Cornwall Council: Doughnut economics in council decision making

Cornwall Council have deployed the use of a decision wheel, based on the Doughnut Economics model pioneered by Kate Raworth, so cabinet decisions take full consideration of their environmental, social, economic and cultural impact.


The context

When the Carbon Neutral Cornwall (CNC) Action Plan was adopted in July 2019, a clear political steer was given that all decision-making pertaining to climate change mitigation should be balanced against the principle of social justice. Utilising the ‘Doughnut Economics’ model developed by Katie Raworth, the decision wheel (see example below) has been deployed for cabinet decisions since September 2019. The wheel is used to illustrate the positive and negative impacts of the decision being proposed in an easily accessible form that draws decision-makers to key issues that may require further debate, mitigation or even cancellation.

The challenge

Complex problems such as the climate emergency or COVID-19 cannot be treated as one-off or finite events. If decision-makers attempt to over-simplify the vast implications of the uncertain outcomes, we risk ignoring the evidence gaps in our knowledge and processes, and will likely exacerbate problems by addressing them through the same systems in which these problems have developed.

Decision-makers need tools to be able to deal with uncertainty and complexity, and make the most informed decisions possible while being encouraged to recognise and acknowledge the information that is missing.

Cornwall’s response to the climate emergency is not simply to become carbon neutral, our main goal is to create a Cornwall that is safe, resilient and thriving for one and all. There is no clear roadmap to this goal, these problems are not another service performance goal familiar to council members and officers, where control and accountability is clear and supported through existing statute or policy. This is a challenge where the totality of the solutions needed is not clear and the approach we take will be emergent.

The solution

Since September 2019, every decision which has come to Cabinet, has been through the Cornwall Council decision wheel. The decision wheel is based on the Doughnut Economics model pioneered by Kate Raworth, which aims to balance the boundaries of a thriving society with those of a thriving planet. The goal is to find the sweet-spot wherein both can thrive, as threats to either could be potentially catastrophic.

The wheel consists of 11 outer environmental sections and 11 inner social, economic and cultural sections. It is designed so that these sections are considered in conjunction with each other and that the wider effects of proposed initiatives are brought into the decision-making process. It is also a tool to prompt thought on how a project can further benefit the residents and environment in Cornwall. It is of benefit to undertake the exercise as early in the project as possible in order to mitigate the effects of any adverse implications that are discovered during the process.

The sections of the wheel are considered in turn and assigned an impact level. These scores represent the impact the project / policy will have and are weighed against the decision to proceed, mitigate or not to undertake it at all. A brief narrative is included alongside the wheel which draws attention to any points that project leads would like to clarify or provide further explanation on.

The impact

In addition to helping with the decision-making process, this exercise is helping build understanding of relevant social, economic and environmental concerns for the work that we do across a broad cross section of people involved in shaping the future direction if the work that we do. It is embedding a new way of thinking at the council, helping people understand the inter-connectedness of our lives with the environment in which we live by demonstrating the trade-offs between generating social, economic and environmental growth. It is focusing the limited resources of our decision-making structures onto the most relevant issues which, now, formally include the environment and our impact on it.

In adopting the wheel, Cornwall Council are looking to enable our people and planet to thrive, a decision which Amsterdam recently followed having adopted a similar approach based on the doughnut model for their response to the economic challenges brought about by COVID-19.

How is the new approach being sustained?

The development of the tool is progressing rapidly towards a semi-automated system that will automatically produce the relevant ratings to reduce the subjectivity of the current model – and it will also feed directly into the council’s carbon inventory that is being developed to give an annual account of the decisions we are taking as well as progress against our own carbon reduction targets. A multi-disciplinary working group are looking at how it integrates with the Comprehensive Impact Assessment (CIA) to both enhance that process and reduce additional pressures on report authors.

Alongside the decision wheel, Cornwall Council are also working with the University of Exeter to create a ‘State of the Doughnut’ report for Cornwall. Co-design events are also underway with businesses, community, cultural organisations and the health sector to support the development of similar decision wheels which can share resources, ideas and data across Cornwall.

Lessons learned

Bringing a new tool into decision making process is not easy; it requires both top-level buy-in but also understanding and compliance from officers. To assist with lead officers rating each segment accurately the tool is accompanied by detailed guidance with questions about each category carefully tailored in collaboration with representatives from key departments across the council. An Officer in the Carbon Neutral Cornwall Team has been placed in charge of developing and embedding this tool and is currently training all relevant staff in its use through meetings, conferences and lunch & learn sessions.

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