Ed Mayo argues that we need to embrace new forms of participation if co-operatives are to take participation to the next level.
We are moving into a great age of participation. Wider education, higher expectations, lower trust in institutions and the game-changing possibilities of new technology have all combined to make it easier for people to have a say, compare views, get involved and, ultimately, get things done.
Co-operatives were the first business form to take advantage of the transformative possibilities of participation. Coming out of a world of hierarchies and duties, co-operatives were formed by members who were willing, voluntarily to take responsibility.
In turn, the membership model offered the potential for competitive advantage in the market. The magic of the co-operative model of enterprise is that it gives a voice and stake to those who are directly involved in the business. Compared to investor-owned enterprises, where ownership is distant, cold and narrowly focused on financial return, co-operatives and mutuals offer a people-centered form of business. It is not just its ownership and governance that responds to the priorities of the people involved, but its day to day commercial operations. Well before the knowledge economy, co-operatives had the flows of information that could enable them to be closer and faster to adapt. Well before today’s technologies, co-operatives were perhaps the original social network.
But this is not always how it has worked. Membership in many a co-operative or mutual, was forgotten or given no more than lip service. It has been common; some might say natural, for hierarchies to re-emerge – democracy has to be worked at, to be earned, if it is to be sustained.
Because we have different forms of co-operatives, we have different forms of membership. There is a world of difference from being a member of a housing co-operative to paying one pound to be a member of a mass membership consumer co-operative. And yet many of the great co-operatives worldwide make the barriers to entry an important part of their membership strategy. They don’t want to make it too easy. They want the right members, with the right values and, above all, a commitment to the success of the venture.
In this context, how can we champion new ways to give people a say in the life of co-operatives?
Do we accept the reality that others may now be better at elements of co-operation than we are – and that these are our future partners rather than our future rivals?
Do we recognise the risk that old structures of participation may crowd out the new?
We typically have rigid models of governance in large co-operatives, based on the primacy of member representatives. This has worked well over time, not least because of the inertia of most members in a mass membership co-operative. They did not want to engage in governance themselves outside of voting, but were willing to trust others to do this.
This is not necessarily how participation will work in future; we can and must innovate our existing structures. Young people want to make a suggestion in the morning and make links with others in the afternoon who they can then collaborate with to make it happen.
The new models of participation that are emerging offer a toolkit that is rich in potential for such co-operation: rapid feedback; peer-to-peer dialogue; techniques for deliberative or consensus decision-making; transparency and open data; innovation strategies based on open participation. Many of these will sit alongside formal democratic models, but that formal structure needs to create space for more liquid models of democracy.
Co-operatives in short need to tap into the true potential for co-operation.