Public executives have been more likely than legislative bodies to set expectations directly related to IT. Through executive orders and directives, a growing number of governors have directed agencies to reduce energy consumption across the board, including IT's power demands.

Likewise more than 600 mayors have signed the U.S. Conference of Mayors Climate Protection Agreement, which includes commitments to commute reduction programs, purchase only Energy Star-certified equipment and support sustainable building practices such as the U.S. Green Building Council's Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) Green Building Rating program.

Elected officials and other public officials are in an unenviable position because there is no one answer to what the public expects from leaders, their neighbors and themselves. The public opinion research firm Ipsos MORI observes that, "While people voice concern about climate change but do little to change their behavior, they also bow to financial pressures whilst claiming to shrug them off."

For now, the lack of consensus may provide some breathing room for the public-sector IT community as it figures out how to best address climate change. "I think it's going to become a day-to-day consideration for most folks in government. I don't think it is right now," said Phillip Bond, president and CEO of the Information Technology Association of America. "I think it already is on the commercial side due to initiatives all around the globe as we recognize the connectivity of everything in the ecosystem - whether that's an IT system or the physical ecosystem - so you realize the products that you use come back into that system [need to do so] in an eco-friendly way."

Saving the environment is a big job, and it lends itself to many possible metrics and measures to reflect the complexity of the underlying science. Resisting the twin temptations to do too little or too much makes it all the more important to take a programmatic approach while avoiding unnecessary duplication of effort. Gartner research advised caution: "Regulations are multiplying and have the potential to seriously constrain companies in building data centers, as the impact on power grids, carbon emissions from increased use and other environmental impacts are under scrutiny."

For the public-sector IT community, integrating green into existing policies, plans and processes is another opportunity to avoid building tomorrow's organizational stovepipes today.

Changing the Climate with Public CIOs

CIOs came into their own when organizations recognized the strategic importance of IT. Today, as the strategic importance of sustainability grows in government, it opens the possibility of the ascendancy of a "Chief Sustainability Officer." The proponents of such a development envision a "Chief Green Officer" who will lead a broad agenda to "reduce the environmental footprint, engage with a diverse group of stakeholders and discover new revenue opportunities."

On the downside, green czars represent the thin edge of the wedge in creating a new bureaucracy. There are other organizational constraints. A chief sustainability officer would be less likely to be able to see into particular operating environments and understand the opportunities and pitfalls of harvesting environmental gains than would other C-level executives. Moreover, a chief green officer is primarily a policy and policing role, which makes it difficult to be genuinely collegial in the executive suite.

"I do not believe it is necessary to establish a chief green officer position," said Michael Mittleman, New York state deputy CIO. "Sustainability is a concern and responsibility of all organizational members. As such, it should be given prominence in strategic plans and policies. Various performance metrics can be established that will readily provide current state and trend information to management and staff. Measures should be global within an organization since all areas consume power and all parts can take steps to reduce consumption. The other reality is most power metering and billing systems are not sufficiently granular to isolate power consumption by floor or office."

California CIO Teri Takai, who previously served in the same role in Michigan and is a past president of the National Association of State Chief Information Officers (NASCIO), agrees. "I think a chief green officer is overkill. Once the governor sets a policy, it is up to the Cabinet agencies to determine what their role is in energy efficiency," said Takai. "I am also not sure that the CIO should be the focal point for all of the state's greening efforts. I believe that the CIO should take a leadership role in ensuring that [everything IT is] green."

Virginia has found a different balance point. "We appointed a senior adviser to the governor as our energy czar," said Secretary of Technology Aneesh Chopra. He says CIOs should not be confused with green czars because "the skills are totally different," but "the CIO is an important stakeholder for states that plan to lead by example in lowering our energy footprint."

Sustainability brings its own technologies, particularly where green or energy-efficient buildings are concerned. Like physical controls in manufacturing and other mechanical processes, green technologies rely on digital technologies to control the controls - including a growing range of products alternatively known as operational technology (OT) or embedded IT. Digital physical controls have been outside the purview of CIOs in manufacturing, warehousing and the operation of bridges. Public CIOs say their span of control is unlikely to change as green controls and other technologies become mainstream - nor should it.

