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IIPP Student Ideas

A view from the top: does the UK government meaningfully support the SDGs?

Image: United Nations

By Abby Hauver

Seven years ago the UK committed to achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) along with all other 192 United Nations Member States. But what does this mean in practice?

There are countless examples of actions happening around the country that aim at tackling the 17 SDGs — from research, innovation, community organising, local council commitments, and beyond. However, as IIPP’s founding director, Prof Mariana Mazzucato, would be quick to point out, meaningful progress requires rate and direction.

This points to national leadership, where all of these independent actions can be set on the same path, pursuing the same specific mission of achieving the SDGs. Beyond setting the mission itself, we need the key elements of support: the funding, the policies, the unequivocal commitment of leadership.

It was on this foundation that I began my first project as a research assistant for the newly launched UK Sustainable Development Solutions Network (SDSN). Our team was tasked with responding to a survey conducted by Global SDSN meant to evaluate high-level government activity in relation to the SDGs. We were essentially asking the question: ‘what is really going on at the top?’

The survey itself asks a few seemingly simple questions:

  • Was there an official statement endorsing the SDGs?
  • Is there an overarching implementation action plan?
  • Are the SDGs being integrated into sectoral action plans (health, education, economics, etc.)?
  • Is there a set of national indicators monitoring the implementation of the SDGs?
  • Are the SDGs mentioned in the latest central budget?
  • Is there a designated lead government unit with overall responsibility for coordination and implementation across ministries and agencies?
  • Are the SDGs mentioned in the main COVID-19 recovery plan?

An officially weak statement

Looking at the question on whether an official statement had been issued by the UK Prime Minister, we found it somewhat hard to find an answer. After scouring various government websites and news outlets, we eventually found a joint statement released on the US White House website from the UK Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, and US President, Joe Biden, which explicitly endorsed the implementation of the SDGs. This was the Prime Minister’s only official direct endorsement we were able to find, which made us ask ourselves: what does it say about the level of the UK government’s commitment to achieving the SDGs when the only official high-level statement made in the last year comes through another government’s press release?

SDGs missing in action

We found the questions on the budget and the COVID-19 recovery plan relatively straightforward — neither mentioned the SDGs. The term ‘levelling up,’ however, was mentioned throughout both.

The fact that ‘levelling up’ is the language of the budget and the COVID-19 recovery plan sends a signal about where the UK government’s priorities lie: with the prime minister’s Levelling Up Agenda. This is not to say that the goals of Levelling Up are misplaced. In fact, the Levelling Up White Paper released in February 2022 centres around IIPP’s mission-oriented approach. However, with such an ambitious and wide-reaching agenda, the central government missed a huge opportunity to unite the goals of Levelling Up and its commitment to the SDGs, especially given the window of opportunity created by the disruption from the COVID-19 pandemic.

The SDGs present a powerful opportunity to mobilise the UK under a common mission. We have separate strategies, like the ‘Levelling Up’ agenda, the ‘Build Back Better’ plan, the Net Zero Strategy, and various department-specific strategies. Taken in isolation, the plans have admirable goals and may even be related to one another and the SDGs. However, the connection isn’t explicit, leading to a policy and strategy environment that lacks the focus and cohesion we need to meaningfully tackle the SDGs.

Knowing this, we have to ask, why are the SDGs so important? Is it not sufficient to have a nationally-focused agenda such as ‘Levelling Up’?

The SDGs extend far beyond the limitations imposed by concepts like economic recovery, net zero or ‘going green.’ They address many areas of our social fabric, like poverty, hunger, education, economic growth and inequality. If approached with full commitment, they could be transformative for our society on many levels.

With so many important and interconnected challenges, we then turned to equally important questions: who is responsible for coordinating all of the actions required to achieve the goals? And if the answer is “no one,” does responsibility ultimately exist?

According to the UK government website on the SDGs, each government department is leading the efforts on achieving the goals related to their domain, yet it does not name a coordinating body.

Another frustratingly obscure hunt led to a frustratingly obscure answer. After digging through many sites, we found a letter from October 2020, wherein the Secretary of State for Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Affairs at the time claimed ownership of the oversight of the coordination of the SDGs within the Cabinet Office. However, we couldn’t find this information confirmed anywhere else.

Therefore, not only are there no official mission controls, but ultimate responsibility is nonexistent. It begs the question, can we, the public, hold the government accountable without an owner of responsibility? And is a devolved, department based approach sufficient or will it lead to piecemeal solutions instead of the joined-up approach we need for such interconnected goals?

Where do we go from here?

Ultimately, our responses to this survey have been verified and the results have been included in the 2022 Sustainable Development Report compiled by Global SDSN. The report attempts to shine a light on these issues.

Will it be read by the people who need to see it? Will those who do read it have enough will to pressure for increased support from the top? Or will the report join the ranks as a well-intentioned action that goes unnoticed amidst all of the noise?

It’s going to take efforts like those of SDSN to ask the hard questions and to point out where our leaders need to do more. It will also take all of us to pay attention to what is (or is not) happening on a national level, to discuss the SDGs with our families and friends, and to call our leaders to action, pressuring them from the bottom-up.



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UCL Institute for Innovation and Public Purpose

UCL Institute for Innovation and Public Purpose

Changing how public value is imagined, practiced and evaluated to tackle societal challenges | Director: Mariana Mazzucato | Deputy Director: Rainer Kattel