By Jane Garcia
Government departments and agencies have done well at tracking environmental and social data but not so good at turning this information into a well developed report which can demonstrate what it means, according to a sustainability reporting expert.
Linda Funnel-Milner is the director of Corporate Responsibility Australia and the chair of stakeholder council at the Global Reporting Initiative (GRI). She says government agencies have had to report on baseline environmental and social data for a long time through State of the Environment and other forms.
“While the information has been made transparent to the outside world, the formats were not that meaningful so you had to trawl through those reports to find comparable and meaningful data,” Ms Funnel-Milner says.
“Companies have started reporting more or less for a different reason. They have been driven by having stakeholders understand their business models and what their business outcomes are and have been more driven by contextual objectives.”
GRI develops and continually improves a framework for sustainability reporting, including globally applicable Sustainability Reporting Guidelines. In 2005 it developed the Sector Supplement for Public Agencies to address issues specific to governments, departments and agencies, including indicators for public policy objectives.
Ms Funnel-Milner says the public sector supplement addresses policy outcomes because it is not enough just to have policy and not track if it is achieving outcomes.
“When it comes to public agencies, the water and energy companies seem to do the best public agency reports,” she says.
“Landcare Research in New Zealand has had an award-winning report for many years. Landcom’s 2005 report was fantastic so there are some good examples coming out of public agencies.
“Nike, having been through the cycle of being sued because their triple bottom line report was incorrect and a PR document, has turned around and this year has won an award because the document is so much better. It is factual and is audited and isn’t trying to be a marketing document.”
Ms Funnel-Milner says one of the lessons the public sector can learn from the private sector’s experience of sustainability reporting is that although companies felt that if they put their good and bad news in the public domain then they may be jeopardising their share price or beaten up by NGOs and civil society, it has not happened.
“Even if it’s bad news, people tend to applaud the fact that you were honest and transparent. I think governments could be more honest and transparent around outcomes and issue that they face in trying to deliver public policy,” she says.
In Australia, the Centre for Public Agency Sustainability is a not-for-profit organisation assisting public agencies to improve their economic, social and environmental performance through sustainability reporting.
It can help assess current sustainability practices against international best practice and the GRI guidelines and public agency supplement, and runs a best practice learning group with about 20 participating organisations.
In August 2006 the centre is conducting a survey to obtain information from individuals and organisations involved in public agency sustainability reporting. It consists of 20 questions and is available by calling research coordinator Quentin Farmar-Bowers on 03 9660 2253.
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