No records No records
Department for Children, Schools and Families Daily, with 1,060 conferences taking place in June 2007 10,910
Department for Communities and Local Government 359 conferences last year262
Department for Culture, Media and Sport At least once a month 54
Ministry of DefenceNo response received 20-30 times daily
Department of Energy and Climate Change Did not existSeveral times a day
Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Daily, with 339 conferences taking place between January and May 2007 1,456
Foreign and Commonwealth Office 846 conferences in 2006 21,280
Government Equalities Office N/A N/A (does not own video conferencing units)
Department of HealthDaily 13,972
Home Office 340 conferences in 256 days No records
Department for International Development Over 500 conferences per month 7,283
Ministry of Justice No records Over 1,300
Northern Ireland Office Daily2,151
Scotland OfficeNo response received 433
HM Treasury No records No records
Department for Transport Average of 46 conferences per month 231
Wales Office Daily 208
Department for Work and Pensions Over 1,000 hours per month 9,871

12.  Please note the figures above may not include the number of ad-hoc or "point-to-point" video conferences that take place, and may only show those that are booked in advance through a central reservation system. This is usually done when there are more than two users present in the meeting. The actual usage is therefore likely to be far higher for many departments. Nevertheless, this provides a useful snapshot for comparative purposes.

13.  We found that many of the problems we identified in 2008, when we last carried out similar research, still persist. There is a clear problem with government departments not recording travel adequately, making it difficult to build up an overall picture of how much is spent on travel and incentivise civil servants to seek alternatives. For example, only 15 departments of the 20 we asked were able to provide detailed travel spend data. Where the costs were measured, the processes used varied between departments, making it very difficult to compare and contrast spend across government.

14.  In terms of communications-based alternatives to travel like video conferencing, our research found that departments with an international focus like the Department for International Development, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the Ministry of Defence continue to have the greatest number of video conferencing units, but there are now signs that domestic departments are increasingly looking to the technology as a means of reducing the need to travel within the UK, with corresponding savings and environmental benefits. The Department of Health, for example, has invested in 21 extra video conferencing units since 2007.

15.  We also found that with the exception of the Cabinet Office, HM Treasury and the Home Office, all other government departments have maintained 2007 levels or purchased additional video conferencing units, whilst larger departments such as the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills and the Department for Work and Pensions have invested in telepresence suites which link their London headquarters with regional offices.

16.  Of note, the Department for Business and Innovation and Skills carried out a cost benefit analysis before investing in video conferencing and telepresence suites to reduce the need for travel between London and Sheffield. This estimated that reduced travel for staff members of (up to) four meetings per day, was equivalent to savings of £440,000 per annum when the facilities are fully utilised. [14]

17.  However, although there are some examples of progress in this area, we found that there are vast differences in how different departments use video conferencing, and how use of the technology is promoted internally. There is also still no central cross-government policy advocating the use communications-based alternatives to travel to minimise unnecessary travel.

18.  Finally, in our experience, the departments that benefit most from the technology and deliver the greatest environmental and financial savings are those which actively promote the use of video conferencing internally. This could be through an internal marketing campaign to increase awareness of the technology, ensuring that officials have to consider video conferencing when filling in their travel request forms, creating a simpler way to book video conferencing units, or hosting induction sessions for new staff to train them on how to use the technology.

RECOMMENDATIONS

19.  We present below a set of recommendations which aim to switch government departments away from unnecessary travel towards a more financially and environmentally sustainable way of working.

20.  We recommend that as Defra considers how to mainstream sustainability, strengthen Government's performance in this area and put processes in place to join up activity across government more effectively, it considers policies that:

  1. rank means of travel hierarchically based on carbon emissions per mile, cost to the public purse and other considerations like improved safety, with strict enforcement of this hierarchy;
  2. put in place a presumption against travel for the vast majority government departments with any exceptions to be signed off by a senior manager;
  3. put in place a single system of collecting departmental travel data and a linked system of monitoring the use of communications-based alternatives to travel like video conferencing so that comparable data is collected and areas for improvement can be easily identified; and
  4. embed the consideration of travel impacts early on in the development of all policy.

15 October 2010


13   Becoming the "Greenest Government Ever": achieving sustainability in operations and procurement, Sustainable Development Commission, July 2010. Back

14   Hansard, HC, 7 April 2010: Column 1407W. Back


 
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