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Moving up the Learning Curve: The Second Generation of Sustainable Development Strategies

Foreword

In 1995, legislation was enacted to help strengthen the federal government's performance in protecting the environment and promoting sustainable development. This legislation established my position and required ministers to prepare sustainable development strategies for their departments and table them in the House of Commons. Monitoring and reporting on federal progress toward sustainable development is a key part of my mandate.

I believe that as the largest single enterprise in the country, the federal government can make a significant difference in Canada's prospects for sustainable development. It shares responsibility for the legal framework that affects the way we use the environment. The services and programs it provides contribute to the social, economic and environmental well-being of Canadians. Finally, as Canada's largest single employer, landlord and purchaser, the federal government can show leadership by managing its day-to-day operations in a sustainable manner.

In my view, sustainable development strategies are crucial to advance the federal government's sustainable development agenda. The first round of strategies, released in 1997, was an important first step. Departments are now preparing their second strategies and will present them to the House of Commons by December 2000.

The challenge for departments is to "move up the learning curve". Here is my perspective on how they can do that.

Brian Emmett
Commissioner of the Environment
and Sustainable Development


Main Points

1. Departments and agencies of the federal government are now beginning to prepare their second sustainable development strategies for presentation to the House of Commons by December 2000. The initial strategies, released in 1997, were an important first step. Now the challenge for departments is to "move up the learning curve" and incorporate the lessons they learned in developing and implementing their first strategies.

2. This document sets out my expectations for the second round of sustainable development strategies. I will be looking for a significant improvement in quality in that round. In particular, I expect departments to focus their efforts in three areas:

  • Assessing their first strategies - determining what the first strategy has achieved, what has changed, and what needs to be done differently - and making those assessments available in the consultations leading to the second strategies.
  • Strengthening the planning of strategies - drawing clear links between the departments' activities, the significant impacts of those activities and priorities for action.
  • Accelerating the development of the management systems needed to turn the strategies from talk into action.

In each of these areas, the support, involvement and commitment of senior management will be critical to move the organization up the learning curve.

3. Responsibilities for the environment and sustainable development are shared across government. Recognizing this, the government has chosen a decentralized approach to advance its sustainable development agenda, with each minister accountable for progress under his or her mandate.

4. However, many of the participants in the first round of strategy preparation stressed the importance of developing a "Government of Canada" perspective on sustainable development. Departments could then work together within a coherent, common framework of sustainable development objectives.

5. In previous reports, I have stated that some of the most pressing issues facing governments today cut across departmental mandates and political jurisdictions. Effective co-ordination across these mandates and jurisdictions is essential for meeting Canada's sustainable development objectives. I expect to see departments working together in areas of shared responsibility.

Background

6. As the country's largest single enterprise, the federal government can make a significant difference in Canada's prospects for sustainable development. It shares responsibility for the legal framework that affects the way we use the environment. The services and programs it provides contribute to the social, economic and environmental well-being of Canadians. And as Canada's largest single employer, landlord and purchaser, the federal government can show leadership by managing its day-to-day operations in a sustainable manner.

7. Legislation was enacted in 1995 to help strengthen the federal government's performance in protecting the environment and promoting sustainable development. Ministers were required to have sustainable development strategies prepared for their departments and tabled in the House of Commons. The legislation defined these strategies as the departments' objectives and plans of action to further sustainable development.

8. The strategies released in 1997 provided for the first time a picture of how 28 departments viewed sustainable development and how each proposed to advance it. In my 1998 and 1999 Reports to the House of Commons, I commented on the strengths and weaknesses of these strategies. Some highlights of these comments are included in this document.


Introduction

The sustainable development challenge

9. As early as 1915, the Canadian Commission of Conservation recognized the challenge of sustainable development. It said, "We are prosperous now, but we must not forget that it is just as important that our descendants should be prosperous in their turn. Each generation is entitled to the interest on the natural capital, but the principal should be handed on unimpaired." Today we talk about "meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs."

10. During the 1980s, Canada was one of the first countries to embrace sustainable development as a public policy goal. Other countries soon followed. In 1992, representatives from 178 nations met at the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro to develop a plan for dealing with environment and sustainable development issues then and into the 21st century. They endorsed a plan of action - Agenda 21 - and recommended that all countries produce strategies for sustainable development.

