Five ways councils can bring Sustainability strategy to life.
In my 12 years’ experience of working in Corporate Sustainability roles, I have learned many lessons about implementing strategies. From my observations I have seen that there is one common problem, how to bring the strategy to life? Getting ‘off the page’ and taking strategy from a “To do” item to part of the organisations culture is a challenge for all organisations, public or private.
More recently I have had the privilege of working in local government and learnt that councils have a unique and advantageous position, not taken up by federal government or the private sector for tackling sustainability.
Councils in Australia, as elsewhere, are at the coal face of many of societies sustainability issues, waste and recycling, urban planning and development, cycle lanes, community greening to name a few. This also means that local government have a great opportunity to have a big impact in tackling them. There is local government ambition, as evidenced by the number of councils with comprehensive sustainability strategies and targets. Waverley Council in Sydney’s Eastern Suburbs is one example of this, the first council in Australia to develop an ambitious 10-year environmental plan and community targets.
However, whilst the opportunity is there for councils all over Australia, progress can be stifled by a number of challenges, such as limited vocal leadership, engaging employees, restrictive reporting, strict budget and procurement and embedding sustainable practice into processes.
Here are my top 5 recommendations that councils could apply to implement sustainability strategies in practice.
No1. Leadership walking the talk
All members of the leadership team need to be bought into delivery of the strategy and be vocal about it. The importance of leadership and what spurs some leaders into action and not others was documented by Corporate Citizenship. Vocal leaders can accelerate sustainability performance as evidenced by companies such as Interface flor, Walmart and Unilever’s Paul Pollman. This works as they advocate passionately and purposefully, linking Sustainability to their core values. Leaders are particularly key for internalising the value that Sustainability can bring to the organisation.
No2. Get everyone on board
Employee engagement is key to implementing strategy. In my experience, too often employees think that delivering sustainability strategies is the job of the sustainability team. If all employees could see their role in delivery, it would go a long way to seeing change happen. Unilever’s campaign delivered in partnership with Republic of Everyone is good example. Every employee was given a “Head of Sustainability” business card, a fun example of building sustainability into job descriptions so that accountability exists alongside engagement.
No 3. Report, learn, celebrate and repeat.
The real value of reporting is in honest reflection so that organisations learn, and not just to ‘drive performance’. If your reporting shows something to be working, celebrate it, so it spurs further action and innovation. Reporting need not be dull, if it is used to tell a story and build trust with your stakeholders. Too often reporting is not done due to lack of accurate data. Concerns over too much data, not enough data, inaccurate data, and irrelevant data hold back reporting to learn and build relationships. This reporting could be used to communicate their story and share best practice with other councils.
No 4. Budget for Innovation
Planned budget for planned sustainability initiatives is not enough, planned budgets stifle creativity, especially for ideas that come part way through the financial year. So not only do budgets need to be ring fenced for Sustainability programs, there could also be a seed fund for idea incubation. How often have you heard the words, ‘well that’s a great idea, but who is going to pay for it’?. A common practice in private sector companies is to have an innovation budget to test ideas. This not only helps them to stay ahead of the curve, but is also very encouraging for employees, instead of seeing their ideas get knocked back due to ‘budget’. Not only are budgets important for innovation, but the large budgets councils hold could make a big difference in areas such as Sustainable procurement.
No 5. Embed sustainability into every function.
Councils have many functions due to the range of services they provide to the community. If embedding Sustainability practices into every function sounds daunting, start with one. Use it as a best practice example to bring the others along, showing the benefits that have been gained. Winners of Local Government Sustainability Award (NSW) Inner West Council’s efforts to embedding sustainability into their procurement function are well worth a look at.
In summary, attention to these five recommendations could take a strategy from good to great, and most certainly help it to live across the organisation. Councils could deliver on their goals in a much more effective way, and faster than they currently are. How to get this done comes down to point No1. Leaders!
* This article was commissioned by the Institute for Studies and Development (IFSD), if you would like an article written for your organisation please contact me.