the challenge of democratic co-operative governance

The words ‘co-operative’ and ‘governance’ have rarely been written together in the same sentence, let alone in a headline. But now our democratic organisations are facing scrutiny. Rhizome’s even been asked to help facilitate an open space about it in London on February 8th 2014.

So what makes co-operative governance different? Of course there are the seven principles underpinning all co-operatives, of which democracy is principle 6, but from our perspective in working with co-ops, collectives and social change organisations it also means that:

  • we don’t work for other people who simply profit from our success
  • we don’t give work to people because they are our mates, members of our lodge, or attend our church/ synagogue/ mosque; we trade fairly, only prioritising other co-operatives because we know they also trade fairly
  • we don’t go on strike, we communicate, we work together, we resolve
  • we don’t have a figurehead who is forced to take responsibility for everything, we share the responsibility – and we share the risks
  • we don’t steal from ourselves – what would be the point?
  • we don’t bolt on an ethical policy, we start with one and develop it further; based on respect, we cherish diversity as it brings us strength, we cherish our communities as we live and work in them; we cherish our world – why doesn’t everyone?
  • we don’t declare other interests as an afterthought – they are integral, we have so many; building a movement of radical change means working across borders, making alliances, having interests all over the place
  • we don’t all look alike/ talk alike/ dress alike – we are individual, unique. And though we may make mistakes, we may buckle under pressure, we know that we always have others around that we can trust to support us.

So what might be some of the issues for democratic co-operative governance these days? Here’s a selection of some of the issues that Rhizome get asked to help with as facilitators/ mediators/ trainers:

How do we make time to get the processes right when we have to focus so hard on the business/ campaign/ change we are trying to achieve?

Do our high standards make it hard for everyone to keep on meeting them all of the time?

Does having excellent accountability and transparency mean we are vulnerable, we can’t cover up our mistakes?

If having power corrupts, how can we always acknowledge and manage each other’s power?

Does size really matter?


6 thoughts on “the challenge of democratic co-operative governance

  1. I think it’s about accountability – how are decision-makers accountable to the members, clarity – who has authority to decide what, and autonomy – once you have delegated a task – let them get on with it. The Tyranny of Structurelessness is a good place to start – explains why we need leaders who can be held accountable.

  2. Here’s some thoughts on a couple of the questions that have been posed:

    If we get the processes right, the job at hand will be easier to achieve. If we have a clear objective for the process rather than a fuzzy aim, it may not actually involve that much time so the return on time invested can be great. This question may have come from people who never got the process right and so they didn’t see the benefits and savings. Perhaps victims of process for process’ sake?

    The excellent accountability and transparency gives the democratic model strength as an organisation – rather than being driven off the cliff by the owner-manager who won’t listen, we have a team who can put the brakes on! That does not have to mean vulnerability as an individual. Mistakes should not be covered up. They can be the source of learning. If the culture of the organisation is to recognise collectively held problems and educate/train/assist people who make mistakes rather than play the “blame game” and punish those who make mistakes more people will own up to mistakes. When you make a mistake does your co-op rally round to help you put it right or leave you floundering while chastising you?

    Yes, size does matter. As co-ops and other organisations grow, they have to adopt different approaches. The work by Dunbar shows that on a human level we find it difficult to relate to large groups of people in the same way as small groups of people. The challenge is how to remain accountable and responsive to members without spending all our time in meetings. This is where Member direction in the form or policies or secondary rules can be so useful.

  3. Good questions and ones I’ve been fiddling with for years at Suma. I like day that organisations are simply ‘people in conversation’ Think about that concept.
    Cooperative governance requires conversation to agree collectively what it is we are trying to do. Making the time is THE hardest obstacle. People often don’t want to are scared to converse.
    Without power nothing changes, you get MOTS a Suma concept (more of the same). Power should be functional (to do something) and not status (boss) power and should be agreed and not taken. Again conversation is required to agree the parameters.
    Also at Suma we say ‘disempower the executive’. Executive management hierarchies are the enemy and the death of cooperation (see the cooperative group for an example that)
    Fascinating stuff must contact you guys about this.

  4. Pingback: Open Space: the Technology, approach, free resources and critiques | rhizome

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