CSOs and the city: No longer an anomaly

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CSOs and the city: No longer an anomaly

City Hall image by trekandshoot via Shutterstock.com.

There are all types of chief sustainability officers (CSOs) out there.

In addition to the corporate CSOs that I have researched, there is a growing number of chief sustainability officers at cities, hospitals and universities. My search firm, Weinreb Group, is currently doing the search for the Chief Sustainability Officer for the city of Palo Alto (applications due April 12).

This search has been an exploration on my part to determine what exactly differentiates the search for the right CSO for a corporation as opposed to a city.

City CSOs

Municipal government sustainability professionals even have their own peer-to-peer resource called the Urban Sustainability Directors Network (USDN), which began in 2009 to share best practices and find answers to common issues facing this group of specialists.

In the network's own words, it "share(s) solutions that improve the natural and built environment, infrastructure, economy, health and resilience of local communities." Problems specific to city CSOs typically include the planning and construction of city buildings and neighborhoods, the transportation of city residents and goods, the overseeing of resources and increasing the city's development, all of which must be done with sustainability in mind.

"Green city leaders in the public sector have many of the same change agent roles as in the private sector, including connector and catalyst," says Julia Parzen, USDN coordinator. "In fact, many USDN members have moved on to take positions in corporate sustainability departments, utilities, consulting firms and nongovernmental organizations."

Different maneuvers to the sustainability game plan

There are both distinctions and similarities between those city and corporate CSOs. The first and most obvious distinction between a city and corporate CSO is that city governments are not profit-seeking like corporations, thus a city CSO has to come at sustainability for their municipality from a civic angle. There are four major distinctions.

1. Incentives

The incentives and rewards for a city CSO may not be as direct as the rewards for a corporate CSO. Money saved by reducing energy, for example, does not translate to profit, reduced margins or positive numbers on a Profit-and-Loss Statement. However, the non-monetary rewards are significant.

"USDN members are passionate about their work and get a great deal of satisfaction from advancing sustainability in their cities," Parzen says. "The work is intellectually, strategically and emotionally rewarding."

Christine Eppstein Tang knows what it feels like to wear both CSO hats. Not only did she work as a sustainability professional at Smithfield Foods and the consulting arm of McGuireWoods, she also served as director of sustainability for the city of New Haven, Conn.

"After working for a long time on national programs, I loved the fact that results of my work locally were immediately known, visible and tangible," Eppstein Tang says. "For instance, walking on my way to work, I could see whether the new recycling containers were used correctly. Residents would also stop me on the street to give me direct feedback on the waste minimization and the residential energy efficiency programs. It was immensely rewarding to see the fruits of my labor straight away."

2. Budget allocation and money

In a corporation, a sustainability initiative that saves money gets rewarded in many ways. Often that department would get a bigger budget for the following year because more budget would translate to more net savings. That's a different situation from what you'd find in the public sector, Eppstein Tang says.

"Money saved by a city's sustainability initiatives translates to more money for some other departments' budget, and possibly a lower appropriation of funds for the whole city in the next budget year, commensurate with the money saved by sustainability policies," she says. "In other words, just because a CSO captured X dollars in savings doesn't mean her CSO office or the city as a whole gets a budget that is X dollars larger the next year the way it would for a corporate CSO."

3. Processes and timing

In the corporation, you have a "changing of the guard" once in a blue moon when a new CEO is hired. City CSOs know that the terms for their mayors are finite. That creates deadlines and incentives to complete projects and produce results within the term of the elected official.

"In the private sector, when a senior executive makes a decision, it can be implemented almost immediately," Eppstein Tang says. "At the municipal level, there is less flexibility due to annual elections, the balance of power and the decision-making and approval process between the executives (mayor, city manager and all their department programs, such as the Department of Transportation, Economic Development Authority and Public Works) and the legislative body (elected officials such as the City Council or the Board of Aldermen). This leaves the mayor and city manager less flexibility for emerging sustainability programs. For them, making a policy decision on sustainability often meant the beginning of the buy-in process."

Says Parzen, "City sustainability directors achieve successes by finding and solving problems for department directors, bringing in resources and providing recognition. In fact, they have to let others take the credit for successes."

"Taking one for the team" was also a finding in our report about corporate CSOs.

4. Stakeholders and governance structure

Both CSOs for cities and corporations must be adept at multi-stakeholder relationship management. Yet the stakeholders are different. In city government, for example, the stakeholders include the City Council, special commissions and city offices and departments, such as utilities, transportation and citizen groups.

The potential for change

"Cities that once saw sustainability as the problem now see sustainability as a source for solutions and innovation," Parzen says. "City sustainability directors are playing an important role in this change by focusing, aligning and enabling the efforts of multiple public sector entrepreneurs."

As their ranks grow, they can serve as a resource for their peers.

"USDN members are interested in how to build peer relationships with their corporate, hospital and university counterparts, too, starting with past members who have entered these sectors," Parzen says.

The potential for change in the municipal sector is huge.

City Hall image by trekandshoot via Shutterstock.com.