UK: Delivering Environmental Quality and Value to Stakeholders

Last Updated: 16 January 2003
Article by John Henry Looney

Abstract:

Sustainable development is attracting significant attention. However, the two key business issues that underlie the decision process have yet to be fully worked out in terms of current best practice. Those issues are the measuring and delivering of quality and value arising at the interface between industrial pragmatism and the more public 'popular science' approach to the environment.

Delivering quality in environmental consultancy should be obvious and straightforward. However, as demonstrated by industrial project reviews and the public acceptability of results, this is clearly not always the case. Industry often leads the way for value in environmental protection, linking this closely to financial targets and public image. However, this concept does not always accord with the use of the term value.

The paper develops ideas on how quality and value should be measured and managed, with examples from a range of technical areas. Without clear ways to demonstrate quality and value to all stakeholders the pursuit of sustainability will remain elusive.

Paper Logic:

Perspective:

Consultancy

Focus:

Measuring} {Quality

Delivering} {Value

At stake:

Sustainable Development Delivery

Stakeholder Acceptance

Sub issues:

Industrial Pragmatism

Popular Science

Approach:

Introduction

Assessment / Review of Industrial Project Examples

Conclusion

Paper

"The ability to reason is the fundamental characteristic of human beings."

is the opening sentence of William Hughes book on Critical Thinking. He develops his subject carefully and well. The perspective I wish to develop from this approach is the apparent difficulty of agreeing results in delivering quality and value in environmental areas, particularly as it relates to the current area of sustainable development. To make progress here we need to understand and agree better how we can use the three skills in critical thinking:

  • Interpretative Skills – determining precise meaning
  • Verification Skills – determining if the statements are true or false, and
  • Reasoning Skills – assessing the arguments’ validity.

Since different people or groups can look at the same data, for example on waste, or ecological value, and draw diametrically opposite conclusions it seems some problems exist in the methods for developing and agreeing ideas. This paper looks at how a better understanding of quality and value determinations could help people reach fair and logical agreements. This is important for several practical reasons (adapted from Hughes):

  • We live in the information age, not a knowledge or wisdom age, we are inundated and do not have the ability to filter or interpret the data overload,
  • We are constantly presented with arguments designed to get us to accept some conclusion that we would otherwise not accept,
  • We have to develop our own intellectual self-respect to sort arguments out, and
  • Controversially, critical thinking makes it easier for us to persuade others to change their beliefs.

Before we get into a detailed analysis of quality and value, let’s set the scene on Sustainable Development. The Bruntland Report (1987) definition is well known and defines the concept as:

There are two key issues as part of this:

  • Development is not just about bigger profits and higher standards of living for a minority. It should be about making life better for everyone, and
  • This should not involve destroying or recklessly using up our natural resources, nor should it involve polluting the environment.

A question though, and one which remains elusive is just what is Sustainable Development in practice? Instead of reinventing a wheel on this, a recent reference can help stimulate our thinking. Roy Siegfried (2002) (See www.africa-geographic.com) also believes that the mantra or diktat of Sustainability needs to be analytically assessed. He controversially states that: 'The truth is that a concern for the welfare of future generations is hardly paramount amongst billions of people. Marx (Groucho not Karl) put it this way:

"Why should we bother about the next generation? They have never done anything for us."’

Professor Siegfried clearly sees both the need for and impracticality of Sustainable Development noting on his book jacket that the real challenge is that:

The rich will not stop their degradation of the environment and the poor cannot.

So, as an example, lets examine the wonderful decision process related to the Brent Spar disposal in the 1990s and how this can show the interface between the industrial pragmatism and ‘popular science’ approaches to the environment. The Brent Spar was a loading buoy and storage vessel used for 15 years when it was decommissioned in 1991. At the time Shell wanted to clean it and dispose of it at sea, with the agreement of the UK Government at the time. The Spar consisted of oil storage tanks and footings as well as other items such as staff quarters, amounting to tonnes of iron, steel and other materials. The 1,600 tonne oil tanks and the main body of the platform have since been reused at a cost of about £43M versus the £4.5M disposal cost option. The cost of recovery of the material in terms of environmental emissions is not known for the energy of recovery and cutting up and reusing of the materials, noting the footings of perhaps 10,000 tonnes were still left in place. Was the environmental benefit of reuse greater than disposal and replacement in this case?

