Will the current recession relegate 'green ICT' and concern over carbon footprints to a luxury that councils can ill afford? Helen Olsen attends a workshop discussing LGITU's latest research findings.
As the economic crisis began to cast its shadow over local government at the end of last year, a group of local authority officers involved in greening their council’s ICT met to discuss the results of LGITU’s ‘snapshot’ survey: ‘Green Veneer or Green Revolution?’.
Forty seven percent of UK local authorities participated in the research, showing widespread enthusiasm for green issues.
The data suggested that ‘green ICT’ was seen both as a key enabler for reducing the organisation’s carbon footprint and for delivering efficiencies – councils could be both green and lean.
However, anecdotal evidence since compiling the data suggested that the economic situation may soon make it an issue of going green or lean. Green may well be seen as a luxury that can ill be afforded in these straitened times.
Nearly nine in ten survey respondents say that IT is a key enabler of sustainability council wide: “Which is heartening,” said Dave Waltho, head of government affairs at SAS. “The results of our own crossindustry global research did not come out that strongly, probably 60/70 percent. It is good to see local government is ahead.”
Waltho was concerned though that whilst heads of IT took a clear lead on greening IT they did not seem to have a wider role on green initiatives; and finance directors did not appear to be engaged at all. This was strange, he said, considering that cost savings were seen as a key driver in green initiatives: “In my experience, if the head of finance isn’t involved it doesn’t happen.”
An officer at one London borough said that the authority had joined various carbon programmes, had a green team, had a lead member and was driving the issue forward.
However, when it came to releasing funds for green initiatives nothing was coming through: “They say the right things but possibly they are only paying lip service. It seems that the drive is coming from the bottom up. From the top it’s finance that is driving decision making.”
Others agreed: “The CEOs are trying to tick boxes. As soon as there is any investment required; ‘no that’s not possible’.”
Added another, “If it doesn’t pay off almost immediately that’s a problem.”
A side issue to this was the visibility and attribution of savings: often the department spending the money, for example the IT department implementing virtual servers, doesn’t get to see, or benefit from, the savings on energy costs. These go to facilities management.
Measuring & business case
The inexact science of measuring energy savings and carbon footprint was of universal concern. Many felt that the permutations, tradeoffs and various calculation bases are endless and that it was difficult to put together a convincing case for change.
Said one energy manager, “Our ICT people have asked, ‘how do I measure it?’ I need to quantify the savings for national indicator reporting requirements and display energy certificates. It is complicated – there is the overall building consumption and the IT takes a lot of that. But what real effect will virtualization make? We don’t know.”
Many of those present had undertaken physical trials measuring the output of PCs and printers as a base for calculations. But even this was open to interpretation: “You extrapolate those costs, but you have no way of knowing really that’s actually what you are going to save.”
Others were quick to point out that even those calculations are tenuous – energy costs change frequently, making long term calculations of dubious worth. The more assumptions made, the less reliable the outcomes.
There is also the ‘interconnectedness’ of issues and unintended consequences to deal with: “There is very much a trade off,” said one officer. “Home working is a great thing if you are a widespread authority where people travel by car. But in a small metropolitan authority where people travel by train it changes. You might not be heating an office – which is saving money – but suddenly you are heating 100 homes, which is more expensive and can have more carbon impact.”
Helenne Doody, sustainability specialist at CIMA, felt strongly that the finance team should be involved in procurement: “In the Cabinet Office report on greening the government ICT estate, finance directors have been tasked with ensuring that the environmental consequences of procurement decisions are fully assessed.
But the research found that only a small percentage of procurement decisions are based on whole life costing rather than purely lowest cost and quality, and the finance team was generally not involved in these decisions.”
More than four in ten were now specifying green issues in the tender process, with a further quarter planning to do so in the next 12 months. Again, Waltho pointed out that the sector compared favourably on this front: “Globally that came out about forty percent across industries, so authorities are easily matching global activity,” he said.
Sun’s public policy and corporate social responsibility manager, Jim Craig, added that in the last six months local authority tender documents had started to contain increasingly larger environmental sections.
Indeed a number of councils had made significant progress towards incorporating sustainability in procurement: “We have a procurement gateway for ICT,” said one. “It used to be a decision making panel within ICT but it is now chaired by the head of finance and has representatives from every directorate. So in ICT we support users in making a business case. This currently looks at a three year timescale moving towards five. We aren’t yet at genuine whole life in terms of disposal but that is something we will be looking towards.”
Woking had perhaps the most advanced system, whereby all projects need to have a mandate and business case that includes environmental sustainability factors and has the total cost of ownership.
Others, though, were quick to admit that although a business case that incorporated green considerations had to be produced, at the end of the day, the main decision issue was ‘How much money is it going to save?’ rather than ‘How green is it?’
