We are the UK Government’s independent adviser on sustainable development. Through advocacy, advice and
appraisal, we help put sustainable development at the heart of Government policy

Performance overview 2005-2010

Why we do SDAPs

The requirement for all government departments and executive agencies to publish SDAPs came from Securing the Future to ensure government is meeting and progressing against its commitments on sustainable development. The SDC provides support, advice and challenge on the quality and ambition level of SDAPs and monitors and advises on how these plans translate into practice in departments in terms of policy formation and development, HR processes, operations, procurement activity and business planning. The SDC also monitors the annual progress reports that organisations are required to produce as part of the process to ensure that momentum is maintained.

SDAPs are a valued tool in government as the process allows departments to take an overview of the entirety of their work, identify strengths and weaknesses across the board and where activity should be joined up better both within individual departments and between departments. Actions are then set to address priorities and progress reported annually. They are a means for delivering the business of a department more sustainably and therefore more efficiently and effectively. The SDC through its advice and Watchdog function has ensured that departments have a source of support for operating their business more sustainably, and these functions have been vital in ensuring that progress is made.

SDAP quotes

"It is not an additional burden imposed on the way we work, but a way of ensuring that we get the maximum positive impact for our efforts and take into account the interdependence between society, economy, environment and governance. With the pressing public health issues such as climate change, obesity and health inequalities that face us today, we need to take urgent action to protect the population now and in the future."
Mike O’Brien and Hugh Taylor, Secretary of State and Permanent Secretary within the Department of Health

"It’s the framework which has required us to look at the sustainability agenda in a coherent end-to-end way, rather than in a fragmented way. I think having to produce an annual plan is that in a sense the vehicle around which we are able to look comprehensively at where we think we’re doing well, where we clearly need to do better [and] what steps we’re going to take...People think it’s a valuable process."
Leigh Lewis, Permanent Secretary of the Department for Work and Pensions

"I've really found the advice/support provided by the SDC to be invaluable. SDAPs are vital tools for improving SD performance and therefore it's essential that the content is strategically coherent and targeting those areas where Department's can add the most value. The advice I received helped me to tailor the document to fit in with these aims."
SD practitioner (Cabinet Office)

Government progress and the SDC’s impact

  • There has been significant improvement in the quality of SDAPs and annual progress reports since they first became a requirement in 2005.
  • The value of the process continues to be seen by both departments and agencies as well as other organisations who aren’t required to produce SDAPs but have seen the benefits of doing so and measuring their own organisation’s progress against sustainability criteria. These organisations have included Natural England, JNCC, Consumer Focus and a NHS Trust.
  • There is now far greater understanding of the purpose of the SDAP as a tool to ensure departmental decision-making and all other departmental activities (operations, procurement, HR process) are more sustainable. While early SDAPs focussed mainly on estates management departments have increasingly recognised, and are reflecting in their SDAPs the need to make more sustainable, and therefore better, policy.
  • The Food Standards Agency have used their SDAP as a tool to ensure they are making better, more evidence-based, policy decisions. They set actions in the SDAP to overhaul their approach to decision-making and integrated SD into their policy processes which the SDC commented on. While the wider impacts of this won’t be seen immediately there is huge potential here for the FSA’s work to show substantial progress and real impacts in areas such as fish consumption.
  • The FCO have undertaken a major overhaul of their approach to the SDAP and SD more generally since we gave their 2007/08 SDAP a red traffic light rating in the summer 2009 indicating a poor quality Plan. Since then they have established a focal point for mainstreaming SD, developed a SD champions network within the department both in Whitehall and in their overseas posts, with a particularly successful one in Europe. (They are now considering how they can join up activity and share best practice with DfID’s overseas posts). In addition, FCO have put SD under the ownership of their DG Finance who has recognised the clear benefits that a good SDAP and comprehensive sustainable development approach can bring to an organisation, and he chairs the SD champions group. Under his leadership the department has made a first attempt at integrating SD into their business planning for the financial year 2010/11. They are now working closely with us on the development of their new SDAP.
  • Challenges for departments (which the SDC is addressing now in its SDAP work with all departments)

    o Aligning SDAPs with business planning and corporate reporting. This is a significant challenge though some are beginning to make in-roads in this (see FCO above). In the long-run SDAPs should no longer be required because if the SDAP is used properly to address the challenges a department faces then ultimately they will have business plans, policy processes, HR processes that are inherently sustainable. This transition will need to be carefully managed to ensure SD is not lost and business as usual commences instead.
    o Integrating SD into policy-making. This is a key and growing concern of all sustainability practitioners in departments and is a major challenge. In essence the successes of integrating SD into procurement and operational activity needs to be replicated in policy though this area is hugely complex and will present significant challenges for practitioners where wider departmental buy-in or understanding is lacking. (The SDC’s Impact Assessment review and Embedding SD in Whitehall project are both crucial elements in tackling this challenge)