A People’s Sustainability Commission?

With the winding up of the Sustainable Development Commission, who will advise and critique Government on sustainable development?  One proposal mooted at last week’s Big Sustainability Summit was a people’s sustainability commission.  That got me wondering what its role could be and who it would involve.

The Sustainable Development Commission (SDC), in its current guise, is the Government’s independent adviser on sustainable development, reporting to the Prime Minister, the First Ministers of Scotland and Wales and the First Minister and Deputy First Minister of Northern Ireland. Through advocacy, advice and appraisal, it aims to put sustainable development at the heart of Government policy.

Its role is to:

  • providing informed, evidence-based advice to government on finding solutions to problems which help it to meet its commitment to sustainable development;
  • developing the attitudes, skills and knowledge in government to make the best decisions for today and the future;
  • holding government to account on progress towards sustainability.

This role is restricted to UK Government departments and agencies and excludes scrutiny of the wider public sector. Their work is divided into ten policy areas: climate change, consumption, economics, education, energy, engagement, health, housing, regional & local government and transport. It does not cover environmental pollution, which is the responsibility of the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution – also being wound up.

Currently, commissioners decide on which projects will be undertaken in each policy area and the SDC draws upon a panel of around 600 individually selected experts to formulate opinions and recommendations on various issues.

I see the formation of a people’s sustainability commission as an opportunity to redefine this role, expanding it to encompass the wider public sector and public sector supply chain.  Government is BIG. Around six million of us, which is one in five workers, work for the government at some level, whether for local government, the NHS or any one of a myriad of departments, agencies and quangos. That does not include the private sector suppliers, subcontractors, consultants and service providers that work for Government.  Making this portion of the economy more sustainable, using energy and resources more efficiently and reducing waste and harmful effects of development and activities will make a significant difference to the UK as a whole and will help change attitudes and drive change in the private sector.

It should also involve many more people over a broad spectrum of society and cover a much wider range of topics.  Individuals using public sector services, and those on the frontline delivering them, can often see waste and inefficient practices much more clearly than senior management or sector experts and they should be encouraged to volunteer their ideas.  The challenge with such an all-encompassing approach is to highlight the best ideas and filter out those which wouldn’t work or are the result of vested interests.  It is relatively easy for someone with a bit of technical knowledge and determination to disseminate their particular agenda through the internet and social media while it is even easier for someone else’s amazing idea being lost to practical obscurity.  Loose, informal networks of local, departmental or sectorial groupings could facilitate such a filtering mechanism with a monthly or quarterly digest being circulate more widely to promote the best of the best and to generate a best practice knowledge base.

Of course, care must be exercised to avoid social exclusion and the digital divide spilling over into a sustainability divide, with many people without access to the internet already facing fuel poverty and multiple deprivations, all of which must be addressed if our society is to become more sustainable.

One of the main challenges that I foresee is funding.  Individuals will volunteer time and ideas for their communities and their interests, and experts may give some time, but without funding for full time co-ordinators there will be difficulty in fulfilling many of the activities of the SDC, such as undertaking projects to investigate particular issues and measuring the performance of Government.  Without this high level output it will be a toothless tiger. Which is what, after all, is wanted by the greenest government ever.

I look forward to watching how this idea develops and hope to contribute to the debate.

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