Federal agencies are taking steps to be more environmentally friendly in the way they buy, use and dispose of information technology but the effectiveness of those efforts “cannot be measured because key performance information is not available,” according to an audit.


A Government Accountability Office report said that agencies have not established the starting points for the environmental impact of their green IT policies to date, nor have they set well defined goals, making it difficult to judge the effects moving forward.

The government spends about $79 billion a year on IT, which accounts for a significant part of agency energy use and environmental impacts, the report said. The government buys or leases about 1 million computers and monitors each year and discards about 75,000 annually, it said.

Two presidential orders, one from 2007 and the other from 2009, set general requirements for buying energy-efficient equipment, extending equipment’s useful life, and disposing of unusable equipment in an environmentally sound way. GAO reviewed how six agencies complied with those orders: the departments of Agriculture, Commerce, Energy, and Health and Human Services, and the Environmental Protection Agency and General Services Administration.

It found that each has carried out, or has plans to carry out, the requirements of both orders, with progress further along on the earlier order than on the latter. EPA, for example, donates most of its excess electronics to schools, other levels of government, nonprofits or other federal agencies. Similarly, each agency has plans to make its IT use more energy efficient in several ways, and steps already taken saved $48 million in energy costs in 2009, by one estimate that GAO did not validate.

However, the six agencies reviewed do not identify their current energy use as a basis for measuring the effects of energy-saving policies and equipment, nor do they define the dollar or energy savings they hope to achieve, the report said. As a result the agencies “are not positioned to identify benefits from their activities and to use that information to evaluate and prioritize their efforts,” GAO said.

GAO said it can be difficult to track energy use related to specific equipment because building electrical systems may not capture that information. But it said that developing such information where possible could help agencies better determine their progress toward meeting targets, and recommended that the White House order agencies to develop baseline figures for energy use.

The White House partially agreed with GAO’s findings but said it does not intend to order agencies to develop baselines for their green IT-related efforts, or targets to measure energy or cost savings.