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Digital public sector news, research & engagement

Green in the here and now can make a difference long term

Glyn Evans, Assistant to the Chief Executive on Transformation, Birmingham City Council (Local Government Delivery Board, CIO Council)

I grew up in the shadow of The Bomb. Though for most people it had no tangible impact on daily lives, it was a constant companion; something over which you had no control but which could destroy not just you but everything you held dear in an instant.

It seems sometimes that global warming is the new Bomb. Most people don't feel that they can contribute much to saving the planet (an interesting conceit in itself as, whatever happens, we're not going to destroy Earth). And to a large extent they are right; whilst it might have an important symbolic role, turning off unneeded lights will have a marginal impact on carbon emissions.

I think we have the focus wrong. When it comes to 'Green IT', there are three main changes I would like to see.

First, let's make the incentives clearer. National targets that set challenging commitments for 2050 will not necessarily result in the required actions being taken today. The more cynical might argue that's precisely the point.

In Birmingham, we have set a target that we will reduce the city's carbon emissions by 60% by 2026. Better, but it will still be hard to motivate people to strive for something that far in the future. In local government we're used to the annual planning cycle, so let's use it; build annual targets built into our business plans that are set at the required level.

A 4.5% annual carbon reduction will pretty well achieve Birmingham's target, and sounds more realistic. And by working on an annual basis we can build the targets into performance management systems that will incentivise their delivery. Clearly, in such an environment carbon emission reductions will not all come from Green IT, but it will make an important contribution.

Second, we should emphasise the 'no brainer' aspects of 'Green IT'. Almost all local government managers are faced with challenging efficiency targets. It doesn't require significant intellectual ability to realise that reducing energy consumption will result in lower energy bills.

The problem for many is that the charge made to a cost centre for energy often bears little relationship to the energy consumed by that service, with bills often being aggregated and recharged within overall building costs. We need to make the linkage much closer - by using smart metering, for example - and managers can then see a direct link between energy savings and budget savings. They will soon be knocking at the IT manager's door for tools to drive down the cost of running their PCs.

Third, and perhaps more controversially, I'd like to see a move away from the focus on 'Green IT'.

Not only does it paint IT (at least implicitly) as somehow vaguely disreputable when it comes to environmental credentials, but it only looks at one aspect of the issue.

What should concern us more is the total carbon footprint of particular public service. By focusing our attention on the IT we risk missing other, potentially greater, green opportunities. One example would be channel shift; if we move our customers to electronic self service from home rather than visiting the one-stop shop, there is a reduction in carbon emissions.

And it's cheaper for us too, so there are efficiency savings as well as environmental benefits.

In practice, green issues are rarely central within a local authority. The problem is that our priority is the here and now and not future generations. The answer is to recognise this. By making 'Green' a here and now issue, we may actually make a difference in the long term.