Interpretation might haunt Whitehall's green transparency

June 21, 2010
With governments, transparency is transparency and usually something to be commended.

With governments, transparency is transparency and usually something to be commended. A new step toward energy transparency by the UK government, however, may become something for the government itself to regret.

"Greener, transparent government took a step forward today with two ministries displaying their energy use in real-time, online, for the first time," declared a June 9 statement by the UK Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC).

The DECC and Home Office have begun reporting the energy they consume for heat and light. They're displaying real-time data online in units of energy, cost, and related carbon emissions at and

All central government headquarters will begin doing likewise in coming months, fulfilling a promise by Prime Minister David Cameron. He has committed to cutting carbon emissions attributable to his government by 10% in the next year.

"There can be no hiding place for energy waste in central government," the DECC said. Riveting stuff, this: Numbers and colored charts updated every 5 sec, feedback links, the overarching dramatic tension over whether the bureaucracy will meet its emission-reduction goal or not.

If television viewership of the World Cup soccer competition declines in the UK, this surely will be the reason.

Who knows? Brits might skip the constitutional stop for stout at the pub in order to hurry home from work and eat cold suppers in front of their computers so as not to miss anything about Whitehall's energy use and carbon emissions.

With the nation so thoroughly enthralled, of course, questions of interpretation will arise. What, exactly, does it mean when a government suddenly lowers its energy consumption?

Do lower color bars on real-time energy-use charts mean government workers are wearing coats at their desks during winter, riding The Tube instead of driving to work, and switching off lights when they're last to leave the restroom?

That, of course is the impression that promoters of "green, transparent" governance would like to make. But there's another possible explanation when members of Her Majesty's bureaucracy lower their collective consumption of energy enough to trim carbon emissions.

Maybe they're just working less.

(Online June 11, 2010; author's e-mail: [email protected])

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