Government buyers need training to go green, panel says

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An advisory group based at the General Services Administration has ideas for putting government operations on a net-zero emissions basis.

The Biden administration wants U.S. federal government operations to have net-zero emissions by 2050 — as laid out in a 2021 executive order — and officials say that the government’s purchasing power will be a big part of that. 

But the federal acquisition workforce lacks core training on sustainability relevant to their work, the General Services Administration’s advisory committee on acquisition policy said in its first round of recommendations, which were issued in May.

Frontline staff — part of a workforce already “historically and currently understaffed” and “burdened with innumerate (often competing) legislative and regulatory policy mandates” — say that sustainability training is currently not in core training, not always a focus in the early parts of the acquisition cycle, not always relevant to their work and doesn’t keep pace with the changing landscape, according to the report. 

The group of experts from federal, state and local governments, industry and academia wants GSA to make sustainability a “core competency” in the Federal Acquisition Certification in Contracting training program. The committee notes that GSA could leverage ongoing modernization efforts for this program.

The recommendation is one of several the committee released about sustainability and procurement. 

The suggestions come as the government continues to try to meet several goals set out in that executive order to move to carbon pollution-free electricity, zero-emission vehicles and zero-emission buildings. 

“As the world's largest buyer of goods and services, the federal government has a significant role in shaping markets, creating jobs and bringing innovative technologies to market,” Brenda Mallory, chair of the Council on Environmental Quality at the White House, during a keynote at an Economist event last month. “Our administration is laser-focused on leveraging the power of our footprint, and our $630 billion in annual federal purchasing power to lead by example.”

The recommendations come months after a March report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change at the United Nations found that the world needs to cut greenhouse gas emissions nearly in half by 2030 if it wants to have the chance to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius relative to pre-industrial levels. That’s the goal countries agreed to work towards as part of the 2015 Paris Agreement on climate change. 

The GSA advisory committee also had more recommendations on workforce, advising that the agency strategize to accelerate change faster with a sense of urgency. 

It also wants GSA to create a cadre of sustainability experts with a GSA-led Sustainability Acquisition Certification program modeled after an existing tech-focused IT Acquisition Certification program, where such experts could “be deployed to support peer-to-peer engagement across teams, and therefore… promote sustainability across all stages of the acquisition lifecycle.”

The supplier side

Awareness and knowledge about federal acquisition requirements related to climate aren’t always understood, the committee writes. The federal government’s own supplier base needs more information, the group said, and the government also needs to do more to diversify its supplier base to meet its sustainability goals.

“A mechanism is needed to quickly increase knowledge, competencies and commitment across the federal supplier base,” the group stated. 

One idea is a maturity model for the government’s supplier base to embed sustainability and climate risk mitigation in acquisition and provide common information, terminology and metrics.

In terms of the supplier base, the committee recommends targeted procurement initiatives to increase new entrants with leading knowledge on sustainability. 

The committee also urged GSA to issue a rule to curb single-use plastics and packaging in government purchases, something the agency took comments on last year. 

GSA Administrator Robin Carnahan said in a statement that the agency “will carefully consider how the recommendations can help streamline the way the government buys goods and services and help advance our sustainable acquisitions goals.”