08 December 2010

Will public sector workers fit in the co-operative movement?

Another Guest blog, this time by ChangeAGEnts which exists to create a space for active citizenship and to be a platform for older people.  Cheryl of ChangeAGEnts responded to a Linkedin discussion which got me thinking about the different cultures within worker co-operatives and public services, as ex-public sector workers, here are their views.

A worker co-operative is owned and democratically controlled by the people who work in it: Public Services are owned by The People.

If the Coalition Government is successful in ʻnudgingʻ public sector workers into the co-operative movement, how will they relate to, and with, existing worker co-ops?

Our guess is that the ex-public sector co-operators will create a space within the co-operative movement to deliberate: citizenship, democratic accountability, coproduction, available resources, commissioning and ownership. They will take some time to understand and re frame the co-operative business model, including and expanding upon current government thinking on 'wellbeing'.

They will invite existing co-operators to facilitate their understanding of the values and principles of co-operation and to help them to form multi-stakeholder, partnership based, co-operatives, building on the established core values, policy, practice and legislation relevant to their service area.

A defining principle for worker co-ops is ownership, the public sector ethos is one of service but are we really so different? The co-operative movement and the welfare state share radical roots, shouldn’t we also have a shared future, blending the best of ethical business with the best of citizen empowerment? Might we, redefine ʻownershipʼ together with the public and establish a new paradigm for Public Services

A note of caution, we in Change AGEnts chose to become a co-operative, even so it was for us a challenging, though exhilarating journey, for others, who in reality will have very little choice or control as to if and how their service is transferred, there will be pain, loss, anger and disorientation.

We’ve seen a lot written recently about the ʻspinning outʼ of Public Services, most of it focusing on reducing costs (terms and conditions of workers) or increasing profit. We have not yet heard the ʻvoiceʼ of the public or public sector workers, nor has it included the current discourse on public sector reform beyond the political ideology of the coalition government.

If essential public services are mutualised but not made sustainable and they collapse, who will the public hold to account?

A recent survey by Ipsos MORI (2010) indicates that the public want public services to be distributed fairly. Fairness in this instance being about equity and uniformity of access, the notion of a variation in quality of service’s across different localities was unpopular and considered unacceptable. 82% of respondents supported greater public involvement in public policy and service design, 53% supported individual budgets only 41% supported free schools. The Coalition Government’s agenda of shrinking the state seems at odds with the majority of the citizens of the UK, who define their ʻBritishnessʼ not by colour, class or ethnicity but by fairness, as exemplified by the welfare state.

In relation to Public Services, people do not define themselves as service users, nor do they see themselves as retail customers. (Clarke et al 2007) ʻItʼs not like "shopping” was the response from focus groups, when asked for their views on health care, it is the quality of the relationships with health care workers that is valued, along with trusting workers to reach decisions based on need not profit.

The Co-operative movement is similarly trusted and valued by the public, for example Older People that we work with, frequently recite their national insurance number, along with their co-operative membership number as proof of active citizenship. We are often given life course narratives, where good neighbours and the Co-op were essential to the survival of a family or a community. The notion that a barely elected government can transfer that sense of ʻownershipʼ or re-negotiate a cherished relationship without permission or participation, we believe is risible.

So what might happen when worker co-ops and the public sector newbie’s get together?

A radical and powerful paradigm shift that moves us out of our current silos, bringing us to a new and shared understanding of ownership, taking us beyond
Thatcher and Blair’s consumer model for Public Services, applying instead the legacy of the Rochdale Pioneers, reflecting ʻbottom upʼ the aspirations and expectations of the wider public.

Climate change, obesity, chronic disease management, inequality, the financial crisis, the ageing of society and social justice across and between generations are challenges which demand co-operative principles and shared ownership, not to come together now, may be considered by future generations as not just a missed opportunity but as a betrayal.

Co-operative Public Services that re-create the Beveredge dream for and with the 21st Century Citizen, that’s the enterprise that we would want to own in common.

Cheryl Barrott
Mervyn Eastman

04 December 2010

From conflict to co-operation

Worker co-operative people are very aware that conflict can be an issue and over time can cause real problems. Conflict shouldn't be avoided, but equally you shouldn't revert to "because I told you to" (even if you can).

I always like posting guest blogs; and here is one from Kate Whittle a co-operative developer of more than 20 years, who has recently written a series of publications for Co-operatives UK called From conflict to co-operation.

I was on my way to a meeting I expected to be very challenging a few days ago, and as I got off the train and started walking I noticed my knees were feeling wobbly - and I understood - it was adrenaline - my body was getting ready for fight or flight ... (not really sure if wobbly knees are any use at all for either fighting or fleeing, but you get the picture ..)

