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1: The Federal Sustainable Development Strategy

For the first time, the federal government has produced a draft strategy that proposes a single or overarching set of goals for the entire government. An overarching strategy is welcome both to help set Canada on a sustainable development pathway and to ensure policy coherence”.

- Commissioner of the Environment and Sustainable Development, June 2010

Between 1997 and 2008, the Commissioner of the Environment and Sustainable Development (CESD) conducted 11 highly critical audits of the federal government’s previous approach to sustainable development planning and reporting.  The CESD cited, among other weaknesses:

  • lack of clearly defined federal priorities, a common vision and “meaningful” targets;
  • federal accountability not clearly defined and lack of senior level leadership;
  • lack of horizontal integration across departments;
  • lack of a means to measure and report on federal progress; and
  • strategies were not the “drivers of change” they were intended to be.

This lack of progress led to a Private Member’s Bill that, after considerable amendment, was passed by Parliament with all party support in June 2008. The Federal Sustainable Development Act (the Act) has as its purpose “to provide the legal framework for developing and implementing a Federal Sustainable Development Strategy (FSDS) that will make environmental decision-making more transparent and accountable to Parliament”. The Act requires that a draft of the strategy be available for public consultation and be reviewed by the CESD before a final strategy is tabled in Parliament. The Act also requires a new strategy be tabled every three years, with Progress Reports in between. The first FSDS was tabled on October 6, 2010, and uses an improved framework for planning and reporting with three key improvements:

  • an integrated, whole-of-government picture of actions and results to achieve environmental sustainability;
  • a link between sustainable development planning and reporting and the Government’s core expenditure planning and reporting system; and
  • effective measurement, monitoring and reporting in order to track and report on progress to Canadians.

The FSDS brings together goals, targets and implementation strategies established through the regular course of government decision-making. The FSDS itself does not set new goals and targets, with the exception of those for greening government operations (GGO); rather it makes the outcomes of decision-making more transparent. 

Goals, targets, and implementation strategies for the first FSDS are organized under four priority themes including:

  1. Addressing climate change and air quality;
  2. Maintaining water quality and availability;
  3. Protecting nature; and
  4. Shrinking the environmental footprint – Beginning with government.

An overview of the number of goals, targets and implementation strategies under each of these themes is outlined in Table 1 below. The first FSDS includes eight goals, 38 targets and 399 implementation strategies. The number of departments and agencies responsible for contributing to the goals, targets and implementation strategies under each theme is also included in the table.

Table 1: Number of goals, targets and implementation strategies
Theme I
Theme II
Theme III
Theme IV
Total in the FSDS
Implementation strategies
11 mandatory, 68 best practices
Departments and agencies with responsibilities under each theme

The Act lists departments/agencies that are subject to the Act (Appendix 1). All of these departments/agencies are required to contribute to achieving the goals and targets under Theme IV of the FSDS (Shrinking the Environmental Footprint – Beginning with Government). Sixteen of the 27 departments/agencies have programming specifically related to one or more of the goals listed in the first three themes of the FSDS. The current focus of the FSDS goals, targets and implementation strategies is on domestic environmental impacts.

The FSDS focuses on integrated decision-making – a key principle of sustainable development, by making stronger links to economic and social policy. This is done through such tools as Strategic Environmental Assessment (SEA), which highlights environmental considerations that can be integrated into the larger decision-making process. The FSDS also provides socio-economic linkages to each goal through the Canadian Environmental Sustainability Indicators (CESI) program. These two elements (SEA and CESI) contribute to the “Check” and “Improve” system outlined below.

Figure 1: "Plan, do, check, improve" system

Diagram of the Plan, do, check, improve system

Long description

The figure illustrates the cycle "Plan, do, check, improve" model of continuous improvement used to improve the FSDS. Each element of the FSDS "Plan, do, check and improve" model is represented by an arrow completing a circular pattern. The arrow representing the "Plan –Define change and approach" component of the model, focuses on developing the FSDS, consulting with other government departments, key stakeholders and public and establishing committees and working groups. The arrow representing the "Do –Implement the approach" component, includes tabling the FSDS, and developing processes to implement the approach such as the Management Framework, Measurement Framework and Departmental guidance (Reports on Plans and Priorities, Departmental Performance Reports and Strategic Environmental Assessment). The arrow representing the "Check –Analyze the results, evaluate progress and identify lessons learned" component, involves delivering the Progress Report, identifying gaps and areas for improvement and applying SMART (specific, measurable, achievable, relevant and time-bound) criteria. Finally, the arrow representing the "Improve –Take action based on results and lessons learned" component, involves sharing the results of progress made towards meeting the goals and targets, and applying SMART (specific, measurable, achievable, relevant and time-bound) criteria. This component also involves refining implementation processes and taking action to fill gaps and make improvements.

The first FSDS makes a significant contribution in terms of planning and reporting and represents a step up in transparency that will drive change over time. Updating the FSDS every three years establishes a system of “Plan, do, check, improve” that will be a useful and meaningful addition to the federal government’s approach to sustainable development. Through the three-year cycle, progress toward FSDS targets will be tracked and gaps will emerge and pressure to address policies and programs in the gap areas will grow. Successive FSDSs will reflect policy changes driven by this improved transparency. The FSDS Management Framework is also one of the key elements to assuring long term progress and success of a “Plan, do, check, improve” approach. The figure to the right outlines the main elements of the FSDS approach to implementing the "Plan, do, check, improve" system.

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