11. Five years later, nations met again at a special session of the United Nations General Assembly, to assess their progress and to set priorities for the future. As I reported in 1998, they concluded that they had made some progress. Globally, population growth was slowing, food production was rising, the majority of people were living longer and healthier lives, and environmental quality in some regions was improving.

12. But they were also deeply concerned that trends overall had worsened, despite a proliferation of national and regional sustainable development strategies, conservation strategies and environmental action plans. They cited rising levels of greenhouse gas emissions, toxic pollution and solid waste; overuse of renewable resources, in particular water, forests, topsoil and fisheries; and the growing gap between rich and poor.

13. The global community is committed to improving its performance. Nations have said that by 2002 - ten years after the Earth Summit - they will show greater measurable progress toward sustainable development. Canada was one of those nations.

14. The Canadian approach to sustainable development. Since 1994, the federal government has focussed on getting its own house in order in its policies, programs and operations. Parliament passed legislation in 1995 to help strengthen the federal government's performance in protecting the environment and promoting sustainable development.

15. Amendments to the Auditor General Act required ministers to have their departments prepare sustainable development strategies. Recognizing that responsibilities for the environment and sustainable development are shared across government, each minister is accountable for progress under his or her mandate.

16. The sustainable development strategies were intended to help departments broaden their perspective on what they do and how they do it - to take environmental, economic and social considerations into account more systematically in their policies, programs and operations. The intent was to help turn sustainable development from talk into action. Sustainable development strategies also provide the benchmarks against which departments can measure their progress.

17. To prepare the first round of strategies, departments used A Guide to Green Government. The Guide provided initial objectives for sustainable development and a common approach to preparing the strategies. Exhibit 1 presents some key milestones.

Exhibit 1

Sustainable Development Strategies - Key Milestones

October 1994

 

In response to recommendations from the Standing Committee on Environment and Sustainable Development, the government proposed amendments to the Auditor General Act to establish the position of Commissioner of the Environment and Sustainable Development and require ministers to prepare sustainable development strategies for their departments.

 

June 1995

 

The government released A Guide to Green Government to assist departments in their preparation of sustainable development strategies.

 

December 1995

 

Amendments to the Auditor General Act received royal assent.

 

June 1996

 

The Commissioner of the Environment and Sustainable Development was appointed.

 

March 1997

 

The Commissioner issued his first annual Report to the House of Commons.

 

By December 1997

 

Twenty-eight departments and agencies had prepared their first sustainable development strategies and ministers tabled them in the House of Commons.

 

May 1998

 

The Commissioner's second Report provided an initial assessment of the strategies (see Exhibit 2).

 

October 1998

 

Departments presented their first annual progress reports to Parliament.

 

March 1999

 

In response to recommendations in the Commissioner's 1998 report, departments presented revised strategy targets to the House of Commons.

 

May 1999

 

The Commissioner's third Report included an assessment of the consultation processes departments used to prepare their first strategies (see Exhibit 7) and of strategy implementation (see Exhibit 8).

 

October 1999

 

Departments presented their second annual progress reports to Parliament.

 

December 1999

 

The Commissioner released this document, setting out expectations for the next round of sustainable development strategies.

 

May 2000

 

The Commissioner's fourth Report will include an assessment of strategy implementation.

 

October 2000

 

Departments will present their third annual progress reports to Parliament.

 

December 2000

 

Second sustainable development strategies are due to be tabled in the House of Commons.

 

May 2001

 

The Commissioner's fifth Report will include an initial assessment of the second strategies.

 

 

18. By December 1997, 28 departments and agencies had prepared their first sustainable development strategies and tabled them in the House of Commons. Those strategies provide a picture of how each government department viewed sustainable development and how each intended to promote it. Since then, departments have focussed on implementing their strategies and reporting their progress.

19. When it launched the strategy process, the federal government recognized that sustainable development was not a fixed state that could be achieved with a one-time effort. Rather, progress would be step by step - through planning, action, learning and improvement.

20. Consistent with this approach of continual improvement, departments are required to update their strategies at least every three years. The first update is due by December 2000. Departments are thinking now about how they will approach the update.

