The Government’s Greenest IT Policy Is Foreign

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Will the UK Foreign Office’s move to implement a green IT strategy encourage other departments to follow suit, asks Miya Knights

A quick leaf through central government’s plans to contribute to achieving evermore ambitious carbon reduction targets reveals an unlikely champion.

Only a week after the energy secretary Chris Huhne committed the UK to halving carbon emissions from 1990 levels by 2025, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) unveiled its own ICT strategy for the next four years, which sets out carbon reduction targets of at least 25 percent by 2015.

No doubt there are sceptics among us, who question the ability of the country as a whole to meet its ambitious carbon targets, much less one of its central government departments. But there were two other things that struck me about the FCO plans: why, of all departments, should the one in charge of foreign policy be the one to lead the way on the application of IT to reduce enterprise emissions? And does the FCO strategy offer any tangible insights into the use of technology to affect operational and cultural change, that are also good for the planet?

An example to the big spenders

Don’t get me wrong, I think the FCO’s strategic report is a bold move on the part of a central government department that wouldn’t be first on my hit list as a major power and, therefore, carbon consumer. A number of reports have highlighted the wasteful IT spending of various government departments, including the Ministry of Defence, Department for Work and Pensions, Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs and the Department of Health.

Now I realise IT budgets are no indication of subsequent carbon footprints. But it’s a fair guess to assume the FCO’s stated focus on reducing the amount of IT infrastructure it holds is central, proportionally, to both its carbon reduction and cost-cutting commitments.

The FCO report includes some sensible proposals, from both environmental and efficiency perspectives. Who wouldn’t welcome less reliance on email and more on instant messaging, collaborative and presence applications, to encourage staff to use less paper and do less travelling?

The IT industry has also more or less embraced the need for faster adoption of more energy-efficient hardware. Even the plans to reduce IT requirements by tailoring the right kind of device to each user cleverly recognises the need to take people-led change into account when planning such initiatives.

And the FCO is one of the first to trial new energy monitoring technology to foster proactive cultural change and strategic guidance for coping with energy consumption and regulation.

Too reliant on outsourcing

However, one or two of the proposals make me think that – for all the best of intentions – the FCO IT strategy just won’t add up.

Looking at the Office of Government Commerce (OGC) report on government IT spending from last year, the FCO plans ring some alarm bells. The OGC reported that just under a third of the £6.1 billion spent on IT by central government in 2009 was spent on managed and outsourced services. Yet the FCO plans to reduce the department’s IT infrastructure, and perhaps offset its power needs, by outsourcing. Only where this is not possible will new technologies be introduced to limit and reduce its carbon footprint.

Moreover, the report makes no mention of cloud technologies, suggesting to me that it has got some of its priorities in the wrong order. This is despite a further pledge to reduce the cost of running its IT systems by at least 33 percent by 2015.

Only time will tell if the FCO succeeds in setting a green example for other central government departments, businesses and the public sector, but you’ve got to give it credit for sticking its neck out.

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