Do state and local government IT departments care about being green? The answer is "yes," but far less than the private sector, according to a survey conducted by Info-Tech Research Group, a global consulting firm. This puts government in a somewhat ironic position, given that states continue implementing stiffer green regulations on businesses and utilities. What accounts for the inconsistency? Info-Tech says inflexible government budgets and long technology replacement cycles play a major role. However, the organization doesn't view that as a valid excuse for government's seemingly lukewarm interest.
"Although lack of budget is certainly a factor in terms of implementing green initiatives in the government sector, this should not affect the level of concern, which is the lowest among all industries," the report said.
The survey, taken by nearly 700 IT professionals in North America, noted that 49 percent of primary industry respondents were either very or extremely concerned with being green. By comparison, only 10 percent of government respondents felt the same sense of urgency.
Surging energy costs have motivated some states, such as California and Virginia, to begin green IT research. However, a lack of internal incentives keep that process sluggish in government as a whole, said Aaron Hay, research consultant with Info-Tech Research Group.
"Civil servants are required to provide a fixed level of service," Hay said. "They're not necessarily pushed by positive or negative incentives to deliver the maximum performance and the maximum service possible for a given level of budgeting,"
He said survival pressure in the private sector naturally drives businesses to implement green best practices.
"A CIO or IT director in a private enterprise often has an incentive to deliver the maximum performance possible, whether that be the most economical solution, most profitable solution or the most environmentally sensitive solution," Hay said. "Those types of incentives are rare in government. They do them in pockets, but I don't think that is the way government is set up. Government is set up as a cost center, not as a profit center."
Avoiding Tunnel Vision
San Jose is bucking the trend, however. The municipality is about to embark on several 15-year initiatives to become the greenest city in the United States, including powering the entire city with 100 percent renewable energy, diverting 100 percent of its landfill waste into energy, reducing per capita energy usage by 50 percent and numerous other goals.
The city converted to energy-efficient green data centers over the past four years, a change it couldn't afford not to make, according to Collin O'Mara, CleanTech policy strategist for San Jose.
"We've already saved about $20 million in the last four years. Granted, we are a billion-dollar organization, but that's still a substantial savings from energy that we can use for other programs," O'Mara said.
Government's tendency to separately budget capital costs and operating costs makes green data center conversions more difficult, he said. Green data centers require a larger capital investment, but lead to lower operating costs due to their low energy usage. He said that budgeting tunnel vision makes it difficult to account for operating cost issues in capital RFPs.
"With so many of the governments I've been a part of," O'Mara said, "operating costs and capital costs are divorced from each other in the budgets and the way they plan. In San Jose, we're trying to look at them as part of the same bottom line."
He said this long-term procurement view enabled San Jose to make green considerations part of its government culture.
"We're doing as much environmentally profitable procurement as possible," O'Mara said. "It's just kind of become standard operating procedure here."
Info-Tech's Hay added that recent federal government mandates offer hope for increased
green priorities in government. In July, the White House issued an executive order that 90 percent of all federal technology purchases must comply with the Electronic Product Environmental Assessment Tool (EPEAT). The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency gave a grant to the nonprofit Zero Waste Alliance to create EPEAT, a list of green criteria for electronics companies to meet for green bragging rights.
Hay said forcing government to purchase mostly EPEAT-compliant products was a useful step.
"That's a new order," Hay said. "That's something that has come from the top. That's an example of a really great mandate. It's going to cause these IT managers to say, 'Now we have to do this.'"
No Time to Care
Hay said a lack of green priority among top agency management makes caring about green IT impractical for IT managers.
"Those managers are forced not to care because they're saying, 'I don't have a budget to make green improvements in my operation. I don't have top-level management that cares about this. I have to fight tooth and nail to make any of this happen. Why will I even bother?'"
Indeed, paying attention to green issues could be a liability for these IT managers because it could distract them from the full load of IT headaches they already face each day.
"How are they ever going to have time to care or time to plan for green issues if it's not a directive that they're going to be given time to do, and given resources and money to do? It's impossible for them to care," Hay said.
Nuts and Bolts
The Info-Tech survey questioned 700 respondents, 60 of whom were government officials, mostly from state government.
"I feel that 60 government organizations was an appropriate representative sample because [the results] fairly accurately reflected what we tend to see in all of our government clients, anecdotally," Hay said, adding, "Many of our clients are in the U.S., and state-level organizations generally start these kinds of initiatives first. However, 'green' adoption is a mixed bag, with pockets of greening applied to data center and IT resources throughout the state level. There hasn't yet been a comprehensive effort at the federal level in either the U.S. or Canada for greening IT, other than in very isolated cases."
Andy Opsahl is a former staff writer and features editor for Government Technology magazine.