Making the most of sustainability reports

Sustainability reporting provides the chance for local authorities to demonstrate the added value they bring to their communities. But it’s also a powerful tool to attract investment

The Guardian recently reported ‘local government is lagging behind on climate change and sustainability’. However, more and more public organisations are recognising the tangible benefit and added value that sustainability reporting can provide in communicating how their strategies and performance contribute to improving society for this generation and the next.

More senior staff are attending the specialist certified training in sustainability that enables them to report well and gain a globally respected certificate at the same time. We will certainly be seeing more and more UK reports from councils to rival Dublin Council, which is leading the way, alongside such companies as M&S, Crown Estates, London Fire Brigade, Kingfisher, Royal Mail, and University of Edinburgh.

Authorities that report have great kudos and credibility through being able to align themselves with the best organisations in the world for their ability to deliver services to their stakeholders. Reporting is the 21st century way of enhancing reputation and developing trust. Operating sustainably saves organisations money and improves efficiency. There has never been a management and leadership paradigm where the skills needed to run private, public, and voluntary organisations have been so similar.

So what is a sustainability report? It’s a corporate report that is the evolution of management accounts. They should be disciplined and concise, full of accurate performance data as with any key organisational report but with strategic targets. The reports invite stakeholders, internal and external, to understand the organisation’s purpose and strategies and encourage stakeholder participation in the achievement of ever better levels of performance for the communities served. The report is great for funders and regulators to understand how value for money is generated in the medium and long term. This type of corporate reporting is actually a more natural expression of communicating a council’s work in looking after people, and the built environment now and in the future. This should not be a surprise given the Climate Change Act recommends organisations of all types produce sustainability reports.

At this juncture you might want an insight as to what topics are typical for councils to report. Every industry has its particular performance areas. For councils they are staff, procedures and policies, pollution control, infrastructure and land use, fair wages, emissions climate and energy, biodiversity public and green space, procurement practices, customer/citizen satisfaction, ethics, whistle blowing training, diversity and waste management.

Other areas to report on include a council’s role in encouraging residents, employers and workers on their ‘personal sustainability practices’; for quality of work and family life, developing community cohesion awareness and action through events and partner organisations. Some councils reinforce and enable behaviour change through travel plans, community bikes, outdoor exercise facilities, district heating systems, flood resilience teams, renewable energy power generation, to grants engaging citizens of all ages.

The everyday work of councils and their partners contributes to sustainability, whether it’s supporting local sustainable economies, using less of the world’s scarce resources or reducing the gap between the rich and poor – and the reporting ensures transparency. Councils have existing resources in terms of staff, policies, procedures, data and intelligence that enable them to do sustainability well. For many, reporting would formalise what they already do, while gaining wider regional and national recognition that would build success and credibility for the services they provide.

Sustainability reporting is a win win for councils and others in the public sector; short, medium, and long term, it will attract partners and suppliers that place sustainability at the heart of all that they do. The reports provide essential local information, the balance between the needs of residents, businesses, and partner organisations, while evidencing how the area is developing over time – and why the area is desirable for communities to live, work and visit. Sustainability reporting has proven to be a key differentiator in business performance and a discipline able to be deployed to bring about change and overcome the problems councils face.

Reporting is a journey requiring organisational discipline from business case to preparation for the reporting process, engaging stakeholders, prioritising relevant material topics, measuring performance, to communication and feedback through transparent reporting. These and much more are detailed in my book How to Produce a Sustainability Report – A Step by Step Guide to the Practices and Processes, published by DoShorts.


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