Green IT - a luxury or a necessity?

Helen Olsen reviews the results of LGITU’s ‘greening council ICT’ survey and finds that today’s green veneer is paving the way for a green revolution.

As the recession bites and budgets tighten across the public sector the big question is, will green initiatives
be put on the back boiler? Or will green goals be embedded, quite rightly, as a key aid to efficiency?

There is no doubting that an unstoppable green tide is washing over the public sector, but in the current economic climate it is essential that the underlying link between ‘green’ and ‘Gershon’ is recognised and that efficiency is built into green initiatives.

An organisation that both greens its ICT and uses technology to enable green ways of working will be in a win:win situation in terms of delivering environmental sustainability and at the same time reducing costs in transformed service delivery. And in today’s economic climate this could prove vital for survival.

Supported by SAS, Sun Microsystems, CIMA and Socitm, LGITU’s research project - ‘Green Veneer or Green Revolution? Greening the local authority ICT estate’ - aimed to investigate how green IT fits within today’s wider policy agenda and budgetary constraints, and how councils are preparing to measure and monitor their green contribution - and prove their eventual successes. It also looked at whether local government believes it can match central government’s goal for ‘carbon neutral Information and Communication Technology (ICT) within four years’.

Three hundred and fifty nine officers from 219 local authorities participated in the research programme representing nearly half (47%) of the UK’s 468 local authorities.

Despite the fact that 98 percent of Local Area Agreements (LAAs) contain commitments for tackling climate change and its impacts, our research clearly shows that this keen interest in becoming ‘green’ is yet to be mirrored in the establishment of internal goals, wider organisational operations and performance management. Encouragingly, however, respondents recognise that there is more that can be done to help reach these ecological long term goals; even more encouragingly, the link with efficiency savings through ‘going green’ was clear in many minds.
Green across the council

A convincing majority – 96 percent - said that green issues are important to their wider organisational agenda, with 87 percent seeing technology as a key enabler of sustainability, council-wide.

Only four percent, however, are confident today that their council’s ICT estate would be carbon neutral within four years,matching the target of central government.

Approximately six in ten felt that the green agenda complemented the regeneration/place shaping agenda (63%), the transformation agenda (61%) and the Gershon efficiency drive (55%). Pulling together the threads of policy agendas to ensure that the organisation as a whole is acting in a coherent fashion on all fronts is no easy matter. Green, however, appears to be a policy that relates easily in the minds of many to other major policy issues and could well be a cross cutting, or underpinning, theme pulling other agendas into the fuller picture.

The main drivers for pursuing green initiatives appeared to be based on local pressures: 72 percent identify the need to play a part in conserving the local environment and over 60 percent recognise there is a responsibility on the council to lead local environmental action. Sixty percent of respondents also recognise the cost savings and efficiencies from ‘going green’. In contrast, 93 percent identify lack of resources and budget as the largest barrier to their green initiatives.

Time to track

Almost 70 percent of councils recognise that quantifiable targets and performance reporting are key enablers of success and a similar proportion say they currently have green targets embedded within overall corporate targets. However, almost 70 percent admit to not having a clear understanding of the green impact of their current working practices and only 30 percent have embedded green targets within specific IT department targets.

Unsurprisingly, the majority of respondents did not feel that their councils had a clear understanding of the impact of current operations and working practices. Half claimed that their councils were tracking and measuring sustainability within the wider strategic performance process and within existing performance indicators. Yet just a third were using carbon footprint calculations, and only six percent currently used a green house gas protocol accounting tool.

Dave Waltho, head of government affairs at SAS UK, commented: “It is encouraging that most councils have not only identified ‘becoming green’ but also ‘championing green’ as key strategic issues. Initially, many are rightly focusing on ‘greening IT’ to get some quick ‘green and lean’ wins, such as using virtualisation to reduce the power, cooling and space requirements of data centres.”

He added: “However, most have yet to adopt a systematic approach to embedding ‘green’ within wider corporate goals and performance monitoring across economic, environmental and social goals.

This suggests that once the low hanging fruit has been gleaned, local authorities will find it difficult to plan and prioritise ‘green’ initiatives and will struggle to credibly report progress to their stakeholders - which is essential for spreading ‘green IT’ awareness within the organisation.”

