Envirowise has been running since 1994. It provides several free services to businesses, including a helpline and day-long "fast track" consultancy visits to identify waste minimisation opportunities. The programme claims to have helped UK businesses save over £800 million since 1994, and says that the average business it works with converts an extra 1% of its turnover into profit.
Envirowise is managed by AEA Technology and Technology Transfer and Information. It is funded jointly by the Environment and Trade and Industry Departments, and its budget for 2003/04 was £5.27 million.
The programme's current contract runs to 2007 - subject to a satisfactory mid-term review to assess "both the impact of the programme and its ability to deliver cost savings to business."
Demonstrating continuing success in helping companies make cost savings is critical to Envirowise's survival. Its target is to deliver savings worth ten times its own expenditure - and the contract can be terminated if this is not met.
On the last occasion that Envirowise carried out a self-assessment it only just scraped by. A study completed in January 2003 claimed that it achieved savings of £45.5 million in 2001 against expenditure of £4.34 million.
The mid-term review, carried out by an in-house policy consultancy, has raised significant doubts about that claim - even though the review was hamstrung by limited resources and a lack of performance data from Envirowise.
The review's findings are based solely on perusal of key documents and discussions with Envirowise staff, helpline advisers and officials in the sponsor Departments. No resources were made available for primary research.
As a result, the consultancy says it was unable to form an "authoritative view" of the savings which Envirowise is generating. However, it voices "some reservations" about the scale of the savings claimed in the January 2003 report. It also expresses "some reservations" about the "presentation of data and about apparent gaps and inconsistencies" in that report, which were "reported separately" to the sponsor Departments and have not been disclosed.
The report also highlights "a particular point of concern" about the methodology used in the January 2003 study which the consultancy was "unable to clarify" with Envirowise. This concerned the disaggregation of businesses into those which had had some contact with the programme in the previous two years and those which had not, taking samples of both and then comparing the responses.
The survey results suggest, the consultancy says, "that there is no meaningful relationship between the businesses with which Envirowise believes it has had contact...and those businesses which actually recalled contact with Envirowise when questioned as part of the survey."
This "apparent mismatch...does not necessarily invalidate" Envirowise's claims, the consultancy says. However, it "does raise important questions about what the survey is telling us about how the programme impacts upon individual businesses, which are not dealt with in the [January 2003] report."
This concern was reinforced by the consultancy's discussions with five Envirowise advisers - external consultants who deal with more complex queries and carry out on-site advisory visits.
Although four of the five felt that Envirowise is valuable to business, they expressed "some scepticism" about the savings attributed to the programme. One described the claim as "over the top". Two who quantified how they spent their time said that 80% and 40% of their helpline calls were on inquiries about legislation, which are highly unlikely to lead to savings.
Moreover, three of the five felt that savings were likely to result from no more than 40% of fast track visits - because some firms had already implemented the available waste reduction opportunities, or because the short-term costs of making savings were too high, or because the firms visited were "too shambolic" to capitalise on the advice they received.
Further light might have been shed on the issue by Envirowise's own outcome monitoring activities - an occasional survey of helpline callers "and - in theory at least - a six-month follow-up call after fast track visits." However, the consultant who led the review observes: "I have not seen any analysis of the results of these activities."
The report urges DEFRA and the DTI to review the methodology used by Envirowise to justify its claims and take a closer interest in how it measures its effectiveness. It also recommends more monitoring of the programme's activities and the savings they generate.
The review also identified important deficiencies in the programme's management. In particular, it found no strategies or savings targets for Envirowise's ten main campaigns. This, it says, makes it very difficult for the sponsors to influence the programme's strategic direction, and "provides only a very limited basis...to judge how effectively [Envirowise] is delivering the programme agreed in the annual plan, and hence whether the contractors are doing their job effectively."