Sustainability and the pace of change

President Obama visits the Grand Canyon in 2009 with park rangers. (Pete Souza/White House)

Implementing sustainable solutions requires both bold action and patience for the realistic pace of change. Discovering new and creative sustainable technologies, systems, and ideas is exciting; however, the relatively slow pace of progress and strong resistance to change present challenging obstacles to innovators. Systemic issues are the most important to address; yet, the larger a system, the more entrenched its culture. Without a strong and broad coalition of support, confronting ethical dilemmas and even material inefficiencies can seem demanding and unrewarding.

As an intern at a federal agency for the past 4 months, I had the opportunity to contribute to an organization-wide transition toward more efficient and accountable business practices. Working in the program management department responsible for implementing the transition exposed me to a variety of obstacles common to large-scale change. The issues the program management department addressed were chronic and relevant to almost every employee in the agency. The decision-making process for middle management was not only often inefficient, but also overly hierarchical and opaque to normal employees. Nevertheless, there were contrasting visions of how the agency could improve its work and best serve its clients. Some were too stubborn to adjust their own management methods to new standards, while others interpreted the new process as a burden to employees who already had numerous documentation requirements.

Clashing perspectives and priorities were pervasive even among those in support of the program management department’s efforts. Even minute details of the program management tools required many layers of review from different groups of stakeholders. My internship was relatively brief, but these fault lines within the agency were immediately apparent. However, there were passionate civil servants across these divisions who seemed genuinely dedicated to improving the agency’s work and serving the public.

The media often portrays the government as a monolith that is unresponsive to new circumstances and inflexible to change. Bureaucratic impediments in government surely exist, however, I was exposed to a much more complex and optimistic reality. Many government employees are aware of and enthusiastically strive to resolve systemic issues in their agencies. The process may be time-consuming, but thorough deliberation is necessary to any process that affects thousands of employees and uses public funds. Being bold enough to demand radical change is just as important as understanding how both large public and private systems process transitions.

This perspective developed my own outlook as I considered the scope of work necessary to make the world more sustainable. While an organization’s “culture” of sustainability is typically judged by its environmental impact or social awareness, management-employee relations and the distribution of day-to-day decision-making power also deserves scrutiny. Aside from fair compensation and benefits, organizations can empower its employees by providing structural opportunities for collaboration and meaningful contribution to the business process. Distinct organizational hierarchies are often necessary as a practical matter of mitigating risk and matching competency with a proportional degree of responsibility.

However, imbalanced power dynamics in work environments can undermine the importance of collaboration and even dehumanize the individual entry-level employee. Changing these dynamics is not always possible in the short-term, however, looking for opportunities to improve the way that people interact with their social and professional environments is at the core of developing innovative sustainable solutions. As more organizations begin using the language of sustainability, it is important that those in power have the tools and incentives to initiate bold conversations and ideas regardless of how difficult they are to implement.

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