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Cornwall Council: Doughnut economics in council decision making – revisiting

Cornwall Council have been using the Cornwall Development and Decision Wheel (CDDW) for cabinet decisions since September 2019. The CDDW is based on Doughnut Economics. It has been 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. Three years into using the CDDW, we have revisited them to understand what Cornwall Council have learnt from embedding it in Cabinet and other decisions and the impact it has had.

The challenge

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

To ensure the CDDW was effective and subsequently rolled out to all decision-making, the council have invested in the development of a technical platform and a programme of training and support to build competencies across the organisation. Without this investment in technology and training, the ability of decision makers to make well-informed decisions based on accurate and informative impact assessments, would be at risk.

The solution

To increase the ease of use of the CDDW and to improve its data collection potential and the robustness of its methodology, investing in a digital platform was essential. The new tool is accessible to all, interactive, and like the initial tool, relies on quantitative answers to its questions to assign scores to all of the separate segments. Users can revisit the questions at any time allowing it to become a living tool that policy and project leads can use throughout the design stages ahead of decision making.

Whilst a lot of effort has gone into building a level of quality assurance into the tool itself, we recognised that it would only be as good as the person utilising it. We established a Steering Group to guide initial application of the tool and focused on the Council’s officers in policy and project development roles.

Once we had decided which staff in the organisation would be initially utilising the decision wheel, we started to develop the required support and training. We ensured that we had the right technical support so that staff could effectively use the digital tool. We then focused on creating the necessary environment to implement the wheel, allowing us to learn about the process and alter the training and technical support in line with staff needs.

One thing that we recognised early on in the process, was that the training and support required to use the CDDW effectively would be an ongoing, iterative process. Action learning sets with relevant policy and project officers are established to collaboratively work through and determine potential alterations and to challenge what is being presented. Though this can be a resource intensive way of working, the benefit of this approach has been realised through the speed in which staff developed their ability to apply the decision wheel and in the quality of the work presented.

Our use of Action learning sets also acted as a level of scrutiny which helped improve the quality of the impact assessments going to decision-makers, ensuring all impacts were properly recognised. The Sets are comprised of experts in their respective fields within the Directorate. Training was also provided to these experts in how the CDDW should be used.

Providing training and guidance to key decision makers has also been a key focus. As we welcomed a new administration in May 2021, we recognised the need to provide our new cabinet members with an in-depth overview of the tool.

We ran workshops that focused on how the decision-making tool is used by staff, how staff developed the reports that sit alongside decisions and how members should probe the rationale behind the information within the reports. The workshops were successful in supporting members to understand the value of the tool and to trust the output. To supplement the workshops, a wider member briefing session was also held.

The tool is continuously evolving. Most recently we incorporated our equality impact assessment into the decision wheel. This has helped to streamline and simplify the council’s processes. With the new digital tool, we are working to ensure that it has cross council buy in, going from strength to strength in terms of outputs and usability. The CDDW has been expanded to decision-making processes throughout the council, including Overview and Scrutiny Committees, Individual Portfolio Holder decisions and it is also being used as part of all strategy, policy and project development. We have also developed a method to review the cumulative impact of multiple policy and project interventions such as the setting of mid-term financial strategies.

The impact

The CDDW has been extremely successful in shaping the future direction of the Council’s work. It is embedding a new way of thinking, 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 resources of our decision-making structures onto the most relevant issues which now formally include the environment and our impact on it. It is helping to facilitate cross department working, breaking away from siloed thinking.

How is the new approach being sustained?

The CDDW has now been embedded throughout Cornwall Council’s processes. We are keen to ensure that the value of such a process is seen by all staff and members, to continue to win more hearts and minds. We are working on improving our internal communications to help demonstrate to everyone in the council the value of the tool and to build on the positive energy we currently have.

A key element of utilising the tool is recognising that it must evolve if it is to continue to be effective in supporting decision making. We have a small team who support on all the above work, while also focusing on developing the CDDW, so that it meets current needs. This requires us to generate, review and alter the methodology we use for the tool, so that it recognises changes in government policy and climate change research.

Lessons learned

It is important that anyone considering integrating such a process into decision making understands the resources and technical skills required.  We would recommend councils take time considering what is achievable before they start out.

Our processes include an independent review of all completed CDDWs. Such an approach can be time consuming, however, it adds a necessary element of challenge. We would, recommend councils consider the impact this step in the process might have on their ability to deliver.

Providing training across all departments to relevant staff to ensure that they are up to speed takes time and commitment. To address this, we decided to deliver the training and support in an agile way, focusing on those likely to use the tool initially.

It is vital to develop an internal communications plan to help make everyone aware of the reasons for the change and how the new decision-making process will work.

Buy in from the highest levels within the Council is also essential to its success. Cornwall Council’s Chief Executive is a firm proponent of the use of the CDDW and this has helped in its widespread adoption.

We have worked with members, staff and wider partners and stakeholders to generate the methodology for the decision-making wheel. However, this is based on our geography, economy, community, assets, etc. This will be different for each council, making it vital that if you decide to create your own decision wheel, that you generate your own methodology to get the best out of the tool.