Focus of this document

21. This document sets out my expectations for the next round of sustainable development strategies. It reflects my observations in the three Reports I have presented to the House of Commons. It also draws on discussions with federal departments and with organizations outside the federal government. I have also benefited from the comments of my Panel of Advisors.

22. I believe that as the largest single enterprise in the country, the federal government can make a significant difference in Canada's prospects for sustainable development. It shares responsibility for the legal framework that affects the way we use the environment. The services and programs it provides contribute to the social, economic and environmental well-being of Canadians. And as Canada's largest single employer, landlord and purchaser, the federal government can show leadership by managing its day-to-day operations in a sustainable manner.

23. I view the strategies as crucial to advancing the federal government's sustainable development agenda. The first round of strategies was an important step. The challenge for departments in the second round is to "move up the learning curve". This document gives my perspective on how they can do that.

Moving Up the Learning Curve

24. The first round of sustainable development strategies gave us a picture of how each department views sustainable development and how each plans to promote it. Preparing their strategies made departments - and also their clients and stakeholders - more aware of sustainable development issues.

25. However, our first review revealed weaknesses in the strategies (see Exhibit 2). Two of these are fundamental:

  • Almost all departments failed to set clear targets that they, parliamentarians and the public could use to judge whether or not the strategy is being implemented successfully.
  • Many of the strategies appeared to be more a restatement of the status quo than a commitment to change in order to better protect our environment and promote sustainable development.

Exhibit 2

The Commissioner's Initial Review of Departmental Sustainable Development Strategies, 1998

In our first review of the departmental sustainable development strategies, we found that most departments prepared a strategy consistent with the majority of the basic requirements [set out in A Guide to Green Government]. For the first time, therefore, we have a picture of how each government department currently views sustainable development and of the actions each one intends to take to promote it. Moreover, strategy preparation has increased awareness of sustainable development issues within those departments.

However, our review of the strategies revealed a number of weaknesses, two of them fundamental.

  • Almost all departments failed to establish the clear and measurable targets that are key to the success or failure of the sustainable development strategy process. As a consequence, departments, parliamentarians and the public lack the benchmarks they need to judge whether the strategies are being successfully implemented, or to determine when corrective action may be required.
  • Many strategies appear to represent less a commitment to change in order to promote sustainable development than a restatement of the status quo. Those strategies tend to focus more on past accomplishments than future directions. Less than one half identify specific policy, program, legislative, regulatory or operational changes that would be made to implement the strategy.

The lack of benchmarks needs to be dealt with quickly. We believe that departments need to establish a clear set of targets and present them to the House of Commons in the spring of 1999.

By 15 December 2000, departments are expected to present their second sustainable development strategies. Building on the experience gained from the first round of strategy preparation, we will be looking for a significant improvement in strategy quality in the second round. In particular, we expect departments to focus more on what they will do differently to promote sustainable development.

Source: Chapter 1, Report of the Commissione

 

26. Since then, departments have taken additional steps to set clearer targets. I will include an assessment of those targets in my next report. However, departments still need to shift the focus of their strategies from past accomplishments and the status quo to changing their practices and setting future directions.

27. Private sector organizations are also dealing with how to build environmental and sustainable development considerations into the way they do business. Like some of the first sustainable development strategies, initial corporate reports tended to focus narrowly on the positive aspects of environmental performance.

28. But as organizations gained experience and worked with a management system that supported their strategies, their reports improved. They provided broader and deeper coverage of issues the organizations faced and how they were dealing with them. In other words, the organizations moved up the learning curve (see Exhibit 3). Federal government departments need to do the same.

Exhibit 3

Corporate Reports Improved as Organizations Moved Up the Learning Curve

Like some of the first sustainable development strategies, initial corporate reports tended to focus narrowly on the positive aspects of the organization's environmental performance. But as organizations gained experience and worked with a management system that supported their strategies, the reports provided broader and deeper coverage of the issues facing the organizations and the way they were dealing with those issues.

International surveys of corporate environmental reporting done for the United Nations Environment Programme by SustainAbility Ltd. show major improvements in the quality of reporting over time. According to SustainAbility Ltd., today the best corporate reports:

  • cover all three dimensions of sustainable development - economic, social and environmental;
  • highlight the key issues directly linked to the company's core business, and priorities in dealing with them; and
  • present performance indicators with targets that are specific, measurable, attainable and verified.

