In 2014, the Co-operative Group made major changes to its governance and structures, which helped it move on from a bleak period in its history.
Despite the upheaval, one thing was clear. Members would continue to play a key role in the Group’s direction of travel, from elections of board members and future financial accountability to the protection of core values and long-term sustainability.
The changes, which included the abolition of the regional boards and area committees, a mainstay of the movement, were not universally welcomed.
But two years on the dust has settled with much to celebrate for ordinary members. The Co-operative Local Forums are continuing to grow and build links with communities. They are also an opportunity for voices to be heard on the National Members’ Council, which comprise 100 representatives from the wider membership, employees and independent societies.
The council protects the constitution, has direct links to the board and acts as the guardian of the Group’s purpose, values and principles, with the power to hold the board to account and influence policy and strategy.
Once elected, council members can serve a term of up to three years before requiring re-election. It has a council president, two vice presidents and a senate to lead and co-ordinate its activities with l76 members elected by individuals, 15 by independent societies with seven co-optees to fill diversity gaps and two young members.
Current president is Nick Crofts, whose tenure lasts until July 2017.
“Things were a bit bumpy at the beginning and it was a difficult time leading up to and after the governance reforms,” he said. “That wasn’t surprising as the exercise was to persuade former members of regional boards to vote to see them abolished and there were some bruises along the way. But now we have been able to put the past behind us and make new structures work.”
He added: “It’s been a learning exercise as what we established was democratic influence rather than direct control. We have learned that the art of influence can only be wielded when good-quality relationships exist and that was our first priority with the Co-operative Group executive and board.
“We have good relationships with them and have demonstrated that we are a vital component of the governance architecture.”
The council’s starting point, said Mr Crofts, is that the council acts as representative of the owners of the co-op business.
“We have two key responsibilities – as guardians of our values and principles, and holding the board to account for the way they run the society,” he said.
“One of the most obvious benefits of the changes was the professionalisation of the group board after our near-death experience in 2013.
We are looking at issues like modern-day slavery in the supply chain and playing an ethical role with a rolling programme to demonstrate we are being led in line with our ethics
“Clearly there were failings; as an organisation we had not been led in optimum fashion. One of the most successful elements was the assurance that people who have the appropriate skills were on the Group board. We were very close to failure and we had to raise the bar.”
One of the more recent initiatives by the members’ council is the establishment of the Co-operative Way strategy, which commits all elected members and senior executives to examine and refresh all the Group’s key policies on the way it does business.
“We are looking at issues like modern-day slavery in the supply chain and playing an ethical role with a rolling programme to demonstrate we are being led in line with our ethics,” said Mr Crofts.
“Elected members and executives are working together to blend their knowledge to provide something truly distinctive.”
Mr Crofts acknowledges there is some way to go in engaging members. “We need to do a much better job of communicating the council’s work and the mechanisms involved. We need to scale up the council’s communications and share the good work being undertaken in piloting new local structures.”
He pointed to the success of over 60 Co-operative Local Forums led by member pioneers who co-ordinate local activity and fund-raising initiatives with colleagues but stressed here is still some way to go. “We have 4.9 million individual members,” he said, “but a very modest number are involved in Co-operative Local Forums.
“Our ambition is to have one in every single one of our 1,500 communities.”
He added: “We have secured an agreement from the CEO that local forums will work with colleagues in identifying and providing opportunities for communities to be involved with the co-operative movement and do good work.”
One initiative was a partnership with the British Red Cross, raising funds for the socially isolated.
The council is also working with Co-operatives UK on accountability issues – recently establishing a ‘Co-operative Compass’ and working with the board to make sure it is accountable and ethical.
“Our aim is to ensure members’ voices are heard in everything we do and that we have an ethical and sustainable leadership,” said Mr Crofts.
Read more: The Co-op Group’s new digital team
And, with help from Mike Bracken, who built the .gov.uk portal for the Cabinet Office, the council is upgrading its digital offer.
“There are globally renowned big hitters now working for the Co-op and we have a huge opportunity to use digital tools to have a dialogue with millions of members,” said Mr Bracken. “We have set up digital working groups to work closely with the team while new products and services are developed to ensure they are properly embedded.
“It is a really exciting time and I am proud to serve at such a stimulating time when there is so much investment in our future and we have a real chance to shape the co-op movement.”
Independent societies are also making strides
Midcounties, the UK’s largest independent co-operative, is also firmly at the forefront of improving member engagement. Over 650 people took part in its recent AGM and over the next few months there are several member days being organised across the Midlands.
The society’s ‘divi’ for members continues to thrive and there is significant community support for local schools and charities with a colleague-volunteering scheme. Members also elect the board of directors who sign up to its DOES mission statement – Democracy, Openness, Equality and Social Responsibility – when it comes to doing business.
Elsewhere, traditionalists who mourn the passing of the old ways of doing things could always refer back to retired electronic engineer Harvey Alexander, who runs what he claims is the “only co-op members group that is still active” with 178 members, the Leeds & Wakefield Co-operative Members Group.
“We still offer a direct link between shoppers and staff as well as working to support local charities and communities. We have regular meetings with managers of shops and we are still an effective direct voice allowing members to have a real say in things.”
“We were an official group under the Leeds and Wakefield area committee and we have a much wider membership in Yorkshire.”
The group has regular speakers at its monthly meetings – most recently Yorkshire MEP Richard Corbett and a Leave campaign speaker. There have also been trips to parliament to meet then local MP Ed Balls.