Does Whitehall need a Net Zero Delivery Service?

Chief Digital Officer for London
4 min readJul 10, 2023

UK governments (of whatever colour) face a real dilemma when confronting the huge sums needed to achieve NetZero. The State alone can’t foot the bill for change, and even where government has intervened delivery has often been questionable. At the same time government at all levels has had trouble market-making to encourage private investment at scale, especially in areas such as building retrofit or climate change mitigation. The fragmentation of local government, complexity of housing tenure, and the opaqueness of what the market can offer are just some of the challenges big programmes face.

As Chief Digital Officer for London I believe there’s an exciting opportunity to explore the chequered record of top-down initiatives by using design, data and technology to enhance delivery.

Numerous reports into climate change delivery from the National Audit Office (NAO) — exemplified by “Achieving value for money for government’s environmental goals — National Audit Office (NAO) insight” — point to the lack of necessary capabilities in government to successfully implement environment programmes that involve digital, data, or technology components. Despite having good intentions and adequate funding, these programmes often under-deliver.

Many programmes suffer from the outset: poor discovery and problem-definition or lack of adequate data. Instead rely they on conventional means such as financial levers, grant arrangements and arbitrary targets for implementation. When failure happens, this provides the perfect conditions for the enemy-of-innovation: blame.

So how can we deliver differently?

To effectively achieve the NetZero target it is crucial to change the way we work, learn from our failures, design better and leverage new types of data in the following ways:

Enhanced Insight and Modelling: By utilising advanced data analysis techniques, we can gain better insights and create more accurate models to inform decision-making processes. (We’ve already seen in London how data from an expanded air quality sensor network, coupled with data expertise from the Alan Turing Institute and Imperial College has transformed the city’s approach — and public understanding — of pollution and what to do about it).

Behaviour Adaptation: Through the use of open data and digital services which incentivise or reward, data can be employed to encourage behavioural changes that encourage more sustainable practices. (For example, TfL’s 80 live open data feeds power major wayfinding apps used by millions of Londoners every day to reliably plan their journeys on public transport).

New Business Models: Data-enabled insights can facilitate the development of innovative business models from the private sector, promoting long-term private investments in areas like retrofitting. Data allows us to explore funding models to deliver investment (heat pumps, solar panels etc) with costs and benefits shared between the government, citizens, and investors. They can drive a shift in what’s possible akin to how the advent of 4G technology enabled transformative new business models like peer-to-peer sharing platforms like Uber and Airbnb.

The specific data I am referring to is not traditional government you-ask-I-tell performance data (necessary as this is). It derives from smart devices, sensors, energy management systems or other similar interventions. These real-time data feeds, when analysed at a large scale, can be used to model interventions and create new products and services for industry and citizens.

An alternative approach to current government thinking would involve allocating a fraction of the sums talked about to establish a new delivery capacity focused on enablement and service delivery.

This capacity would resemble the posture and skills in the current Government Digital Service and the Digital and Connected Places Catapults but focused on achieving the NetZero goal (with a succinct objective, see GDS’s Plain English public administration aim to “to make digital government simpler, clearer and faster for everyone”).

A new Government NetZero Delivery Service would consist of a team comprising experts in design, data analysis, technology and procurement. This service would be tasked to work with domain experts within the relevant government departments, research and tech sector providing support in the following areas:

a) Identify user- and end-user need, properly define the problems to be addressed and identifying barriers to successful implementation

b) Work in an Agile way and using design-led approaches (e.g. Double Diamond) and have a ‘fail fast’ posture

c) Work alongside local delivery partners such as councils and housing associations to test and refine programmes

d) Identify regional or a ‘national pipeline of investable opportunity’, rather than having hundreds of independent entities pursuing their own, different approaches (often lacking the delivery teams necessary)

e) Promoting data standardization and interoperability, allowing data to be shared more easily and enabling scale.

f) Data ethics and ensure citizens data is collected, managed and used safely, responsibly and effectively.

Over time this capacity could be deployed to other priorities as well, as the current structure of Whitehall often lacks the necessary organisation and capabilities for effective fulfilment.

So at the very least we need to acknowledge the successive NAO reports that highlight the failures of Whitehall’s delivery mechanisms. By recognising the shortcomings of previous approaches and embracing necessary changes, we should aim to shift away from spending taxpayer money on traditional methods.

Instead, a new service — spun-up in less than two years — composed of top design, data, and technology experts to collaborate with government entities, councils, stakeholders, and the technology sector can create outstanding services and opportunities that enable us to achieve NetZero targets at the scale the priority needs.

--

--

Chief Digital Officer for London

@LDN_CDO & Data for London Board @MayorofLondon using data to support a fairer, safer and greener city for everyone​