Earlier this year Co-operatives UK set up a Strategic Reference Panel to oversee the delivery of a National Co-operative Development Strategy. The panel is headed by Dame Pauline Green, former president of the International Co-operative Alliance, and will engage with a number of organisations from across the co-operative sector and beyond to develop a strategy to create a co-operative economy.
Themed “What if”, the strategy is aimed at providing focus for co-operative development and innovation over the coming years. The strategic reference panel has also set up an independent blog whatif.coop, where people can share and discuss their views on a strategy for developing the co-operative sector.
Introducing the strategy at the annual Co-operative Congress, Ed Mayo, secretary general of Co-operatives UK said the event intended to help form and shape this national strategy.
“It is not something for somebody else to do, it is not something that is a prescription for those in power to do, it is not something that is a call for funding from those who have got more money to those who have got less, but it is an attempt to try and create something that aligns efforts across the movement to take us forward,” he said.
During sessions at Congress, delegates explored three themes: co-operative excellence; co-operation among co-operatives; and innovation.
The panel’s chair, Dame Pauline Green talked about her experience in the co-operative movement, particularly as chief executive of Co-operatives UK [formerly Co-operative Union] between 1999 and 2009. “Co-operative development has always been a bit of an issue”, she said, adding that she had joined the Co-operative Union as parliamentary advisor on European Affairs shortly after Margaret Thatcher had closed down the National Co-operative Development Agency. She described the closure as a “seminal moment” for the movement, which has since had to rely on its own resources for co-operative development.
If you work in the co-operative development industry you will certainly have experienced the constriction of co-operative development bodies over time
“It is not just a British problem of course, it is a problem throughout the world but we all know that actually in one sense the lack of sustainability, the lack of security, the lack of a strategy – a national strategy for co-operative development – has been a bit of an Achilles heel for our movement.
“If you work in the co-operative development industry you will certainly have experienced the constriction of co-operative development bodies over time,” she added.
Co-operative development has been more stable in Scotland and Wales, added Dame Pauline, but this was not the case in England and Ireland.
“If you worked in a small co-operative business and you want to grow and diversify your business there have been problems – firstly of where you get the support from and secondly where you get the financial resources to do that? Funding has always been an issue.”
She explained how over the last few years the Enterprise Hub at the Co-operative Group did “huge amounts to underpin legal resources, legal support, advice and specialist support and some funding” to help co-operatives grow and develop.
“We now know of course that the Enterprise Hub has finished, but now we have the Hive from Co-operatives UK and the [Co-operative] Bank which is very welcome,” said Dame Pauline.
The co-operative development panel includes people from the co-operative development industry, as well as representatives from new sectors of the co-operative economy.
“What we are trying to do is bring this fresh thinking and new sectors. This is the way we have to go if we are going to develop something that is going to go forward – not look back to the past, but learn from the past and drive the new industries that are growing and which some of the new people on our panel are certainly very much au fait with,” Dame Pauline said.
William Heath, another member of the strategic panel, is a shareholder of AFC Wimbledon and a co-founder of the Bell Inn co-op pub.
“It feels daunting and bewildering, especially to someone like me not long familiar with the movement, dropped into this close-knit community with huge experience, longstanding relationships and a deep culture and history and where everyone seems to know everyone,” he said.
“A strategy to achieve culture change and progress on a national scale sounds like a massive ask.”
Mr Heath was involved in a number of co-operative initiatives and is currently writing posts on the What If blog.
“This process of setting a new strategic direction is very ambitious but inspiring and I am confident that we are going about it in a good way,” he said.
Congress delegates also heard from director Ieva Padagaite. She is a member of Blake House Filmmakers’ Co-operative in South London, which is using film to amplify messages of the Third Sector organisations and community groups.
Ms Padagaite talked about the positive role the co-operative model can have in empowering young people like herself.
“Two years ago I had no concept, no knowledge about what a co-operative was,” she said.
“I wish I had. It offers a really viable solution to the disillusion I felt, the lack of purpose at my workplace and the economic disempowerment of my generation.
“I hope that it can energise and enable co-operators across the UK to feel part of something bigger, so many papers were written on how great co-ops are but how do we translate that into something for everyone to understand?”
Dame Pauline Green added: “It is going to be the movement’s strategy and we want everyone behind it. If we’re going to keep young people like Ieva thinking co-ops are right, they won’t see co-ops as old fashioned. We need to look forward at the way we can bring new people in to participate, informing those making decisions in new and exciting ways.
“Please engage, we want you to speak. We need the advice and input of everybody here”.
Following addresses from the three members of the panel, delegates explored the key themes excellence, co-operation among co-operatives and innovation. Over three sessions, they were asked to identify the issues, come up with solutions and pinpoint priorities.
The sessions were facilitated by Rhizome, a co-op providing facilitation, mediation, consensus building and training to community activists and co-operatives across the UK.
On achieving co-operative excellence, the winning ideas were developing an online self diagnostic tool following the seven co-operative principles; examining the social impact and procurement within co-ops; taking into account local sourcing, the environmental impact and fairtrade sales as well as staff retention rate; developing an infographic template that is accurate yet flexible for all co-ops; having an independent co-op audit looking at values and principles; and developing a data app and an online comparison tool for co-ops.
Participants in the discussion also suggested focusing on the complexity of the movement, explaining to people why it is different, and placing a strong emphasis on staff education by developing appraisals and incentives not linked to pay.
To achieve innovation, delegates suggested changing the perception of the co-operative movement by running various marketing campaigns.
As well as segmenting the audience, they recommended working with business advisors, using video online to communicate the messages and engaging with the business development community to make them aware of the co-op model.
Other ideas included examining the potential of local currencies like the Bristol Pound, highlighting community success stories, having compulsory lessons in schools, colleges and universities and using social media and other PR tools to send out a clear message with an emphasis on member ownership.
When discussing co-operation among co-operatives, delegates examined what could be done to improve communication between co-operatives.
They suggested, among other things, setting up a co-operative forum dialogue, creating a website providing a search capability, carrying out a nationwide survey into co-operative businesses and developing joint programmes with co-operative schools and councils and training staff not only face to face but also via e-Learning.
Popular suggestions also included creating a platform similar to LinkedIn for co-ops, funded by co-op themselves; making sure all individual members have a say by using technology better in communicating with them; arranging more group visits for co-ops to learn from each other; arranging more group visits for co-ops to learn from each other in the UK and internationally; and setting up a co-operative development fund where 1% of profits would go into to support the development of new co-operatives.
The National Co-operative Development Strategy will be created through a participative process. These proposals will be used to shape the framework for the new strategy.
In this article
- Bell Inn
- Blake House Filmmakers Co-operative
- Co-operatives UK
- Ed Mayo
- Ieva Padagaite
- International Co-operative Alliance
- Margaret Thatcher
- National Co-operative Development Agency
- Pauline Green
- The Co-operative
- The Co-operative brand
- William Heath
- North America
- United Kingdom
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