Governments Should Practice Social Responsibility Too
It may go without saying that governments are "socially responsible." After all, our governments have been democratically elected to represent the interests of the public-at-large. By their very mandate, they are responsible to society.
But if we evaluated the social responsibility of governments in the same way we evaluate the social responsibility of corporations, how would they stack up? Are our governments - and their agencies, ministries, departments, Crown corporations, etc. - acting with leadership when it comes to environmental sustainability, workplace wellness, diversity, ethical and sustainable procurement, human rights, volunteerism and so on?
The results are mixed. Some agencies and departments are true leaders, while others
have lagged. The websites for Canadian Crown corporations VIA Rail, Hydro One, and Canada Post go into depth about their community and environmental initiatives. The U.S. Army goes into extensive detail about their sustainability efforts. The American federal government recently committed to reducing its greenhouse gas emissions by 28% by 2020. Meanwhile, the websites of Environment Canada and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, despite discussing their financial performance at length, do not even hint at the environmental performance of their own agencies.
A future article will go into more detail about the current state of government social responsibility. Today, I would like to discuss the reasons why we should care.
Why Government Social Responsibility Matters
Governments Are Big
Local, regional and national governments make up the lion's share of many developed economies. Government employment in OECD countries is nearly 25% of all non-agricultural employment and government expenditures can be upwards of 40% or 50% of gross domestic product. The sheer size of this economic activity implies that governments have a dramatic effect on the environment, the workforce, and society. As Pres. Barack Obama recently noted, the U.S. federal government occupies nearly half a million buildings and uses more than 600,000 vehicles. The social and environmental impact of such an operation can hardly be ignored.
Corporate social responsibility (CSR) has generally suggested a deliberate approach to planning, monitoring, recording, and reporting a company's social and environmental impact. This approach is very consistent with calls for government to run itself "more like a business" and public management approaches that focus on results. Similarly, stakeholder engagement, a core tenet of CSR, is common practice at many government agencies (although more modern approaches are only starting to take root). Social responsibility is very compatible with existing government management structures.
Social Benefits & Government Mandate
For many corporations, social and environmental goals are something new, having previously focused narrowly on economic goals. For these companies, the social and environmental benefits of CSR have been something "extra" going above and beyond their traditional role as a business.
But for governments, these benefits are firmly aligned with their primary mandate. Governments that engage in deliberate social responsibility are not achieving something "peripheral" to their mission but instead something that contributes to it directly.
Corporate social responsibility is often promoted because of its "business case" - its potential to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of the company as a whole. Indeed, many companies build more loyal relationships with customers, employees and communities. They improve their brand recognition and reputation. They cut costs and reduce waste. They inspire innovation and creativity.
But what government department or agency wouldn't enjoy these benefits too? Governments - perhaps even more so than private corporations - often struggle to attract and retain the most talented leaders. There are extensive cultures of "satisficing" in many agencies that hinder innovation. And governments face a constant challenge to maintain their legitimacy in the eyes of a finicky public. They often face extensive media scrutiny.
Government As a Role Model
Finally, governments around the world are working hard to promote and facilitate corporate social responsibility. But how can these efforts seem sincere and legitimate if governments don't practice what they preach? Governments must walk the talk if they expect corporations and individuals to follow suit. In the meantime, governments should also be learning lessons and developing best practices to be passed on to the private sector. And certain initiatives, such as ethical and sustainable procurement, can also create incentives for corporate social responsibility without the need for regulation.
In follow-up articles over the coming weeks, we will examine what governments can do to enhance their social responsibility through specific policies and initiatives. In the meantime, what do you think about government social responsibility? Should governments should become more involved or not? Is President Obama's commitment to improve the environmental responsibility of the federal government a welcome announcement? Or is it a distraction from more pressing concerns?
Don't forget to sign up for our complimentary webinar, The Basics of CSR: Starting Your Stakeholder Conversation Right, being held Thursday, April 29th at 3:00pm EST.