Why do good plans die?

By Wendell Brase,  Vice Chancellor University of California-Irvine and Chair  of the University of California Climate Solutions Steering Committee

(This article appears in the October, 2010 issue of The ACUPCC Implementer)

Every institution has an unfortunate legacy of well-intentioned plans that have died.  Some were announced with great fanfare following a year of committee work, consultant studies, and boardroom proclamations.  Yet, despite the intellectual capital and financial resources invested in these plans, they proved useless — languishing and ignored within a few years, forgotten within half a decade.

Why do some plans transform an institution while others grow stale on the shelf?  Sometimes plans with the most impressive packaging are inherently inadequate, lacking the key ingredients necessary for an organization to move from plan to action:  a goal that is simple and clear, measureable milestones, understandable metrics, and feasible resource expectations.  These fundamentals are even more basic than the best practices highlighted by the Eastern Research Group (in this issue).

Sometimes failure of a plan to prove transformative is not an inherent weakness of the plan, itself, but due to organizational incapacity or resources.  My July column outlined ten critical success factors that predict an organization’s performance.  Item #10 was “Accountability goals and measures that ‘mainstream’ mission-critical problems into annual performance goals and subsequent performance appraisals of line managers.”  This means that any plan, in order to effect change, needs to transition from “staff” to “line.”  This happens when specific, measurable outcomes are written into annual performance objectives of the directors of facilities, construction, parking, transportation, housing, food services, environmental safety, environmental planning, and procurement.  Failure to make the “staff to line” transition negates the value of many plans.

This can affect any plan that aims to be transformative for an institution — including a climate action plan.  CAPs are also under threat because they require a substantial investment extending more than a decade — perhaps decades — at a time when colleges and universities are struggling to survive, or at least not lose ground.

How can we maintain momentum when our governing boards are consumed by concerns about declining revenues, student access and affordability, and looming fiscal nightmares around benefits, investments, and pensions?  They cannot ignore these problems; neither can we.

One thing we can do is concentrate on carbon-reducing actions that are practically cost-free, or self-financing.  This list includes a number of grass-roots changes in institutional culture that can constructively engage students during a time when major investments may have to wait:

  • Eliminate hot water in non-residential lavatories
  • Eliminate hot water from laundromat facilities
  • Label food entrees low/moderate/high carbon at point-of-service
  • Energy Star and EPEAT procurement policies
  • Eliminate sale of bottled water
  • Install thermal barriers for open food coolers
  • Weigh and display dining waste
  • Data center energy audit
  • Enable all computer and office machine sleep features
  • Raise data center(s) thermostat and monitor inlet air temperatures at top-of-rack components
  • Persuade laboratory users to close fume hoods when not in use
  • Disaggregate parking fees embedded in housing rents (providing substantial discounts to those who forego a car on campus)
  • Year-end donation program to avoid dumpsters heading to landfills when students move out
  • Community gardens near where students live and eat
  • Charge extra for non-Energy Star residential refrigerators
  • Eliminate ice dispensed for beverages
  • Extend energy-awareness programs to water awareness — showering, shaving, laundry, dishwashing, etc.
  • Cooking classes to shift students away from microwave products, fast foods, vending machines, etc.
  • Print official documents double-sided on recycled, recyclable paper
  • Charge for disposable beverage cups or offer a discount to those who carry a cup
  • Replace 28-32 watt fluorescent lamps with 25 watt low-mercury tubes (all fixtures with suitable ballasts)
  • Change the culture that results in new buildings while the Friday class schedule is a fraction of the M-TH schedule
  • Change the student life environment that results in a weekend exodus, underutilizing the campus while students drive home
  • Change the culture that favors building new space in order to avoid sharing space, and that favors new construction over re-purposing existing space
  • No-idle policy for all campus-operated vehicles
  • Flow-restrictors on all lavatory faucets
  • Tray-less dining
  • Replace all stairway lighting fixtures with low-wattage bilevel fixtures
  • Replace all parking structure lighting with bilevel fixtures

Finally, during this period when the only positive fiscal news is the low cost of capital, expand campus housing by taking advantage of low financing and construction costs.  Converting commuters to residents will make a big dent on your campus’ carbon footprint.  And speed up your energy retrofit program in order to complete projects before the cost of capital increases from current favorable levels.

An important strategy to keep in mind during this fiscally-constrained period is to manage expectations for the next phase of your climate action plan, when major investments will be required.  Since many CAPs focus on conservation, efficiency, and behavioral actions as initial priorities, large-scale renewable energy, offsets, and other high-investment actions will characterize later stages of implementation.  We need to manage this expectation.