So I started thinking what can we do when our physical body is reacting to a real or perceived threat - by flooding our system with adrenaline? How can we find a way to acknowledge the signal that the body is sending us, but at the same time adopt a stance in the confrontation that is going to give us the strength to insist on a negotiated settlement, rather than run away or engage in physical or verbal fighting?

I believe that having a recipe - such as the one that the book Getting to Yes gives us - can help us find that strength, and help us behave in a way that is most likely to produce a satisfactory outcome.

The recipe has 4 ingredients:

  1. separate the people from the problem - i.e. build trust, try to help them to see that you are not their enemy, but that you want to find a solution that will satisfy both of you
  2. focus on interests, not positions - try to find out why they feel like they do, or want what they say they want. A great but simplistic example shows us what this can mean. A mother separates two little girls who are fighting over an orange. She cuts it in half and gives them half each. However one eats the fruit and throws away the peel, whilst the other throws away the fruit and makes marmalade with the peel. If the mother had asked them what they wanted to do with the orange, she could have given the peel to one child and the fruit to the other, a much more satisfactory outcome!
  3. invent options for mutual gain - once you are working together on a solution, and you each understand where the other is coming from, it's much easier to brainstorm potential solutions that will satisfy both parties
  4. insist on using objective criteria - it's important to use criteria that are independent of the will of either side, and find a solution based on principle, not pressure or power.
That's why the approach is called Techniques of Principled Negotiation - and this handy little book should be on the shelf of every co-operative or community enterprise. The first third of the book explains these four steps in more detail, with examples. However the rest of the book concentrates on what happens when people won't play - when they are more powerful, or if they use dirty tricks, the techniques are still useful, and will help you get as much as you can out of a difficult situation. 

From Conflict to Co-operation is a series of five cartoon booklets from Co-operatives UK, the first book focuses on dealing with conflict and books 2-5 on preventing conflict. 

Wider Reading
From conflict to co-operation, Co-operatives UK (free to download)

Getting to Yes Roger Fisher and William Ury Arrow Business Books (buy from Amazon)

03 December 2010

Lesson's from the dark side

Last weekend I was asked to facilitate the Southern Consumer Co-operative Council Meeting and thought I'd do a post on my experience with the other side of the co-op movement (they'requite nice really).

So what is this meeting and why should you care? Basically it's the equivalent to our own Worker Co-operative Council (but they have 3, Northern, Midlands Southern).  It is a forum for Co-operatives UK's consumer co-operative members to share knowledge and feed in to our activities.

The people who attend are Board Members of consumer co-ops in that region (elected from customer members).  For the southern meeting I attended these included: Chelmsford Star Co-operative Southern Co-operative East of England Co-operative Midcounties Co-operative and the Southern Regions of Co-operative Group.

So first thing that might surprise some people is there are actually more than one Co-op! A lot of people see the co-op shops and assume their all the same business, this is not the case.  Yes there has been a lot of consolidation of the years (used to be 1000's) but there are still around 20 of the traditional retail societies left.

The Co-operative Group is the largest with a turnover of: £13.6bn, but Midcoutnies is around £0.8bn, East of England £0.4bn and Southern £0.2bn etc.

So why should you care? Well these co-operatives operate in a incredibly competitive market. What has helped them survive (and now prosper again) is the way they co-operative with each other, what can we learn from co-operatives that have been around for 150 years?

Firstly; quite a lot share the same branding "the Co-operative" which comes with quality standards and shared membership card and divi systems. This helps with public awareness, improves expectations and levels of service as co-operative has to reach certain standards to be innvolved.  A shared membership card means customers can more easily move between co-operatives and helps all particpants increase trade.

Virtually all of them are members of the same retail trading group (they bulk buy and package stuff together).  This means that the smaller co-operatives can retain their local focus and independence, but they are better able to compete in the market against Tesco etc.

Also by regularly meeting (and i assume this happens with officers and operationally) co-operatives can share best practice, what works and what doesn't.

On the train home I was musing what worker co-operatives could do.

Probably most importantly is find better ways to share knowledge with each other, and regularly meeting up. Like coming to the Future Co-operatives (and our worker co-op open forum), attending Congress, and getting involved in Regional Co-operative Councils.

More wistfully I was thinking:

Could we create a shared services co-operative to jointly purchase our stationary,  IT support, do our payroll and make our co-ops tax efficiently (do you have a specialist accountant who knows how to make your co-op tax efficient?).

Could we build a secondary co-op to bulk import and package wholefood products for distribution via the independent wholesalers, to the independent retailers.

Could creative co-ops, agree to share a brand, quality standards, bidding for larger contracts and jointly marketing their specialist services?

Could we create a cross movement membership divi card, where member producers and customers 'trading' with co-operatives can all benefit, an keep the money circulating within the movement?

Ooh that's enough Friday lunchtime thoughts for one week, what do you think we could practically do or learn from other co-operatives?