Some were more blunt: “We have a traditional finance section which is very budget orientated and expense reallocation driven, ie, cost. We have a particular difficulty where non IT section clients are coming forward with business cases which are largely qualitative rather than quantitative. What they really need is some kind of support for costing factors such as energy savings and so on.”
Embedding and proving
Encouragingly, some appeared to be trying to embed green into ‘business as usual’. Doody agreed, “Green shouldn’t be a separate thing. It should be embedded in strategy and part of the overall decision making process.”
However, she cautioned, “If an organisation develops an environmental strategy as part of their overall corporate strategy then it must develop measures of success as well.”
Stakeholders would require evidence of performace and improvement, she said, and suggested that local authorities develop action plans and set “specific targets relating to sustainability objectives within their overall strategy”.
The bewildering array of initiatives and declarations available which local government can espouse was not particularly helpful. Not many present, for example, had signed up to the ‘Nottingham declaration’. And an officer from one that had did not think it had made any difference.
Waltho suggested that the lack of clear targets, and the difficulty in creating baselines from which to monitor and measure ‘green progress’, would create a major barrier to the long term success of such initiatives.
Selling green internally
As expected from a group of local authority officers involved in sustainability and technology within their councils, the group was enthusiastic about how technology could help: mobile and flexible working, videoconferencing, virtualisation, power down, thin clients and so on.
The main surprise however to the audience was that not 100 percent of respondents said that their councils were undertaking sustainable IT disposal: “It should be 100 percent, it’s the law,” said one.
One reason put forward for the lower research finding was that the sustainable disposal policy was not being ‘advertised’ throughout the authority.
Most of those present were involved in schemes to either recycle hardware through local charities for community use or use in the third world.
Green has the potential to do ICT’s ‘PR’ within the organisation no end of good. One officer said that he spent a large part of his days as an account manager “out in the departments” in order to understand needs and explain where IT can help.
Added another: “We have come out of a time when we have had an extremely poor reputation in the organisation. The ability for ICT to go out to the business and say, ‘through this one project ICT is delivering over 50 percent of the council’s carbon targets’, is really helpful to us in being seen as being broadly engaged in the business in positive ways.”
Virtualisation, sharing & culture
Data centre optimisation and server consolidation using virtualization technology were particularly hot topics with those present.
Some of the issues that came up though were surprising. For example, a common obstacle to implementing virtualization technology came from departmental users: “Benefits don’t want to share a server with Housing - it actually gets down to two things that are quite easy to get rid of. One is lack of knowledge and the second is the traditional silo mentality.”
Officers had found many ways to tackle this cultural obstacle, including taking ‘roadshows’ out round the council, actively marketing the benefits of virtualisation, and the stark ‘you can’t afford your own server, so you will have to share’.
Interestingly, and not to suppliers’ credit, a number highlighted issues of application suppliers specifying dedicated servers or not guaranteeing support.
One council had even resorted to specifying ‘virtual’ requirements in tender documents as part of the procurement process to stop this happening.
Sun’s Craig suggested that sharing information about what worked – and, crucially, what didn’t – would be key to advancing the green ICT initiative in local authorities. Many agreed; one officer, for example, suggested that basic information sharing about real experiments around turning the air conditioning down in council data centres would be invaluable.
Richard Kellett, SAS, outlined a joint information sharing project in Norway where a number of local authorities were collating data within a SAS performance management framework for analysis and improvement.
Can IT ever be green?
This was a thorny question that polarized views. Many felt that technology had the ability to make current working practices ‘greener’. But, pointed out one officer, “If there was no IT would the world be greener? Yes. So no, IT is not green.”
SAS’s Kellett suggested that emissions associated with ICT could be viewed as ‘good emissions’ in comparison to the alternative emissions of not using ICT.
However, from the IT industry’s point of view added Craig, “What we should really be striving for is energy efficient, sustainable products.” He outlined Sun’s approach: using its own thin client hardware some units had been in use for up to nine years surviving major update refreshes “but still the same device”.
Leading and engagement
Whilst the explosion of interest and drivers for all things green was welcome, many echoed the plea of one officer for leadership at the highest level: “If it was joined up it would make it easier - especially for smaller authorities – to convince our colleagues that this is worth doing; when they just say ‘oh not another initiative to be measured against’.”
Many contrasted the government’s approach to e-government with its approach to greening IT in local government: “We are not really seeing the same driving force coming through on it and for that matter, the incentives,” said one.
Peter Dorrington, from SAS, disagreed that authorities should wait for central lead: “Corporate and social responsibility is not something that you do. It is something that you are or that you become.”
Doody agreed, adding,“Authorities should be acting now with inspiration, rather than later in desperation.”
Dorrington urged officers not to delay: “In the current climate local authorities need to move forward now, and use technology as a tool to make their organizations both green and lean.”