Those are the same characteristics we hope to find in a sustainable development strategy prepared by a federal government department. Today, most fall short of those high standards. By 2000, I expect departments to have narrowed that gap considerably.

Source: Commissioner's Observations, Report of the Commissioner of the Environment and Sustainable Development, 1998

 

Strengthening Management Practices

29. In each of my reports, I have said that to improve its performance the federal government needs to pay more attention to the management side of sustainable development. I am impressed by the commitment to sustainable development apparent in leading organizations in both the private and the public sectors, and by the rigour they apply to managing their environmental and sustainable development agendas. Exhibit 4 illustrates the type of model those organizations are using to translate commitment into results.

Exhibit 4

A Management System Approach

A Managment System Approach

Source: Chapter 1, Report of the Commissioner of the Environment and Sustainable Development, 1999

 

30. This model is consistent with the direction that A Guide to Green Government provided to departments. I believe that if they use it to prepare and implement their sustainable development strategies, departments will improve their performance significantly. I will therefore continue to use the model as the basis for assessing departmental strategies.

31. In the next round of strategies, I expect departments to focus their efforts in three areas:

  • Assessing their first strategies - determining what the first strategy has achieved, what has changed, and what needs to be done differently - and making those assessments available in the consultations leading to the second strategies.
  • Strengthening the planning of strategies - drawing clear links between departments' activities, the significant impacts of those activities and priorities for action.
  • Accelerating the development of the management systems needed to turn the strategies from talk into action.

In each of these areas, the support, involvement and commitment of senior management will be critical to move the organization up the learning curve.

Starting on the Right Foot: Assessing the First Sustainable Development Strategy

32. Departments are now part way through their first strategy cycle. Planning for the first generation of strategies has been completed and implementation is under way. Now is the time to check and improve.

33. The international organizations we met with emphasized that the participatory and learning aspects of the strategy process are just as important as the strategy document itself (see Exhibit 5). To learn, departments need to review periodically what they have accomplished so far and what has changed. Then they need to determine what they should do differently.

Exhibit 5

Strategies as a Learning Process

Strategies, and especially sustainable development strategies, have to be seen as ongoing cyclic processes of action and learning from experience through a participatory approach, feeding into improved policies and programmes. The emphasis needs to be put on the participatory and learning aspects of the process more than on the document that is the product of the process.

Source: Integrating environment and sustainable development in decision making, Report of the Secretary General, Commission on Sustainable Development, United Nations, 1997

 

34. This assessment is a critical part of managing the sustainable development strategy process. Senior management needs to be involved in assessing the first strategy as the basis for improvement.

35. The assessment should include a review of the following:

  • the goals, objectives and targets set in the first strategy, and performance against them;
  • findings from our audits and departmental internal audits or self-assessments of sustainable development management processes; and
  • changing circumstances, including policy direction, legislation, activities, advances in science and technology and stakeholder interests.

This process would conclude with an assessment of the current strategy's suitability and the need for any changes to it.

36. These questions - what has the department achieved with its first strategy, what has changed, and what needs to be done differently - are what participants in the first consultations told us they would like the consultations to address in the next round of strategies.

37. I expect each department to conduct and document an assessment of its first sustainable development strategy and use that assessment in its consultations for its second strategy. And I expect the second strategy to describe the assessment process and its outcome.

Taking the Next Step: Strengthening the Planning Process

38. During the planning phase, departments establish the logical foundation for their next strategy. They draw the links between what they do and how they do it and the significant impacts of their activities on sustainable development. They then establish performance objectives to mitigate negative impacts and reinforce positive ones, and set targets for achieving those objectives within a specified period. Each department develops an action plan to achieve its objectives and targets.

39. Key elements of the planning phase are as follows:

  • identify and evaluate the sustainable development impacts of the department's policies, programs and operations that it can control or influence - and which ones are the most significant;
  • identify all legal, policy and other requirements that govern the department's activities;
  • identify stakeholders' views on the department's priorities and how to achieve them;
  • establish clear objectives and targets; and
  • develop an action plan that addresses each of the department's sustainable development objectives and assigns responsibility for managing, monitoring and reporting progress.

