Bureaucrats must take a bigger role in fighting climate change

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The fight against climate change must involve everyone. Yet despite the growing societal and political discussion about climate resilience, the role of bureaucracies has been mostly overlooked. Can a sector that employs tens of millions of people worldwide, implements thousands of environmental regulations, and manages daily interactions between the government and all other economic actors be irrelevant to the success of climate change policy? The answer is simple: it cannot.

Three reasons why it is crucial to involve public administrations in the fight against climate change:

  1. Scale: In most countries, the public administration is the single largest employer.
    Over the last decade an average of more than 16% of all workers were employed by the public sector, which means  the environmental effect of its operations is significant. Just consider the ecological footprint of an employer that operates hundreds of thousands of public buildings, along with enormous vehicle fleets, and generates a large volume of waste.
  2. Leadership: The public administration must lead by example.
    As governments implement policy to reduce the effects of climate change, they must enact practices that will be adopted by society at large. We have seen, for example, that the public sector is, on average, a more gender-inclusive employer. That, in turn, pushes the private sector to pay and hire men and women equally as well. Governments can have a similar effect for climate change policies.
  3. Implementation: Local level civil servants are often the de-facto implementors of climate change resilience policy.
    They are, as Funder and Mweemba (2019) call them, “interface bureaucrats,” who have to manage a complicated network of actors, address unexpected issues and forge compromises to implement official rules. Several factors, such as their knowledge, motivation, and their own stance on environmental issues, might determine how climate-friendly the outcome of these efforts will be.

How can we make public administrations work for citizens and the climate?

Measure the environmental attitudes and practices of public officials.

To understand what makes public administrations effective, the Bureaucracy Lab conducts regular surveys to get data from the people who make up these bureaucracies. Climate change policy can only be effective if the individuals responsible for its implementation are aware of rising challenges and motivated to respond to them.  For example, civil servants skeptical of climate change might prioritize other work tasks, be less stringent when conducting environmental audits or lack the motivation to reduce the ecological footprint in their workplace. To improve our understanding of the climate change issue, we plan to extend our survey measurements to include attitudes, knowledge and organizational policies.

Reform human resources management to reduce the climate impacts of public institutions.

The ecological footprint of public-sector organizations can be reduced by introducing green policies at all levels of human resources management (HRM). In recruitment, the application process could be moved online, and branding as an environmentally conscious employer could be a draw for young new civil servants. Employee training can make civil servants more aware of the environmental impact of their work and of how to minimize it. Performance and reward systems should recompense green initiatives and those who achieve predetermined environmental goals.

The benefits of such reforms extend beyond reducing climate impact. Studies in the private sector have found that green HRM practices have been linked to increased workplace productivity, job satisfaction and increased attractiveness for potential (highly qualified) recruits.  This could potentially create a positive feedback loop, as motivated employees are also found to be more engaged in eco-initiatives, echoing Bureaucracy Lab’s ongoing efforts to examine and raise the morale of civil servants.

Transform public administration processes to improve climate consciousness.

The work of the Global Governance Practice has shown examples of green initiatives that can transform how public administrations respond to climate change , including climate change budget tagging and green procurement. There are even more options for future climate change streamlining, for example by creating forestry sectors that function better. In Liberia, the Bureaucracy Lab found that “the quality of management, particularly staff performance evaluations, is a main determinant of staff motivation and the success rate of the forestry agency’s environmental projects.

Incorporate climate change resilience into daily public administration operations.

There are steps the administration can take to “green” government and its operations. Good examples include moving to a smaller vehicle fleet or adopting electric vehicles, as well as efficient building heating and waste recycling. These are all familiar from the private sector and the type of greening steps people take at home such as recycling and reusing, adding insulation and energy-saving windows, etc.

The digitalization of government work is not only convenient for citizens, but also drastically cuts down on paper waste and travel needs.

Supporting governments in realizing the importance of such initiatives for climate and in funding them would be an important complement to the Bank’s current role in government reforms.  After all, reducing poverty and increasing share prosperity only make sense if we fight climate change as well.


Editor's note: This blog post is part of a series for the Bureaucracy Lab, a World Bank initiative to better support the world's public officials.

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