Column: Amid Transformation and Recovery, Sustainability Should Be a Priority for Public Sector Innovation

Tommy Gardner, HP Federal

Dr. Tommy Gardner is the chief technology officer at HP Federal.

This year’s U.S. federal budget, submitted by the White House, called for spending $88 billion on IT to deliver critical citizen services, keep data secure and lead to a more modern government.

Our leaders clearly understood the need to replace antiquated and often unsecured legacy computing systems in order to operate more efficiently, effectively and innovatively even before COVID-19 made it an even bigger imperative. What is missing from the budget is a strategy to make these and all future upgrades in an eco-conscious way.

There is not a single mention of carbon footprints, energy efficiency, greenhouse gases or environmental sustainability in the section of the budget dealing with IT purchases. It may seem unprecedented to specify sustainable purchasing decisions in an annual budget, but this a critical area that is often overlooked in federal procurement. Executive Order 13834, signed in May 2018, directs federal agencies to manage their “buildings, vehicles, and overall operations to optimize energy and environmental performance, reduce waste, and cut costs.” The Office of Federal Sustainability is designated to advise and execute this order. The order does not specify that new technology purchases meet these standards.

Today, as countries allocate trillions of dollars in resources in the wake of the pandemic, there’s been a push for a “green recovery.” This implies a conscious effort to keep sustainability considerations at the center of economic revitalization plans. This is mandatory, given the projections of the world’s population increasing at historic rates. If we don’t, we will soon be running out of critical resources. The United Nations has garnered green commitments from more than 170 business leaders. I’m proud to say HP is one of them.

But real change will take more than industry leadership. Governments have a critical role to play, but sustainability is often an invisible area when it comes to government IT decision-making. Sustainability practices and sustainably designed products are not valued or evaluated in procurements. This approach needs to change for government to contribute in a meaningful way.

Corporate and Government Social Responsibility

In the private sector, many companies have learned that environmental sustainability is a valuable part of corporate culture. It is increasingly seen as not only the right thing to do for employees, partners and customers, but also creates a significant business opportunity. Everyone in sustainability-oriented companies, from the CEO to individual contributors and on to partners and subcontractors, are impacted by a corporate culture to reduce waste and optimize efficiencies. They design products that are both recyclable and/or made from recycled materials. They make conscious efforts to give more business to companies that are environmentally sound themselves. This attitude is critical in the computer industry, when you consider the diminishing supply of rare earths involved in today’s machines.

At HP, we have sourced more than 1 million pounds of ocean-bound plastic for use in our products, and we are on track to increase recycled content in our products to 30% by 2025. In 2020, Microsoft also announced a new $1 billion climate innovation fund to advance carbon-reducing technologies. This comes from a corporate culture installed by founder, Bill Gates. Our culture at HP installed by founders Bill Hewlett and Dave Packard includes a commitment to technical excellence, taking care of the employees, honesty and ethical behavior as well as protecting the environment and conserving resources.

The U.S. government does have some programs aimed at spurring new patents for green technology that all of us may eventually use. It also provides a comprehensive green-purchasing resource to guide federal workers toward making more environmentally sound purchase decisions. But these efforts stop short of either regulating sustainable technology purchases, following industry standards in sustainability or making sustainability an integral part of governmental culture by strongly encouraging buyers to change through inserting sustainability requirements into requests for proposals.

That struggle between regulation and standards is an old one. Agencies have long been hesitant to mandate changes related to sustainability because of constraints this puts on innovation. Industry developed standards are a better path that allows competition among industry for better methods and processes. Government procurement teams, when sourcing new technologies, attempt to drop requirements to the lowest common denominator in order to spur competition. This often results in a lowest-price selection, which means second best security or sustainability.

Let the competition be held by an evaluation of how the company follows sustainable practices in their product development to meet the performance requirements. Going back to 2020’s $88 billion government budget, it shows how seriously the government takes the need to update systems and operate in a secure way. Those changes have been even more swift given the impact of COVID-19, but moving in this direction requires a well-educated IT workforce capable of meeting current and future needs. Agencies are constantly balancing all of these requirements, but clearer guidance on sustainable purchasing would give them an opportunity to adjust their purchasing strategies and encourage sustainable technology decisions for a greener recovery.

Sustainability to Drive Innovation

If the federal government were to shift spending toward more sustainable products, that alone could help dramatically reduce the volume of pollutants entering our atmosphere, encourage the reuse of material, enhance recyclable packaging and move toward a net zero goal in energy and paper. There are already initiatives underway to explore how the government can make more sustainable technology purchases. The Council on Competitiveness, founded by former HP CEO John Young and of which I am currently a member, is a group of CEOs, university presidents, labor leaders and national lab directors committed to shaping policies to help grow America’s economy. The council’s core effort is to shape policies and run programs to help jump-start productivity.

One idea presented during a recent meeting to help hardwire sustainability into agency cultures was to make it part of their formal employee performance evaluations. Another thought was to evaluate procurement officers based on how well they procure sustainable friendly tech purchases and not just on projected cost savings and set asides. If the federal government were to recognize an obligation and the opportunity to drive adoption of green technology, it would engender more creative and beneficial thinking such as this.

The United States is constantly searching for ways to stay relevant, innovative and competitive in this rapidly evolving world. According to Google Trends, the search volume for “how to live a sustainable lifestyle” increased more than 4,500% between February and May 2020. The message is clear: People want change, and the world is demanding it of us. By taking a stand, making sustainability a core part of its culture and taking action as part of the post-pandemic economic recovery, our government has the ability to make a difference for its citizens and the planet.

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