Environmental performance indicators for the public sector


Despite their social, environmental and economic importance, entities in the public sector are often omitted in sector-environment integration approaches and studies. For many years public institutions were far removed from general environmental concerns and management practices. The public sector is now beginning to realize that it must shift its management towards sustainability. Public sector environmental performance evaluation now is becoming a growing reality. The public services oversee an important number of activities, products, services and facilities. There are significant differences between public sector organizations and the private sector, particularly at organizational and functional levels, with their specific policies, goals, objectives, targets, products and services. Public organizations must provide responses to the needs of society that are not covered by the private sector. The majority of public organizations still generate most of their income from the state and have to account to several stakeholders.

Within the public sector there are several types of public organization.  For example, there are central and local government departments, agencies, trading funds, and public corporations. Public sector organizations pursue political and social goals rather than simple commercial objectives. In the private sector there are sole traders, partnerships, co-operatives and private and public limited companies. There are also hybrid organizations such as jointly owned enterprises where the government retains a share of ownership. Many public organizations produce services instead of products. The greatest experience with environmental management tools has been in business, and especially industry. Environmental management tools have been most often applied to manufacturing industries and tangible products.

The Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) led the way with guidance documents such as "Improving the Environmental Performance of Government” and "Improving the Environmental Performance of Public Procurement”. At a public-sector level there are numerous initiatives involving the implementation of environmental management practices, e.g. environmental management systems (EMS), environmental audits and environmental performance evaluation, including measurement and communication. However most of this experience is centered on the adoption of EMS. In the public sector, environmental performance assessment itself is quite a new issue, despite a certain amount of experience in overall performance management and assessment, usually related to accounting. Various countries are beginning to implement "greening government" programs (e.g. the UK’s Sustainable Development in Government; “Greening Government” in Canada; “Greening the Government through Leadership in Environmental Management” in the USA).

Environmental Performance Indicators

The integration of environmental and sustainable development considerations into policy sectors and economic activities is one of most challenging targets at an international level. When public policy needs to be increasingly flexible, responsive and co-operative, integration needs to be achieved by efficiency. Policy indicators are one possible way of ensuring that sustainability issues are being consistently and transparently considered in public policy. Indicators provide performance measurement, reporting and communication to stakeholders. Despite their social, environmental and economic importance, the public sector overall are often omitted in sector-environment integration approaches and studies.

Despite the diversity of methods and tools for measuring environmental performance, indicators almost always play a central role. To assure that environmental performance indicators (EPIs) serve the purpose for which they are intended and to control the way they are specifically selected and developed, it is important to organize them into a framework.

The concept of sectoral Environmental Performance Indicators, includes the evaluation of the environmental performance of public sector policies and activities in the context of overall performance management, providing particularly useful information for the top decision-makers and the general public.

This kind of information could give the support to make evaluations among similar public sector areas, at a national or international level. These environmental performance indicators represent highly aggregated information which should be used like socio-economic indicators, Gross Domestic Product (GDP), the inflation rate or the unemployment rate.

The indicator initiatives in the public sector demonstrates that this domain is quite new around the world, despite several important examples, namely in the United Kingdom and Canada. Environmental performance measurement is just one component of the strategies for greening government or sustainable development in government operations and the public sector overall. The number of environmental performance indicators could range from 5 to 80, showing the great diversity of objectives and approaches. They are supported by different methodological frameworks, namely the Balanced Scorecard, ISO 14031, Pressure-State-Response and Leading-Lagging.

Development of the environmental performance indicator system is based on various fundamentals: (a) the type and dimension of the sector/organization; (b) baseline environmental sensitivity; (c) major significant environmental aspects and/or impacts identified/predicted and related mitigation measures; (d) the identification of impacts which have poor accuracy or lack of basic data; (e) other related environmental monitoring programs; (f) the need for all public sector domains to have a common general indicator list, although sector-specific indicators exist; (g) the importance of indicators satisfying the information desires of the stakeholders (internal and external); and (h) the need for the information communicated to be potentially comparable and widely disseminated.

Practice of Public Services: The Case of Defense Sector

The integration of environmental management practices into the military sector should be a priority for governments in order to guarantee the sustainability of this sector. The military should comply with the need that the potential environmental impacts of certain activities should be assessed before a decision is made.

To promote the link between the military sector and the environment we must increase our research into methods of developing, measuring and promoting the integration of environmental practices, at the different levels of military organizations, into decision-making, logistics and operational processes in particular. This could be accomplished by integrating the environment into the whole management process of defense organizations, rather than maintaining it as an isolated aspect.

On an international scale many experiences and cases studies reveal that some countries already have good examples of integrating environmental practices into the military sector, including the armed forces and defense administration.

Although several initiatives on sector-environmental integration indicators, centered on pressure indicators, there are relatively few programs of environmental performance indicators applied to the public sector overall or to the Defense in particular. Much of the work carried out does not use a well defined indicator framework, but rather just develops a list of indicators without any particular methodological procedure.

As with the public sector overall, defense indicator systems show a significant range of diversity, with the number of environmental indicators ranging from 2 to 60. Though some examples of environmental indicators are integrated in a broader approach to performance management for defense services (including social, environmental, economic/financial performance aspects), the majority are isolated environmental performance frameworks. Most of the cases show that sectoral environmental performance evaluation, measurement and reporting are the main objectives.


At a public-sector level there are numerous initiatives involving the implementation of environmental management practices, e.g. environmental management systems (EMS), environmental audits and environmental performance evaluation, including measurement and communication. However most of this experience is centered on the adoption of EMS.

Despite all these studies, the terminology used in the area of environmental indicators is still rather confusing and is not well established. At present there is significant diversity in the indicator frameworks available for evaluating environmental and sustainability performance. This diversity is at the root of the increased difficulty in providing comparisons among organizations, sectors and countries. Environmental performance indicators in the public sector are a recent issue.

Environmental performance indicators could contribute to designing and evaluating public policies, plans and programs, thus improving establishment of the cause-effect relationship and the reporting and communication of environmental data, as the early-warning signals of a prevention strategy.

Further Reading



Ramos, T. (2007). Environmental performance indicators for the public sector. Retrieved from http://www.eoearth.org/view/article/152631


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