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The Role of Government Regulation and Leadership in Increasing Sustainability

The purpose of much federal regulation is to provide protection, either to individuals, or to the environment. Whether the topic is environmental protection, safety and health in the home or workplace, or consumption of goods and services, regulations can have far reaching effects. It is during this regulatory process that federal organizations are ideally positioned to encourage eco-friendly practices that are sustainable, and to promote sustainable behaviors.

Climate change, natural disasters like tsunamis, poaching of endangered species, illegal fishing, and other manmade or natural activities have all directed our collective attention to environmental systems and the need to develop and improve our ability to rebound from a wide range of environmental insults in a sustainable manner. In the United States, federal environmental and energy regulations have played a significant role in raising awareness of sustainability issues and in creating normative responses that will widen and promote application of sustainable practices and procedures within government. For example, agencies are required to follow executive orders, and while they may choose differing means of doing so, during that process they often discover innovative means of implementation and compliance that contribute to overall policies for sustainability.

Promulgating regulations that are eco-friendly also leads to achieving sustainability goals. Today, eco-friendly practices are being applied by agencies across a wide spectrum of regulations. When environmental sustainability became a common phrase, environmental regulation was already widespread within the federal community. Many processes, procedures and policies leading to sustainable actions show a pattern within the government that matches the one used during development of many environmental, administrative and technology-forcing regulations. These patterns are useful as guides to achieve sustainability goals. For example, pollution prevention efforts to reduce emissions from industrial sources can and often do lead to sustainable actions that prevent other environmental issues from arising in the future.

Many environmental regulations address specific processes and activities for a federal agency to undertake that will help accomplish its sustainability goals while achieving its environmental goals. The regulatory process often includes policies and procedures that apply sustainable practices to industrial processes, to daily mission activities and to “green” procurement practices.

Environmental and sustainability goals often encourage friendly competition among agencies, resulting in innovative solutions and new insights, further extending the reach of sustainability. Increased sustainability practices can also result from the use of already established quantitative environmental measures. For example, a five-year old baseline of environmental data provides five years of useful data that may help publicize sustainable practices and processes, make them transparent for other agencies to learn from, and support individual sustainability performance plans required by the Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ) or Office of Management and Budget (OMB).

An agency can also promote or require use of best practices at its various assets to ensure economical, efficient and effective sustainment of resources that are used daily in advancing corporate goals. Best practices range from simple actions such as recycling electronic equipment to developing complex systems for geothermal, wind and solar energy development, reducing toxic contaminants in materials usage, and reducing petroleum use including use of new kinds of fuels as part of a pattern of reducing energy consumption while advancing sustainability goals. Environmental conservation and preservation, protection of various species and proactive use of environmental best practices all contribute to sustainability goals.

Many different environmental actions can also fall into the category of sustainable practices. Actions like recycling of materials, conservation of water and energy, protection of various species, and preservation of historic resources often include sustainability goals in their intent and implementation. When the entire agency is aligned with sustainability goals, qualitative and quantitative benefits increase employee knowledge of not just what works, but why these activities can benefit the overall health of the organization. When practiced, sustainability should also:

  • Encourage further discoveries of sustainable actions that can be easily undertaken;
  • Model behavior for others to observe, and take up; and
  • Be clear as to its purpose. There is much confusion about sustainability and what it means. Any definition should include having a more accountable view of work done in areas of environmental protection and preservation, and procurement, along with a willingness to consider remediating damage that has already occurred.

This discussion of eco-friendly and sustainable practices implemented by the public sector has focused on the value-added nature of federal regulations toward sustainability goals. Sustainability is sometimes described as leaving the world in better condition than we found it. Governmental leadership in moving toward a sustainable world is best exemplified by those public servants who can lead and motivate others to show respect for the environment in their daily work.

Mandates will not accomplish a sustainable world. However, public servants can show leadership by encouraging eco-friendly practices that generate further incremental change, so that the world outside of public service is more inclined to take actions that contribute to sustainability, rather than maintain the status quo. Public servants have a unique opportunity to develop those sensitivities by raising the awareness of everyone.

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Author: Kenneth B. Malmberg is a program manager at the Office of Environmental Management.  

 

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The American Society for Public Administration is the largest and most prominent professional association for public administration. It is dedicated to advancing the art, science, teaching and practice of public and non-profit administration.

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