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Why the public sector must prioritize sustainable IT

Maëlle Bouvier
05 July 2022

How will IT transformation enable public sector organizations to become low carbon and net zero leaders in pursuit of their sustainability goals?

Mitigating carbon-hungry tech

With evidence of the climate emergency now irrefutable, public-sector organizations are upping their game in pursuit of net-zero carbon emissions. To this end, we hear about sustainable transport strategies, zero-emission fleet vehicles, smart cities, and investment in green public spaces. What’s not so frequently discussed is the impact of IT on the environment and what needs to be done to mitigate it.

Yet, enterprise IT has a substantial carbon footprint. A recent Capgemini Research Institute report, Sustainable IT — Why it’s time for a green revolution for your organization’s IT, points out that data centers across both the public and private sectors represent nearly 1% of the world’s energy demand, with the majority still largely powered by fossil fuels. The report cites a forecast stating that the growth rate of enterprise IT’s contribution to global CO2 emissions could grow from 8.4% in 2020 to 20.5% in 2025. That’s not all. There’s a distinct lack of recycling, with 89% of organizations recycling less than 10% of their IT hardware. Further, as more and more organizations seek to use artificial intelligence (AI) to inform efficiency gains and service excellence, it’s important to recognize that AI itself has a carbon footprint. One estimate suggests that training an AI language processing system produced 1,400 pounds of emissions, which is equivalent to the amount produced by one person taking a round-trip flight between New York and San Francisco.

Advancing the sustainability agenda

For the public sector with its vast IT estate and growing technology spend, there is thus potential for IT leaders to play a significant role in advancing the sustainability agenda through the implementation of sustainable IT strategies. This is where IT adopts an environmental, sustainability-focused approach to the design, usage, and disposal of IT, software applications, and accompanying business processes.

However, while the global findings show that the wider technology industry is responding to the climate urgency, respondents in public sector organizations exhibit relatively low levels of awareness of the environmental impact of their IT (36%) compared with other industries, such as banking (52%) and consumer products (51%).

More broadly, outside IT functions, the awareness and implementation of sustainable IT initiatives is very low. For example, awareness/implementation amongst HR respondents in the public sector is just 5%, although this is a little higher than the all-sector average for HR of 1%. Likewise, public sector finance functions have a low awareness/implementation score at 5%, just below the all-sector average of 7%.

Tapping into the capabilities of tech firms

Only 10% of public sector organizations (against an 18% global average) have a sustainable IT strategy with well-defined goals and target timelines. This compares to the broader sustainability strategy for the entire enterprise, which 52% of public sector organizations say they have. This low figure for sustainable IT in the public sector comes despite the existence of national regulations and frameworks for eco-responsible digital strategies. So, what’s stopping the adoption of these frameworks? Above all, there remains a major challenge in measuring the carbon impact of public IT and this hinders decision-makers in committing to reduction trajectories/targets.

Clearly, help is needed to accelerate the adoption of sustainable IT in this sector. And public sector leaders recognize this, with 62% saying technology firms can help them measure the environmental impact of IT. A further 53% believe that the tech firms should incorporate a sustainable IT dimension in their products and services, and 47% would be willing to pay a premium of up to 5% for them.

The barriers to sustainable IT

The biggest roadblock for sustainable IT implementation in the public sector is a lack of domain expertise, with 60% of organizations citing this as a challenge versus the all-sector average of 53%. Cost is another factor, with 55% of public sector organizations citing the high cost of setting up sustainable IT infrastructure. Again, this is above the all-industry average, which stands at 48%. When decarbonization is not an administration’s priority, it becomes difficult to justify both the recruitment effort and cost.

Of course, sustainability maturity varies from country to country, and this will have an impact on how these barriers are handled. For example, Germany has set in law its objective of carbon neutrality for public administrations (Federal Climate Act), which means public sector organizations are legally obliged to find ways to overcome whatever barriers to climate neutrality they face. In contrast the ‘burning platform’ for the public sector in other countries is lacking because there is no legally binding target for them to achieve.

As a provider of essential citizen and business services and national infrastructures, it is no surprise that the public sector also has a heightened concern (55% v 45%) about the impact on business continuity of shifting from legacy systems to more sustainable alternatives.

Nonetheless, removing these barriers will bring substantial benefit aside from the huge value of reducing the public sector IT carbon footprint. For example, organizations that have scaled up their sustainable IT use cases have achieved on average a 12% cost reduction. Those deemed to have highly mature sustainable IT practices score  higher in terms of improved customer/client satisfaction at 56% versus 43% for less mature organizations. Just one measure alone, that of implementing auto switch-off of hardware/features, can deliver up to 14% in operational cost savings from energy reduction, while also reducing carbon emissions.

Recommendations for sustainable IT implementation

As leaders in shaping policy to mitigate climate change and working towards net zero, government and public sector bodies must accelerate their own implementation of sustainable IT strategies and approaches.

The following recommendations form a roadmap for achieving this.

  • Assess: Set the foundations for sustainable IT initiatives with a qualitative and quantitative diagnostic assessment and a sustainable IT strategy that aligns with the broader organizational sustainability strategy. This should include the definition of key performance indicators, targets, frameworks, and the setting of a carbon cost against IT operations so that different functions really understand the impact of their IT footprint.
  • Target and trajectory: Equip the organization with the ability to determine the impact of the measures envisaged when setting a target and trajectory, whether these measures concern the evolution of existing IT or the development of new digital offers.
  • Governance plan: Set up robust governance approaches to be implemented at both national and local level. The national plan will be key to establishing common rules, such as a sustainable procurement guide, for implementation across the public sector.  Empower a dedicated sustainable IT team with support from the top leadership team to ensure all stakeholders are committed to implementing sustainable IT initiatives. The governance plan should align services and citizen-engagement strategies with sustainable IT.
  • Implement: Operationalize sustainable IT initiatives, with sustainability a key pillar of software architecture, a sustainability culture across teams, and by identifying the environmental impact of AI during design and training. Environmental impact should also be an IT vendor selection criterion, while selecting and scaling the right sustainable IT use cases is vital, such as moving to enterprise cloud applications.

Responding to growing digitalization

Public sector organizations are on a steep and rapid digital trajectory. As our Public Sector IT Trends 2021-22 research showed, the pandemic has demonstrated a requirement for contactless digital services, while in Europe the EU’s new goals stipulate that all public administration services should be available online by 2030. This will inevitably have an impact on C02 emissions and the volume of e-waste generated.

Public sector leaders can mitigate the environmental impact of this digitalization by implementing sustainable IT. At the same time, a sustainable IT strategy must consider both the positive and negative environmental impact of the changes proposed. For example, a digital citizen service will have its own IT carbon footprint, yet it could also make it possible to significantly reduce user travel and the ensuing carbon impact.

Moving forward, from the adoption of diagnostic tools and the definition of a strategy to the development of a roadmap for sustainable IT and internal behavioral change, the stage is set for a more resilient, sustainable public sector IT landscape.

Find out more

Read the full Capgemini Research Institute report, Sustainable IT — Why it’s time for a green revolution for your organization’s IT. For more insights on the public sector, follow us on LinkedIn.