Mittleman and Chopra point to the appropriateness of fit between business needs and skill sets. According to Mittleman, "The CIO does not generally have special knowledge, training or skills that automatically proffer credentials for managing outside of the usual sphere of influence - that is, information technology." For her part, Takai says notwithstanding the integration of digital/network technologies into control technologies, state and local governments "all have an active facilities management organization that is responsible for overall power consumption."

Her only caveat is that all those devices need to behave well as they connect to the state network. "My view is that the role of the CIO is to ensure that any devices that utilize state networks should be vetted by the CISO [chief information security officer]," she said, but "the selection and control should be the responsibility of the facilities [department]."

Richard Varn, CIO of San Antonio and a senior fellow with the Center for Digital Government, says, "We are responsible for the flows of actionable data on which people or systems depend. That's where we have a role." Noting that public-sector IT departments are "already so big and inappropriately staffed," Varn insists that CIOs should limit their role: "Sustainability is at the logical nexus of physics, fluid- and thermodynamics and mechanical engineering - not IT. But when the information systems on which that nexus relies need support, we're there." Varn concludes, "We don't make green technologies; we may make them more useful."

Mittleman agrees. "All things technical are not IT," he said, noting that CIOs who chase everything digital could end up in places they do not want to go. "Automobiles represent compendiums of several technologies, including computers, network infrastructure and software, but that does not necessarily translate to the CIO being qualified to manage the carpool."

Moral Imperatives and Digital Technologies

We should have seen this coming. We could have, and some did. From 1972 to 1995, Congress was served by the Office of Technology Assessment (OTA), which offered deep, comprehensive and technical analysis across five areas of research. The OTA delivered a collective 100,000 pages of nonpartisan, expert advice that won the agency bipartisan praise and a reputation as Capitol Hill's "best and smallest agency." Regrettably none of that was enough to spare the OTA from closure amid the government downsizing that came in the mid-1990s.

Given the challenges that characterize our times - climate change, globalization and the social impacts of network technologies - we are left to wonder about the potential impact of an organization that was chartered to consider "the effects of technological change on jobs and training, and analyzed the changing role of electronic technologies in the nation's industrial, commercial and governmental institutions, and the influence of related regulations and policies" under one program and examined "the role of technology in extracting, producing and using energy resources; in designing, operating and improving transportation systems; and in planning, constructing and maintaining infrastructure ... and recycling or waste management" under another.

In the absence of the OTA or a successor agency, these issues have fallen to grassroots organizations, independent authors and activists whose advocacy lacks the comprehensive view of technology assessment. NASCIO stepped into the breach with the creation of its Greening of IT Working Group to "explore the role that CIOs can play in their states to preserve the environment while providing the technology that enables state government operations."

In a preliminary description of the group, NASCIO anticipated developing a "call to action to raise awareness of the CIO's role in green IT" and aggregating "policies, business and procurement strategies, and emerging best practices for state CIOs to green state IT."

Even NASCIO, an organization known for its measured approach, flirted with the idea that the working group could help change the world: "As environmental concerns rise to the top of the agenda for lawmakers and citizens alike, the IT community must also re-evaluate its energy consumption and use of resources. As green becomes the moral imperative of the 21st century, the role of the state CIO will become increasingly relevant." Such aspirations were tempered by NASCIO Executive Director Doug Robinson, who said green IT did not make the member CIOs' top 20 strategic initiatives for 2008. "When you're competing with front-page issues like IT security, consolidation, disaster recovery, ERP implementation, ERP strategies, health information technology - that's the challenge. It's not as strategic as some of those; it's much more tactical."

Contrast that with the No. 1 spot given to green IT by Gartner's analysts in their rundown of strategic technologies for 2008. The difference in ranking may be best explained by how green is seen and understood. When green is elevated to a moral imperative, sales-related organizations see it as an opportunity to create, make or expand a market. In the public sector, a moral imperative can be seen as a euphemism for an unfunded mandate - and few things are less welcome in the competition for scarce public resources. Given the still-unknown scope and economic impact of sustainability, it casts a dark green shadow over public organizations and their budgets, as the mother of all unfunded mandates.

This is an edited excerpt from the Center for Digital Government's 2008 report Simply Green: A Few Steps in the Right Direction Toward Integrating Sustainability into Public Sector IT.

Paul W. Taylor  |  Contributing Writer