GRI reporting: Public sector progress
10 January 2013

​For a sustainable global economy, transparency and accountability are just as important for the public sector as they are for international business - and this message is catching on fast. As reporting by companies continues to become an imperative, public sector organizations are also realizing the value of reporting – for their own sustainability, and for them to be accountable to the people they serve.
​Last month, GRI profiled research commissioned by the Focal Point Australia on how Australian public sector organizations may use GRI’s Framework to address the reporting requirements they face. Global developments are showing that these possibilities are becoming a reality for a range of public entities – from cities to summits, and from airports to armed forces.

The trend is highly visible in the US, where reporting by the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth has led to Fall River becoming the first US city to produce a GRI report.

Fall River’s report was developed by the MBA student team that produced the UMass report. It reveals some notable sustainability successes, like the city’s significant reductions of carbon emissions, solid waste and water usage. Mayor Bill Flanagan has stressed that the report is a vital tool for attracting new residents and businesses, as well as sending a clear message to the local community about the city’s sustainability commitments.   

The diversity of public sector usage of GRI’s Framework is emphasized by other US reporters. Recently, the Washington State Department of Ecology became the first state environmental agency to release a GRI report. 2012 also saw San Diego International Airport become the first airport in the country to release a GRI report. Employees of San Diego, Portland and Denver airports were members of the Airport Operators Sector Supplement Working Group, the expert body that developed GRI’s sector guidance for the airport sector.   

The Australian research highlighted the suitability of GRI’s Guidelines as a tool to complement, or address, the legislated reporting requirements of public sector organizations. This compatibility is emphasized in the latest report by the US Army, which weaves together GRI Indicators with the disclosures legislated in Executive Order 13514: Federal Leadership in Environmental, Energy, and Economic Performance. 

When EO 13514 came into force in late 2009, President Obama stated that “As the largest consumer of energy in the US economy, the Federal government can and should lead by example when it comes to creating innovative ways to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, increase energy efficiency, conserve water, reduce waste, and use environmentally-responsible products.”

Obama is referring to a concept that is gaining ground internationally. Echoing the use of GRI reporting by Sydney Water Corporation in Australia, the Berlin water authority issued a GRI-checked report in 2012. The 2011/12 report year is the first for which British Central Government Departments and their related bodies must include sustainability reports in their Annual Reports and Accounts. And just as travel infrastructure bodies and state environmental agencies in the US are reporting, so are similar bodies globally: the Port of Rotterdam in the Netherlands and the National Environment Agency in Singapore are among those to have initiated a GRI reporting cycle.

GRI has a strong focus in two of the world’s most important emerging economies: Brazil and China. In the case of Brazil, the progressive climate for public sector sustainability reporting is spotlighted by the City of Rio’s GRI report. Sustainability in the city was further examined by a Brazilian government report on the impacts of the UN Conference on Sustainable Development, Rio+20. Alongside the environmental repercussions of such a large event, the report Committee also focused on the social inclusion of Rio’s local communities, Brazilian culture, and disabled persons at the conference.

China’s progressive approach to reporting legislation and government-led guidelines is quite widely known, and the country is reaping the benefits in terms of transparency and corporate social responsibility (CSR).  The China Development Bank is a prominent member of the UN Global Compact Leadership Platform and the United Nations Environment Program Finance Initiative, as detailed in its CSR statement. And a blue paper published by the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences has concluded that – due partly to mandated reporting - state-owned enterprises in China score higher on CSR performance than foreign companies operating in the country.   

These are just some of many examples of public sector reporting from around the world. The message is clear. When it comes to measuring and communicating sustainability performance, the role of government - and the bodies connected with it - is not limited to encouraging business to be more responsible and transparent. The best leaders lead by example, and inspire one another: and GRI’s own analysis of the reports on its Sustainability Disclosure Database shows 218% growth in public sector reporting from 2007 to 2011.