After the huge financial crisis in 2013 provoked by the problems at the Co-operative Bank, the pressure was on to reform the structure of the Co-operative Group as quickly as possible. The Group had borrowed heavily and urgent action was needed to reassure the lending banks. A completely new structure was adopted in September 2014.
In the spring of 2014, while the reform debate was settling on the idea of a largely professional board with an elected National Members' Council, we published this article on Springboard.
The forgotten reform
The process of reform in how the Co-operative is run is moving fast. Elected members have reviewed a second revision of draft proposals and a version 3 is expected by mid to late July.
Much of the focus has been on the composition and powers of the board and the proposed new member council. These are important questions. As we have pointed out on Springboard, the balance and separation of powers between these two bodies is the crucial issue for member control of the Co-operative at the highest level.
What has been missing however is any real thinking about how ordinary but loyal and active members can take part in the Co-operative and have any influence over how it is run. We should be thinking about how the Co-operative will show itself to be unique, genuinely different from other businesses in the communities where it operates.
It is assumed that there will be local committees in some form, perhaps based on the existing area committees, and that they will help the Co-operative “deliver” its social goals in communities. This usually means organising events, or funding community activities.
This is important, but social goals are not what make the Co-operative unique and different.
It is also widely argued that local committees will be needed to act as a link to the member council - feeding ideas in from members.
This is important too, but to ordinary members it won’t seem any different to what we have now. They still won’t feel like it is their co-operative. It will still seem that the real decisions are taken elsewhere.
We have argued on Springboard that we need a big culture change, a ‘co-operative spring’ to overcome this problem - the alienation of ordinary members. We think that’s about creating a 21st century, open co-operative, making the best use of technology so that members can input directly. This isn’t about using social media as another marketing tool.
We like the example of Wikipedia. If you need to change a page on Wikipedia, you don’t stand for election to a committee. You don’t propose a motion in the Wikimedia foundation. You just click ‘Edit’. We need more ‘Edit’ buttons in the Co-operative.
There is no earthly reason why for example, with modern technology, local members should not be able to change the range of products sold locally to suit the community.
But its not just about product range. We believe that we need to empower local managers and staff to work with members and respond to their ideas. That could mean changing aspects of how the store is run, or it could mean getting involved in a local event.
The local co-operative would be a part of the community - like the local co-operative societies were many years ago.
That would make The Co-operative truly unique and altogether different.