How Co-op values are shaping NHS

THE debate about NHS reforms, including the formation of NHS Foundation Trusts by the Health & Social Care Act 2003, has always been heated. 

THE debate about NHS reforms, including the formation of NHS Foundation Trusts by the Health & Social Care Act 2003, has always been heated. 

John Kay, an economist writing in the Financial Times in May that year, gave us a flavour of the controversy that surrounds NHS Foundation Trusts to this day.

He wrote: “Ordinary people do not want a say in how hospitals are run, any more than they want a say in how their supermarket is run. Their aspiration is that the hospital, like the supermarket, delivers the goods and services they want. Today, that aspiration is met by the pluralist supermarket but not by the centrally directed hospital.” 

Not quite how most co-operators would view things! However it has to be said that, since 2003, opinions have moderated and clearly the creation of NHS Foundation Trusts has not yet resulted in the disasters predicted by some critics – for example “Enron NHS”.

 Indeed, many of our most committed co-operators are involved in their local Foundation Trusts, bringing along the values, wisdom and experience acquired over years in our consumer co-operative societies. 

The most vital learning they may be transferring into the NHS for the first time since its foundation in 1948, is the value of members. 

The membership in both kinds of mutual enterprise is the group that owns, formally and morally, the organisation and which sets the values that inform its strategy. This is just as true in the NHS with its ‘NHS values’ as it is in the Co-operative Movement with its ‘ICA values & principles’. 

The value of plurality – of variety based on what the members of each organisation want and need – is just one logical outcome. 

The members also actively communicate the values and propound them to the wider public – but there is a special place here for members who are also staff. 

Staff members in an NHS Trust are the critical group for recruiting further members and ensuring there is minimal confusion between the operational management, with roles for consultation with staff and their unions, and the strategic role they play as members in electing governors and, indirectly, electing the chair and the majority of the board. 

Staff members in a consumer co-operative society are crucial for communicating the co-op’s values to customers, potential members and other stakeholders. This is not a reflection of privilege, but a naturally occurring synergy – the stakeholder with most to lose is the member who is also an employee. 

This makes the human resources or ‘people’ function different, interesting and challenging in co-operative societies and impacts on the way each organisation trains its people. 

Foundation Trusts will find that the same becomes true in the NHS. 

In effect, what is starting to happen organically across England is that Trusts are learning from co–operative culture, and from Co-op members and elected representatives as well as from Co-op staff, managers and leaders that they have much in common. A mutual understanding is very slowly beginning to form. This could be critical for promoting the idea of co-operation – if we can ensure that a full understanding is spreading, rather than a partial understanding. 

For this reason the Co-operative College – with a keen interest in promoting our values and principles, and an even more direct interest in spreading a full rather than a partial understanding of co-operation – is bringing together professionals from co-operatives and foundation trusts. 

They will all gather at a learning event called Mutuality Works 07, headlined by Ben Reid, chair of Co-operatives UK, and Hazel Blears MP at the Bosworth Hall Hotel in Warwickshire on May 15th and 16th. The learning, human resources and membership professionals from co-operatives and foundation trusts will mix and share their mutual appreciation of the traditions they are modelled on. 

This event may prove a vital stepping-stone on the way to a full understanding of each as modern, democratic enterprises that are both commercially and socially successful. 

• Andy Hansford is Learning and Development Manager at the Co-op College. For further details, visit:

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