40. Many of the people we consulted in the preparation of this document stressed the importance of departments' focussing their efforts - identifying and concentrating on the areas where they can make the biggest difference. An analysis of international experience with national environmental strategies draws a similar conclusion (see Exhibit 6).

Exhibit 6

International Experience with Sustainable Development Strategies

Around 100 countries have now prepared national sustainable development strategies or National Environmental Action Plans (NEAPs) to help guide their thinking on environmental management. Although these strategies are frequently effective in highlighting important environmental issues, they have sometimes been less successful in identifying priorities for action and making explicit links to policy changes . . . The major lesson learned from the sustainable development strategy and NEAP processes is the fundamental importance of setting priorities, developing national ownership, and involving the public.

Source: Five Years After Rio: Innovations in Environmental Policy, World Bank, 1997

 

41. Consulting with partners, clients and other stakeholders is an important part of the planning process. In my 1999 Report, I reviewed the consultations that were part of the first round of strategy development (see Exhibit 7). Participants in that process identified three key weaknesses that the next round needs to address: limited co-ordination among departments; limited involvement of senior management; and limited feedback to participants.

Exhibit 7

The Commissioner's Review of Sustainable Development Strategy Consultations, 1999

Overall, among both participants and departments, we found a high level of satisfaction with the consultations conducted by departments in preparing their first sustainable development strategies. Most participants felt that departments were listening to them and that their comments would be taken into account in the final strategy. Departments believed that the consultations broadened their own perspective on the issues they faced, and increased the awareness of those issues among clients, partners and employees. The result, from the departments' point of view, was better strategies and more "buy-in" for them.

However, a number of opportunities for improvement were identified that should be reflected in the consultations leading to the sustainable development strategy revisions due in December 2000. The three most significant weaknesses were the following:

  • Limited feedback. Participants were given uneven feedback on what had been heard and how their views were reflected in the strategy. While most participants believed they were listened to, they were not sure to what extent they influenced the result. Following the consultations, many departments did not provide participants with sufficient information to make that judgment.
  • Limited co-ordination among departments. Both departments and participants noted that many sustainable development issues, such as sustainable transportation, involve a number of departments, and that there is a need for joint consultations on those issues to complement department-specific consultations.
  • Limited involvement of senior management. The choice of who represents the department in the consultation process sends an important signal about the priority the department attaches to consultation and to the subject. Some departments involved department representatives who were senior enough to have some authority in conveying participants' comments and in integrating them into the strategy; other departments delegated representation significantly downward. Participants noticed the difference.

Source: Chapter 2, Report of the Commissioner of the Environment and Sustainable Development, 1999

 

42. I have also commented on the importance of setting clear targets that departments, parliamentarians and the public can use to judge whether or not the strategy is being implemented successfully (see Exhibit 2). I will continue to look to departments to indicate clearly how they will measure progress.

43. Building on the lessons learned from the first round of preparing sustainable development strategies, I expect to see a significant improvement in the strategy planning process. I expect departments to present clear links among their activities, the significant impacts of those activities and priorities for action.

Turning Talk Into Action: Supporting Implementation

44. A plan - no matter how compelling or inspiring - can be effective only if it is purposefully implemented. Both domestically and internationally, however, we have seen a significant gap between plans and actions. We need to close that gap - not by lowering our expectations but by strengthening our performance.

45. To implement their strategies effectively, departments must develop the capabilities and support mechanisms they need to achieve their objectives and targets. This includes:

  • clearly defining roles and responsibilities for strategy implementation;
  • assigning the appropriate resources for implementation;
  • providing training to increase awareness of sustainable development impacts of departmental activities, and improve competence in managing for sustainable development;
  • developing good information for decision making; and
  • measuring and reporting progress.

46. As I reported in 1999, departments are in the early stages of establishing processes and procedures to manage effectively the implementation of their strategies (see Exhibit 8). We recommended that departments accelerate their plans to put appropriate management systems in place, giving priority to training needs and implementing the self-assessment and management review practices required to facilitate corrective action.

Exhibit 8

The Commissioner's Review of Sustainable Development Strategy Implementation, 1999

Departments are required to report annually to Parliament on strategy implementation. According to their first progress reports and related information, departments have so far completed about 11 percent of what they said they would do in their strategies. Departments are making progress on their action plans.

