6 ways public sector digital can help Wales hit net zero

A CDPS discovery into greener third sector and government tech spoke to public servants across Wales – this is what they found

2 September 2022

Our research found that some people had strong views on how to design and run services sustainably but found it difficult to measure services’ environmental impact

CDPS’s 12-week, Tech Net Zero research project has been looking at how digital technology in the public sector could help Wales to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions to zero by 2050. 

Through direct interviews and surveys, the discovery team (which included members from the digital development agency Perago and the science park M-SParc, as well as from CDPS) gathered evidence from people working in the public sector across Wales.  

Interviewees included people who exemplified good practice in the digital-climate sphere, as well as providers of relevant services such as public ‘cloud’ hosting. The team also researched climate and digital policy in Wales, the UK and internationally. 

Through our research, the team have come up with 6 recommendations for how the use of digital technology in the public sector can help Wales reach its climate goals.  

Read the Tech Net Zero discovery full report and watch the team’s final show and tell, which summarises their recommendations.  

Recommendation 1 – Raise awareness

Our research showed that technology leaders, and practitioners, often lacked a full understanding of: 

Most participants could give an example or two of where their digital work had an impact on carbon emissions, positive or negative. However, some participants clearly lacked the full picture. 

“I don’t think … [the] majority of [people in] IT are that bothered about sustainability when it comes to their job”  

Digital practitioner at a local authority 

“[We haven’t] even begun to really think about how digital can be used. Let’s put the two [digital and climate] together”  

Service manager in public sector central administration
Recommendation 1 – potential solutions

Recommendation 2 – Make net zero a priority within digital

Research showed that there’s a disconnect between the climate emergency and digital priorities within the public sector. Sustainability is rarely a driving force for digital teams.  

People working in the public sector in Wales need to see sustainability prioritised from the top, where it will filter down to digital team objectives. 

“For us in the digital world … we are yet to … put … decarbonisation … at the heart of our service design”  

Digital and technology lead at a local authority

“It’s all playing the long game and trying to do it from the bottom up, which is not right. It should come from the top down”  

Digital practitioner at a Welsh university
Recommendation 2 – potential solutions
The public sector needs to provide standards for measuring digital carbon footprints

Recommendation 3 – Help people follow net zero good practice

Where there are sustainability professionals within organisations, they’re not joined up with digital teams to influence and support them.  

The sustainability professionals we spoke to often had a good idea of how digital can support net zero but less ability to see those ideas through to delivery.  

“If I had to do something in that space [digital], I simply wouldn’t know where to start”  

Sustainability professional 

“There are goals like that at the university and they’re written in papers at the top but, [as to] how that translates … into the actual digital environment, I don’t think it really does”  

Digital and technology practitioner at a Welsh university

We heard from some public cloud providers that organisational culture was one of the biggest barriers to clients helping to achieve net zero. 

Recommendation 3 – potential solutions

Recommendation 4 – Measure the carbon footprint of a digital service

The need to evaluate services’ climate impact came up in our user research. There was no clear and easy way to evaluate the climate footprint of a digital service. Such a method was also top of the UK government’s Sustainable Technology Advice and Reporting team’s wish list. 

Some of the people we interviewed had strong views on how to design and run services sustainably but found it difficult to measure services’ environmental impact. 

“It would help with decision making if we could quantify the impacts of digital over non-digital. I don’t like going, ‘Oh well, it’s probably better.’ I like to be able to prove it”  

Digital and technology lead in public sector central administration 

“We would really struggle [to] quantify how the things we’re going to do in the future would contribute to the decarbonisation agenda”  

Digital and technology lead at a local authority
Recommendation 4 – potential solutions
The Tech Net Zero team looked at 6 ways public sector digital could contribute to a greener Wales

Recommendation 5 – Support sustainability work across boundaries

Our research found that reducing duplication, and moving towards shared services across the public sector, were important ways to cut emissions. Both within and across organisations, teams are often siloed from each other. That lessens their ability to replicate good sustainable digital practice from elsewhere.  

Working together on service delivery models isn’t a new idea (it features in Wales’s net zero route map for 2022-2026) but, done well, it could have a big impact. 

Many participants talked about the perceived efficiencies and environmental benefits of shared service work. 

“If we had a central organisation that helped facilitate [sharing], whether it’s to do with systems or management of digital services or support in digital services, I think that would be quite helpful. Generally, that [would provide] efficiencies as well – if you’re doing it in one hit, rather than every health board doing it independently”  

Sustainability lead in health and care
Recommendation 5 – potential solutions

Recommendation 6 – Make sustainability part of procurement

Our policy research and our conversations with public servants both highlighted the opportunity to procure digital products and services in a way that supports reduced carbon emissions. 

Users said they did not know how to translate sustainability thinking into digital procurement. However, they advocated building sustainability into wider procurement policy and platforms, rather than leaving it to individual organisations to interpret. 

“A good practice we could refer to – [one] saying, ‘If you’re writing a spec for software or hardware, these are the things you should be trying to reflect in a tender’ – would save us all scratching around”  

Digital and technology lead in health and care
Recommendation 6 – potential solutions

Next steps

The Tech Net Zero discovery team are sharing our findings with stakeholders and agreeing with them on the actions to take this work forward. 

Read the Tech Net Zero discovery full report and watch the team’s showcase presentation

Please leave comments below or email CDPS with questions about this work.  

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