Monthly Archives: June 2015

What can municipal sustainability reports achieve?

due to popular demand..: reposting from VNG International’s blog (28 May 2015)


Our struggle for global sustainability will be won or lost in cities” is a quote attributed to UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and a sentiment shared by many people. Cities across the world take their role and responsibility very seriously and are keen on applying effective management and communication tools to promote sustainable development.

From a previous assignment (employed by GIZ to support local monitoring in Ecuador) I know that many Latin American municipalities have developed interesting practices themselves and search for good examples elsewhere. In this context many local decision makers in various countries wonder about municipal sustainability reports – What are their benefits, are they worth the cost and should we start publishing them?
Surprisingly there are hardly any publications dedicated to these questions. I thus started a search for practical answers and am glad to have teamed up with VNG International. The purpose is to

  • study current practice of municipal sustainability reports (in cooperation with the University of Twente and Erasmus University Rotterdam)
  • make practical use of research results and to inform the capacity building work of VNG International in various countries.

This blog post is to outline the project and share emergent findings. A first question is of course: What is a municipal sustainability report?

There is broad consensus about the meaning of sustainability (long-term viability) and of reports being a review of the current state (plus ideally trends and forecasts) and the municipality’s relevant actions and effects.

However, there is no universal definition of and even within countries a surprising variety of sustainability reporting forms and formats, making the research question trickier than expected. One key difference is frequency: Some cities write sustainability reports annually (e.g. Dublin) while others have issued reports in four-yearly intervals (e.g. Zurich, Nuremberg).

Further, some documents are called “sustainability reports” while others have similar content under a different title. Yet other cities have combined reports: In Utrecht, for example, the city issues a yearly statistics report (“Utrecht monitor”) with many sustainability-relevant indicators and a discussion of trends which is more elaborate than what some small municipalities may write in stand-alone sustainability reports. Moreover, some claim (e.g. the Integrated Reporting Council) that “integrated reporting” is superior to separate financial and sustainability reports because of better coupling of reporting with decision-making. This argument is especially made for commercial companies but also extended to the public sector.

The city of Melbourne has actually integrated some sustainability reporting guidelines (GRI 4) into its Annual Report and Basel is exploring something similar. However, Amsterdam recently opted for the opposite: it found that integrating broad sustainability indicators into the Annual Report was not effective in all regards and will restart the publication of separate sustainability reports to reach wide audiences.

What to conclude from this quick review? It appears that municipal sustainability reports continue to be a rarity. On the other hand, several cities that are known as sustainability “frontrunners” engage in sustainability reporting and do so in varying ways and for various purposes. In this situation, a case study analysing a set of different cities with different approaches seems most revealing. Six European cities (Amsterdam, Dublin, Nuremberg, Freiburg, Zurich and Basel) were thus chosen for a more detailed analysis of effectiveness. This study is underway with several interviews yet to be held and detailed results to be published by September.

Guy Morin, President of the Government Council of Basel-Stadt
Simone Pflaum, Head of Sustainability Management, City of Freiburg
Marijn Bosman, Municipal councillor, Amsterdam

Some interim conclusions are worth sharing already: Municipal sustainability reports are no “Swiss army knife” that can simultaneously improve internal management and external communication. If they are started with such expectations, they risk becoming “jack of all trades and master of none”. However, if purpose, design, and integration into institutional processes match well, they can be effective tools. I look forward to continuing the reporting on the relevance of such reporting.