However, the information that departments provided varied widely. For most departments, it fell well short of the Treasury Board Secretariat's Guideline for the Preparation of Departmental Performance Reports to Parliament, making it difficult to judge whether the strategies are on track or whether corrective action is required. We expect that the quality of reporting will improve substantially as departments establish clear and measurable targets as we recommended last year and make better use of the Guideline.

Departments are just beginning to establish practices to support strategy implementation and key gaps exist relative to the ISO 14001 benchmark. Departments have not yet adopted a systematic approach to identifying their priorities, defining management expectations, assigning accountability for results, identifying related training needs at lower levels in the organization, and performing the self-assessments that would facilitate steady improvement.

As a consequence, the current management control practices that departments are applying to strategy implementation do not provide assurance that their action plans will be consistently implemented or that the intended results of the strategies will be achieved. To remedy that deficiency, we have recommended that departments accelerate their plans to put appropriate management systems in place, giving priority to training needs and implementing the self-assessment and management review practices required to facilitate corrective action.

Source: Chapter 1, Report of the Commissioner of the Environment and Sustainable Development, 1999

 

47. I expect departments to accelerate the development of management systems to support strategy implementation - to turn their words into actions.

Providing a "Government of Canada" Perspective

48. Responsibilities for the environment and sustainable development are shared across government. Recognizing this, the government has chosen a decentralized approach to advance its sustainable development agenda, with each minister accountable for progress under his or her mandate.

49. However, many of the participants in the first round of strategy preparation stressed the importance of developing a "Government of Canada" perspective on sustainable development. Departments could then work together within a coherent, common framework of sustainable development objectives.

50. In previous reports, I have stated that some of the most pressing issues facing governments today cut across departmental mandates and political jurisdictions. Effective co-ordination across these mandates and jurisdictions is essential for meeting Canada's sustainable development objectives. I expect to see departments working together in areas of shared responsibility.

Conclusion

51. Countries around the world are working to strengthen their performance in protecting the environment and promoting sustainable development. They have set the year 2002 - ten years after the Rio Earth Summit - as the target date for demonstrating measurable progress.

52. The sustainable development strategies that departments are now preparing are an important tool for meeting Canada's commitment. Departments made a start with their first strategies; their challenge now is to move quickly up the learning curve.

53. This document presents my views on how they can do that. Departments need to assess their first strategies, strengthen strategy planning, and accelerate development of the management systems needed to turn the strategies from talk into action. The support, involvement and commitment of senior management are critical to move the organization up the learning curve.


Appendix A

Organizations Required by Legislation to Prepare a Sustainable Development Strategy

Twenty-five departments and agencies are presently required by legislation to prepare a sustainable development strategy and table it in the House of Commons.

  • Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada
  • Atlantic Canada Opportunities Agency
  • Department of Canadian Heritage
  • Canada Customs and Revenue Agency
  • Canadian International Development Agency
  • Citizenship and Immigration Canada
  • Economic Development Agency of Canada for the Regions of Quebec
  • Environment Canada
  • Department of Finance
  • Fisheries and Oceans
  • Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade
  • Health Canada
  • Human Resources Development Canada
  • Indian and Northern Affairs Canada
  • Industry Canada
  • Department of Justice
  • National Defence
  • Natural Resources Canada
  • Parks Canada Agency
  • Public Works and Government Services Canada
  • Solicitor General Canada
  • Transport Canada
  • Treasury Board Secretariat
  • Veterans Affairs Canada
  • Western Economic Diversification Canada

Organizations that Voluntarily Tabled a Sustainable Development Strategy

In 1997, four organizations voluntarily prepared a sustainable development strategy and tabled it in the House of Commons.

  • Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency
  • Correctional Service Canada
  • Office of the Auditor General of Canada
  • Royal Canadian Mounted Police

Appendix B

How to Access the First Sustainable Development Strategies

All departments and agencies have placed their sustainable development strategies on the Internet. We have established links to them on the Auditor General of Canada's Web site.

To obtain access to them:

Go to: http://www.oag-bvg.gc.ca/

Click on: Commissioner of the Environment and Sustainable Development

Click on: Sustainable Development Strategies

Click on: Departmental and Agency Strategies

Click on: the department or agency of your choice