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Departmental Sustainability Assessment

DSA front coverA Departmental Sustainability Assessment (DSA) is a friendly health check of how well an organisation is embedding the principles of sustainability into all aspects of its business.


The approach was developed to meet the needs of Government Departments that had made significant progress in their understanding of sustainable development and to provide the SDC with greater insight into how sustainable development is being embedded in Government Departments.

» Download Departmental Sustainability Assessment (DSA) – Pilot with the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP)

How does this fits into Sustainable Development?

The SDC decided to develop an approach that more strongly combined its watchdog work with its advice and capability building functions. The result is the DSA; intended to enable organisational change and build sustainable development capability, particularly in the development of public policy.

Other organisations involved in this project?

Department for Work and Pensions (DWP), National Audit Office (NAO) and Environmental Audit Committee (EAC).

Work outline

The assessment approach used for this DSA concentrates on the five organisational areas; Policies, Leadership & Governance, People, Operations and Procurement.

The scope for the assessment was defined in consultation with DWP:

• The selection of three specific policy areas to review out of DWP’s five broad policy areas:

o Strengthening the Labour Market

o Health and Well-being

o An Ageing Society

• A primary focus on the core DWP department and not the larger departmental family (its arms length bodies such as Executive Agencies and Non-Departmental Public Bodies), although an interview with Job Centre Plus was necessary to inform the findings on delivery mechanisms.

The assessment took place over the course of a year and involved close interaction with the Department’s Sustainability and Climate Change Team, who shared thoughts and key evidence. In addition, several interviews were held with departmental officials at all levels, including the Permanent Secretary.

Report Summary

A DSA is a both a capability-building tool and an in-depth analysis of a single Department’s sustainability performance. The benefit to the Department of such an approach is the provision of independent advice to enable further progress on conducting its core business more sustainably and therefore more efficiently.

Who should read this?

Minister and Officials of DWP.

Key findings

1. DWP shows a clear commitment to embedding sustainable development principles into departmental business, in particular on the operations and procurement agenda where it is a leader in Government.

2. Applying sustainable development principles results in long-term efficiency. DWP has already realised efficiency improvements from applying sustainable development principles, particularly in operations and procurement activity. However, the Department does have a number of opportunities to realise further efficiency savings, particularly in terms of its policies, for example, in the area of social justice as highlighted in this report.

3. The challenge for DWP is to replicate its progress in operations and procurement in its policies through mainstreaming sustainable development principles into policy-making within the department to ensure better, more effective and more efficient outcomes.

4. DWP has made some progress in understanding its contribution to the sustainable development agenda by recognising and emphasising the social and economic impacts of public policy. The next challenge is to adopt a more holistic approach to sustainable development that factors in environmental impacts more systematically with identified socio-economic concerns to achieve social justice.

5. DWP has a wealth of experience in addressing the social aspects of sustainable development and there are many opportunities for the department to work with other Government Departments that have related policy interests and goals, in order to shape Government’s social justice and fairness agenda and to deliver multiple benefits in as efficient a way as possible, e.g. in its health and well-being work stream by working with the Department of Health.


The Government has, through the work of the Government Economic Service and the newly formed Social Impacts Task Force, identified the need to enhance the social aspects of sustainability and develop a better understanding of impacts on social justice, fairness, equality and well-being, in order to support officials and Ministers in making more sustainable choices. The SDC recommends that DWP strengthens its leadership role within this work by identifying how it can use its wealth of social expertise to help individual Departments better understand the social impacts of their policies and operations, thereby improving cross-government understanding of sustainability and assisting DECC and Defra in mainstreaming sustainable development within Government. This recommendation should be explored in conjunction with any new cross-government sustainable development governance arrangements.

Significant challenges

DWP found the process extremely useful and accepted all the recommendations with from the assessment, and has subsequently hired one full-time staff member to implement the recommendations