Tracking Sustainability Projects

A guide to gathering the right data, and communicating a sustainability project's progress.
December 29, 2010
Gerry DeSeve
By Gerry DeSeve  |  Contributor
Gerry DeSeve is a GOVERNING contributor. He is a consultant with ICF International and a professor in the Masters of Sustainable Design Program at Philadelphia University.
Rob Fryer
By Robert Fryer  |  Contributor
Robert Fryer is a GOVERNING contributor. He is an Assistant Professor, Architecture Program, Philadelphia University. For more than ten years, Professor Fryer has designed and managed architectural projects and has been a LEED consultant.

Keeping track of a sustainability project is hard enough. Imagine tracking more than 160 separate sustainability projects and their contributions to a city's strategic sustainability goals. That is what one of us was asked to do for the City of Philadelphia.

The Mayor's Office of Sustainability had committed to doing more than just updating their plan -- known as Greenworks -- every year. The Sustainability team had been careful to build relationships with stakeholders during the planning process, and those stakeholders expected to see results on a regular basis. This meant gathering project status from more than 30 internal and external stakeholders and communicating it back publicly.

Unfortunately, reporting sustainability was getting in the way of actually delivering results. The first annual update consumed the entire Greenworks team, and getting routine status updates required tedious back-and-forth calls between the staff and stakeholders.

The new tracking system meets the requirements of the Office of Sustainability. It is web-based, simple, easy to use and very inexpensive. But the system-side of the project has been almost a footnote in Greenworks' success. Even more important is the Office of Sustainability's management model and how they have gone about gathering the data needed to populate the system and communicate its progress.

The Management Model

On the face of it, the Greenworks strategic plan appears typical: there are goals, objectives and lofty aspirations for what needs to happen. On closer inspection, you'll find that it is actually not a plan for what the Office of Sustainability will accomplish. Instead, it is a communication document which sums up the city's diverse sustainability activities and describes the network of public, private and not-for-profit players who are delivering results.

In other words, Greenworks is network management and the Office of Sustainability is a hub. It plays its network hub role by communicating what is taking place in order to draw attention to sustainability efforts. It also coordinates resources such as stimulus funds, and acts as a clearinghouse for information about sustainability. The Office of Sustainability actually manages very little: It oversees only a handful of the 160 projects described in Greenworks, and it is a co-owner of many of those projects.

The Data Side

Early on during the system implementation, we decided that traditional data gathering methods wouldn't work, simply because none of the stakeholders had any reason to help. There was no reporting requirement in law or policy; they wouldn't receive any fiscal or intangible benefit; and the Office of Sustainability had little or no political sway, given its newness, lack of resources and small size.

This meant we couldn't ask stakeholders to fill in long forms, learn complicated new reporting processes or produce information they didn't normally produce.

Instead, we developed some simple principles: Stakeholders would be able to report directly into the system; nothing new was needed by them; we would only ask for data which they already had; no more than four fields would be needed for a report; and the reporting process would take no more than three minutes each time.

Asking for data which was already being reported meant understanding stakeholders' internal processes. We determined this was best done in person, and we opened each meeting by describing what we hoped to accomplish and why, then asking for the stakeholders' help.

This approach has yielded an incredible amount of cooperation and, amazingly enough, probably reduced the overall time needed for project-wide data gathering, since we turned up data sources through face-to-face contact which would have been difficult to find through other channels.

While we limited input to four fields, most stakeholders only need to report a single piece of information, a metric such as how many "unhealthy" days there were according to the Air Quality Index, or how many city employees enrolled in the car sharing program that month.

The Greenworks plan also had a set of common metrics which the system captures by gathering key performance indicators (KPIs). Currently, the system sums KPIs across all 160 projects for energy use, greenhouse gas emissions, new renewable energy production, spending in dollars, new jobs and stakeholder satisfaction.

Reporting either a metric or a key performance indicator takes only five clicks allowing most stakeholders to report well under our three-minute mark. Status reports can be accepted immediately or placed into a workflow queue for Office of Sustainability staff to check.

The system reports all of this information into management dashboards without requiring additional effort from staff. In the dashboards, reported metrics and KPIs are compared to the plan's baseline data and targets. This enables the Office of Sustainability to see in detail how well each project has done so far and how each has contributed to citywide sustainability goals.

What We've Learned

The Greenworks database has been implemented and data-reporting is underway. Communicating back to stakeholders will be the final stage before completion, but we have already learned several lessons which may be applicable to other sustainability programs that are interested in implementing similar tracking systems:

Work backward from reporting to your plan. Think carefully about what you will need to know about your program on a regular basis before committing to a particular system. This means designing your desired reports and dashboards before setting any other system specifications. If you don't follow this order, you risk getting an system which doesn't provide actionable management information about the health of your program. You also risk overburdening stakeholders with data requests, which will dramatically lower their interest in helping you.

Consider a network management approach. Ask yourself if this command-and-control or carrot-and-stick management model is sustainable over the life of your sustainability program. If not, think about how you could use network management to design a more workable, long-term solution.

Build in the cloud. Cloud computing is the new paradigm for enterprise technology. The Greenworks database was built on a completely customizable, multi-user cloud platform and required absolutely no computer coding. This has radically lowered the implementation cost versus traditional systems, and the amount of time needed for implementation was days, not months.

Don't forget the people. A good data-reporting system will not reduce the amount of work needed to build and maintain strong stakeholder relationships. Since it is a network managed program, Greenworks will succeed or fail based on stakeholders. If you're using a network model for your program, plan for a lot of time coordinating that network after your system is in place.

Don't forget the data. Build a strong understanding of what results drive your plan. Make sure you have good baselines and target data for everything you will be reporting and make sure the data used to develop these baselines and targets can be accessed on a regular basis. In other words, make sure your staff and consultants are clear about how everything was developed, and put it somewhere it can be shared by the team. Having this access means that you will be able to report on an apples-to-apples basis against your plan. Not having this access will require changing the assumptions to fit data availability. Worse, it could be that you won't be able to get actual updates on your plan.