Who leads the green charge?

Enthusiasm notwithstanding, there is little consistency as to who leads on green initiatives in councils today at either the strategic or the operational level, except for when it comes to technology: responsibility for this lies firmly at the door of the head of IT or CIO.

Setting the corporate vision fell to the chief executive in a third of councils and the lead member in another third. In one third, however, there did not yet appear to be a specific senior officer steering direction which, in light of later identification of senior level buy-in being an essential factor for success, suggests that many councils will struggle to implement a coordinated green response.

Respondents felt that green initiatives were not yet given enough priority or importance within the majority of councils – and this, according to many, was a main blocker to successful implementation.

Existing corporate culture, lack of clear targets and corporate requirements for a quick ROI were also listed as key barriers to success.

Green technology and purchasing Whilst the role that ICT can play in enabling greener working practices is universally acknowledged, initiatives seem to focus on reducing the carbon footprint of the ICT function (virtualisation, thin client computing, power down, technology refresh etc). Videoconferencing and mobile working stand out as greener working practices enabled by technology being actively deployed by councils – but telehealth had been explored by few.

Ensuring that green factors are embedded into the procurement process will be key to delivering sustainable ICT according to recent Gartner reports. Encouragingly, over four in ten (42%) of councils currently specify green/sustainability issues within the tender process. However, only 17 percent of councils currently use whole life costing when assessing best value procurement options. The majority, 62 percent, used a combination of quality and cost, with a further 15 percent making decisions based on ‘lowest cost’ alone.

Helenne Doody, sustainability specialist at CIMA, believes that “management accountants have a key role to play” in greening council IT, providing vital business intelligence to support strategy and influence long-term decision making: “Local authorities have a key role to play in taking the lead on ‘going green’.

Although it is heartening to see that respondents are placing more importance on environmental issues, this is not necessarily translating into direct action.

Organisations need to be more forwardlooking and think about how to adapt their strategy to make sustainability part of dayto-day operations.”

Increasingly, it would seem, technology suppliers will need to demonstrate green credentials for both themselves and their products – 67 percent either currently, or will soon, specify green/sustainability issues in the tender process. A further 53 percent either currently, or will soon, request evidence of green accountability from suppliers. However, it remains to be seen whether green considerations will override cost considerations – especially in the wake of the credit crunch and banking failures prevailing in the last quarter of 2008.

According to Jim Craig, public policy and corporate social responsibility manager at Sun Microsystems, however, green can be lean and suppliers have a duty to help find this middle way: “Gartner estimates that the IT industry has a carbon footprint as big as the airline industry, and accounts for two percent of all global carbon emissions. The IT industry has a duty and a responsibility to provide ‘Green’ IT to enable customers to save money and meet their environmental targets.

“There can still be a perception that green is the more expensive option. At Sun, ‘eco’ has two meanings for our customers - ecological and economical.”

Heading for revolution It would appear from the results of the survey that, although there is a high level of ‘green consciousness’ in the sector, we are seeing only the beginning of a ‘green revolution’ in local councils. Furthermore, within a short time of the research being completed, some councils reported that the developing financial crisis had already made green “a luxury item that can no longer be afforded”. This suggests that most councils have yet to fully commit to an holistic approach – one using green IT as an opportunity to deliver efficiency and further transform local government’s operations, service delivery and stakeholder engagement.

Councils, of course, are not green field sites. There is a massive existing investment in technology, fuelled in large part by the local e-government programme which ended in 2005 and aimed to e-enable local services. This existing, legacy technology infrastructure was cited as a main or major barrier to successful implementation of green initiatives by four in ten (41%).

The results of our research suggest that local government is already making inroads with the immediate green IT issues – indeed the government’s 18 step plan to greener IT aligns nicely with these goals.
However, the sector will need to look carefully at how it plans for, measures and tracks green issues in the long term if it is to integrate this into the wider policy agenda and gain multiple benefits.

The situation today would appear to be neither green veneer nor green revolution - but there is an unstoppable green tide washing over local government that will revolutionise the way it underpins operations and service delivery.