Patchy data and poor performance exposes Whitehall

Is this pure coincidence? Two days ago the Government published its much anticipated Sustainable Procurement Action Plan promising to take serious action to make its estate carbon neutral by 2012 (really?) and to improve its performance as a client. Now today the Sustainable Development Commission, the watchdog for such matters, releases its report on Government departments environmental performance in 2006. And it's not good reading. Looks like the Government has a new a new action plan to fall back on as a defence to its continuing poor performance in this area.

The SDC report lays bare rubbish performance across Whitehall on carbon, waste and water targets, barring very few signs of hope. There's "patchy data and poor performance across most areas". Here's a summary:

Carbon - Departments are not on track to meet the carbon reduction target of 12.5% by 2010. The average carbon reduction across the estate is 0.5% since 1999, but 15 departments have increased emissions since 1999

Waste - Total waste generated by departments increased from 163,847 tonnes to 186,380 tonnes. Nine departments could not provide proper data

Water - Departments consume an average of 10.2m3 per person nearly 3m3 over its target

Recycling - Good news! Recycling has risen by 8%. The Deprtment of Health recycles 85.4% of its waste

Renewable energy - Government is buying 3% more its energy from renewable energy sources compared to 2005

SDC chair Jonathan Porritt is not happy: "Against a background of non-stop messages on climate change and corporate social responsibility, the Government has failed to get its own house in order. It's absolutely inexcusable that Government is lagging so far behind the privae sector when it should be leading the way."

What is the problem? It's the same old one that has bedevilled Whitehall since the year dot - fragmentation. An area such as sustainability stretches across such a host of departments it ends up falling between those many stools. This almost exactly mirrors Whitehall inability to deal successfully with the design, development and construction sectors.

So how does it work? You have the most obvious department that should be at the heart of driving the sustainability agenda, DEFRA. Then there's the DTI, which oversees construction as well as industry generally. So far so good. But what about the Department of Community and Local Goverment, which looks after housing and regneration? OK. And remember the culture department, responsible for architecture. Right, now I'm gettign a bit confused. You might as well sling in all the other departments themselves which are construction clients themselves and own and operate their individual estates. And, of course, behind all of this lies the power broker that is the Treasury. Bugger, this is not going to be easy.

On top of this bureaucratic challenge is a problem raised by one experienced Whitehall watcher to me earlier this week. Apparently DEFRA is still culturally rooted in its former guise as the Ministry of Agriculture. "It hasn't broken free of that, which makes it ill-prepared to deal with the built environment, which is the key to getting emissions down," says my source.

The aforementioned sustainable procurement plan launched by the Government is a noble attempt to deal with this most urgent of issues. Tony Blair said his Governmentis best when it's at its most radical. One hopes the climate change challenge sees him acting out that mantra immediately. Without such leadership, as Porritt stresses in his statement, we will have decisions fudged and more noble targets missed.