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Developing greener services principles with DEFRA

Greener Services Hack Day Flyer

by Harriet Pugh

Supporting Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs to define shared principles that enable all to embrace planet-centred thinking.

The imperative to address climate change has never been more urgent, but understanding how to integrate planet-centred thinking into public service delivery continues to be a difficult challenge.

As the department ultimately responsible for sustainability in government, DEFRA is leading a movement to develop guiding principles that aim to help teams consider the environmental impacts of online and offline touchpoints, tech and data choices, supply chains and backstage operations and the working practices of teams. 

The ambition is that anyone will be able to use the principles, from policy making through to the design and delivery of services and eventually to retire, delete or archive what is no longer needed so resources can be repurposed for good. 

Design principles helping teams take practical action

Reducing the carbon footprint of services is a complicated effort. It involves reducing the amount of data we process and store by designing lightweight interactions. It means developing energy-efficient software and using hosting solutions that require less computing resources, and therefore less energy to build and use. It involves changing procurement practices so there are levers to hold suppliers accountable to higher environmental standards. 

Many aspects of user-centred design still stand, like ensuring we meet accessibility needs and helping people find things so they can leave quickly. But services aren’t just digital and reducing their environmental impacts means repositioning humans as part of a wider planetary ecosystem. It is complex and there may be some more difficult trade-offs along the way, where outcomes like convenience and reducing waste aren’t easily reconcilable. 

Design principles aim to give people the language and understanding to make conversations about the climate commonplace in their work. They aim to give teams a way of making informed decisions, ensuring environmental considerations become part of how they prioritise and consider trade-offs. 

Government influence to drive the design for planet mission

Not only is government legally accountable to deliver on net zero targets and uniquely placed to make the policy and legislative changes we need to get there, the UK civil service has a track record of pioneering the use of principles and standards to drive the right kind of technology change, setting global standards for service design. The Service Standard and Tech Code of Practice are now well used across sectors to make services better. 

As climate consciousness grows, and we move into an era of designing for planet, central government bodies are well placed to use their influence to invest in growing these capabilities and leading by example, decarbonising services and sharing the tools and means to encourage others to do so. 

We hope that what has started out as a grassroots movement of practitioners finding time alongside their day jobs to begin developing these principles, will turn into something that is codified in government policies and practice. A new ‘new normal’ for public sector delivery.

Considering the physicality of services and places

But the emissions caused by internet use and the production, use and disposal of electronic products is only part of it. The physical aspects of services like offices, uniforms, travel and the local places in which they are delivered add new layers of complexity.

Calls for applying more regenerative and circular principles to the design of public services to ensure we’re sourcing, reusing and recycling products locally and responsibly and improving the health of natural ecosystems as we do it, might have interesting implications for the universalism of government design. 

The transition to net zero will rely on local delivery and possibly also services that look quite different depending on the culturally and environmentally specific places in which they are delivered. 

At TPXimpact, we work with clients across sectors including local councils, NHS, charities and the private sector, so we’re keen to explore how these principles may evolve as we bring in new perspectives and consider services beyond government to achieve even greater impact. 

Testing the greener service principles

We’re co-hosting a hack day with DEFRA to convene technology, delivery, design, policy and data practitioners from across government, NHS and suppliers as part of Services Week on Friday 22nd March.

In the spirit of learning by doing, we’re keeping things practical and testing the principles on a real live service. Teams will work together to consider how we might improve DEFRA’s e-waste service to be greener, helping us understand how the principles can be improved.

Our leading questions for the day will be:

  • How might practitioners apply these principles in practice? 
  • Can technical teams use them?
  • How do they support disciplines to work together? 
  • What are the gaps and how can they be better?

We look forward to sharing insights soon.

Where next?

The size and severity of the problem — that is, the impact that public services currently have on the planet — is not yet known and it's hard to calculate. Thankfully, the Government Digital Sustainability Alliance is taking action on the “Greening Government” strategy and some government departments are starting to measure the digital carbon footprint of their services. 

There is a long way to go in understanding the true environmental costs of public services and lots to explore in how we work with the specifics of different local contexts to mitigate them. We can’t do it all now, but we can start by helping test the principles and enabling teams to have better conversations about the planet in our work. 

Harriet Pugh's avatar

Harriet Pugh

Design Lead

Designing net zero services and developing our planet-centred design practice.

Contact Harriet

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