Green IT initiatives need stricter standards, watchdog says

The government has made important strides in lowering the carbon footprint of its information technology enterprise in recent years, but responsible agencies haven't set up reliable metrics to gauge how much good those initiatives have done, a watchdog said Friday.

Friday's report from the Government Accountability Office also urged agencies to adopt best practices from the private sector to curb energy consumption, such as establishing policies on when to print documents and transitioning to thin client computing where the most intensive computer processing is done on a central server instead of employees' desktops.

The White House Council on Environmental Quality advises agencies on establishing green IT initiatives in accordance with two executive orders from 2007 and 2009. The Office of Management and Budget is charged with reviewing and approving those green IT plans and rating agencies' success in achieving them on standardized score cards.

Most agency plans don't include baseline information, so it's often not clear what, say, a 10 percent reduction in server space will mean for an agency's overall server count, GAO said.

Moreover, agencies often don't identify the environmental benefit of their green IT targets, so it's not clear what effect the planned action will actually have on an agency's carbon footprint.

"For example, [the Agriculture Department] had a goal to reduce the number of its data centers by 5 percent during fiscal 2010," GAO said. "However, it is unclear whether or by how much meeting this 5 percent reduction goal was expected to result in energy or dollar savings or other benefits."

Establishing energy use baselines is difficult, agencies told GAO, because many government properties don't have meters capable of differentiating electricity use between IT and non-IT enterprises.

A separate GAO report on agencies' attempts to meet an OMB initiative to cut roughly one-third of the government's 2,100 data centers by 2015, found that only a handful of small agencies had reliable metrics on their data centers' energy use.

GAO acknowledged that collecting baseline information would be difficult, but said it could be extremely important to measuring agencies' progress.

Carbon emissions from information technology account for about 2 percent of all emissions worldwide.

The government spends about $80 billion on information technology and purchases or leases about 1 million computers annually, according to the GAO report.

The Federal Electronic Challenge, a partnership of federal agencies, estimates the government saved 500,000 megawatts of power and $48 million through green IT initiatives in 2009, the latest figure for which estimates are available.

Typical green IT initiatives include shutting down or consolidating inefficient data centers, transferring more of an agency's IT enterprise to more efficient cloud-computing, cutting down on printing and donating old government computers to be retooled for others' use rather than throwing them away.