How a Key Tool Could Help Agencies Meet New Climate Goals
Climate councils can improve organizational flexibility and responsiveness as sustainability requirements evolve.
Sustainability is rocketing to the top of federal, state and municipal governments’ priority lists, but the specific actions organizations will need to take to comply with new requirements remain hazy. Government leaders know that change is coming but need help organizing their role and response to supporting a more sustainable future. Department-level climate councils can provide a way for organizations to sort through their uncertainties and advance the Biden administration’s sustainability agenda through collaboration and knowledge sharing.
For the federal government, recent executive orders are a call to action for climate policy at home and abroad and to focus on scientific integrity, green jobs, and environmental justice concerns. Complying with those orders will require specific actions, like creating agency climate action plans, but there will be larger shifts to come, such as mitigating the social cost of carbon, using greenhouse gas accounting, and working toward climate resilience. The executive orders will necessitate changes to internal operations (e.g., physical footprint, efficiency, and procurement) as well as the goals, policies, and approaches for delivering each department’s mission. Each agency and department may have a different entry point and set of requirements around climate change, but every agency will need a flexible, cross-functional approach to deliver on these new mandates as they emerge.
How Climate Councils Can Help
Department-level climate councils can help to navigate an uncertain path to sustainability by driving collaboration. A climate council can take a leadership role in meeting the intent of climate-related executive orders and steward a more sustainable future within applicable industries. Climate councils allow organizations to tackle the diverse drivers of climate change within their industry and manage the emerging government objectives and requirements around this existential threat. Climate councils also allow an organization to establish goals, objectives, and performance measures specific to their own footprint.
Several major agencies and departments have already adopted a climate council approach and are in the process of making it a reality. Templates for climate councils include the cross-functional organizational structures that the public sector has created to meet other new administrative and external challenges like cybersecurity, technology, and equity. The private sector also offers relevant lessons—leaders like Amazon and Coca-Cola stood up sustainability and climate change governance structures over a decade ago.
Climate change and sustainability will require seismic shifts over the years ahead, but by taking a coordinated approach with the creation of climate councils, public sector entities and employees can thrive while bringing benefit to their constituents and the American public. Leaders looking to establish climate councils should consider the following best practices:
- Create a natural organization: Climate councils will have common themes for success but creating the right council for each organization is a customized process. Leaders should review existing internal coordination and collaboration models as well as those that have succeeded elsewhere (e.g., private sector, international benchmarks, etc.) before developing the governance structure and membership.
- Include the right people and use the right structure: Climate councils will require members with expertise in policy, facilities, budget, operations, and key programs. Making appropriate use of members’ expertise and time is essential to maintaining engagement. Keep in mind, representatives that can speak to jobs, environmental justice, and economic vibrancy will also be valuable. Many councils use a steering committee-working group model to ensure activity, coordination, and bandwidth to deliver. While the governance structure should incorporate existing work on all of these topics, rather than starting entirely from scratch, it should also ensure that the council is not captive to previous, fragmented approaches.
- Have clear mandates, goals, and success factors: Establishing a charter and strategic plan can help a council stay on task, avoid mission creep or domination by the most vocal or motivated members. This includes outlining topics, high-level goals, milestones and metrics for success. Some of these may be broad given the current uncertainty in the requirements for agencies, but clarity is essential.
- Commit, prepare, and plan: A council won’t succeed on its own. Councils can feel exciting at first, but if they aren’t structured in an engaging and efficient way, they often lose steam. This requires project management, including appropriately calibrated agendas, exercises, and vigilance to the length, cadence, and culture of the council. Climate council success is essential for the long-term success of the agency or organization, and it needs to be grown and nurtured, often by experts. Regular doses of visibility from senior sponsorship help as well, especially as the council gets off the ground.
- Leverage data and strategic communications: Demonstrating quick wins and communicating them to stakeholders can keep the momentum going. Leaders should also leverage data to track success and show connections where information may have been fragmented across the organization. Similarly, communicating tangible changes and their impacts can build the brand for the group and encourage further participation.
Britt Harter is a partner for energy, sustainability and infrastructure at management consulting firm Guidehouse. Mark Baumgardner is a partner for strategic development at Guidehouse.