Where among this does sustainability lie? Where and when in the process of decision making about the disposal of the Spar did a group of people have sufficient information to interpret, verify and determine a reasoned course of action. Shell, supported by detailed environmental studies and those of a National Government, had determined that the disposal option presented the Best Practicable Environmental Option (BPEO, a forerunner of BAT). Apparently in private meetings even Greenpeace agreed this, but the issue became part of the public arena and very emotive. The disposal of a tiny part of the infrastructure of the oil industry was looked at under a microscope without recourse it seems to the larger Sustainable Development Issues of whether the capacity for oil delivery (much less fuel conservation) was needed or should be addressed. There were clearly presented arguments, for and against, that were designed by Critical Thinkers, "to get people to accept some conclusion that we would otherwise not accept". So who won and were future generations served? The rational arguments presented to reflect "industrial pragmatism" were balanced economic and environmental assessments, but who was the jury on these from a qualified perspective, as the "Popular Science" perspective prevailed? A conclusion is that in 1998 the European nations agreed to ban the dumping of offshore steel oil rigs at a conference on sea pollution attended by environment ministers from 15 countries, but noting they agreed to leave the footings (the main mass of materials) in place. It should be correct to assume, but critical analysis does not yet have the evidence, that the long-term Sustainable Development gains of this minor material reuse will be beneficial to us, and that the design of future oilrigs is now focused on long-term quality and reuse potential to reduce their net environmental costs. Or is all of this a smokescreen to allow us to feel better about maintaining our standard of living?

Tying back to the theme, where did the quality of the work by the Consultants get measured and how did it affect the decision process? Where was the assessment of value, and to whom, and by whom determined? The disposal case was apparently clearly defined and logical, but other arguments prevailed, so there should be value measurable, in economic, environmental and social metrics to demonstrate this. One argument of course is that each minor incremental gain will build to a substantial change, which is true if we are targeting the key issues. Reusable or renewal oil platforms still support the apparent relentless growth of fuel use.

Another more personal example was the Environment Agency project on flood protection in the Norfolk Broads. The Agency wanted to find a method for predicting the best environmental areas so that they could focus their investment to provide not just flood protection and ecological quality maintenance but improvement. So to support Sustainable Development in Broadlands the Agency Team was working on a combination of retreat and protection, but focused also on ecological improvement. A committee had developed a raft of excellent ideas that as a collective indicator was not working. Part of the dilemma was whether a rare and protected bird was worth more than a rare and protected plant. The indicator developed by a consultant used thresholds so that an area could qualify based on passing any of several metrics. In this case is it clear, within the bounds of the project, to see that the Consultant’s contribution to the method development has helped deliver improved environmental quality, economic areas better protected from flooding and a happy Agency manager. In this case we can see therefore fairly obvious quality of technical work and concept adding value, which the team would agree and support. (Of course this argument may be leading you to a conclusion.)

Let’s assume a rational body somewhere that could have oversight of these issues and public accountability and make Sustainable Development decisions. This would include public participation as well as detailed economic analysis and also a long-term view on environmental and social quality and metrics. We would also need to help people be less self-centred but this is beyond this brief paper, and Siegfried’s conclusion on rich and poor will prevail for the present it seems. Despite these shortcomings we can make progress on identifying quality and value measures, to make sure that as consultants we provide quality technical services and add value to the projects and clients we are privileged to support. As part of developing progress on sustainability we want to solve problems and not treat symptoms.

David Maister (www.davidmaister.com) provides excellent guidance on these issues to professional services firms, including the ability to access free materials on quality and value over the Internet. His focus on quality includes both consultative quality (the interaction with clients and stakeholders) and technical quality (of the work, whether scientific, engineering, economic or a combination). Much of his perspective here is on human resources type management, for example training, accountable and open working relationships, focus on quality before profit and similar. His approach to measuring and managing value actions is equally clear, with a focus on contributing value to your client to make their performance and work better quality.

One way I have often defined this is to consider how my work should be focused on providing support to my client to allow them to justify their decisions to their colleagues or the public. If there is clear accountability for the decision process and the assumptions taken for a particular study or project, then over time public scrutiny will progress the process towards more sustainable decisions.

Therefore, perhaps the Brent Spar decision has lead to a better understanding of material reuse and will be worth the extra £40M over time, as equally the Broadlands project supported improvement in environmental quality. As consultants we need to continually improve our quality of work, our understanding of our client’s issues and how these relate to global issues and opportunities. Perhaps over time those in the ‘western’ economies will see how their daily decisions affect their environment and those in the ‘developing’ economies will have the opportunity to take longer term decisions. At present both are challenged, though of course you may have been lead to this conclusion.

In closing, remember to watch out for how many are trying to convince you of something you would not otherwise accept.

References:

Bruntland Report, The World Commission on Environment and Development (1987). Our Common Future; OUP.

William Hughes (1996). Critical Thinking, An Introduction to the Basic Skills, 2ed, Broadview Press.

Roy Siegfried (2002). Keeping the Rainbow. Africa Geographic.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

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