Co-ops & Governance

Media comment about recent events at the Co-op Bank has generated much heat but very little light over the issue of governance in co-operatives. Like others in the UK co-operative movement, we are concerned that apparent failures in governance – as highlighted by the ex-Chief Executive of the Co-operative Group in his recent appearance before a government select committee – are being extrapolated to apply to all co-operatives.

This is far from the case. It’s important to remember that although the Co-operative Group provides generous levels of resources to support the UK Co-operative movement, it is not synonymous with it. Also the Group has a hierarchical and somewhat complex structure – unique in the UK – due to its size and its 150-year history. The current structure has grown over the years, through mergers and transfers of engagements, most recently with the historic merger of CWS and CRS, with a resulting mix at national Board level of representatives of other consumer retail co-ops as well as Group representatives from different regional Boards.

Co-op News reports that the Group has launched an independent review to look at “strategic decision-making, management structures, culture, governance and accounting practices”, and with a new Group Chair, Ursula Lidbetter MBE, Chief Executive of Lincolnshire Co-op, providing leadership and guidance, the future looks positive.

Co-operatives with a flat, democratically managed organisational structure aim to involve more people in decision-making, so good governance is critical, because without it we would be engaged in endless decision-making meetings or be subject to the whim of unaccountable charismatic leaders. We need structures which protect people from themselves and each other, so that we are not totally reliant on individual integrity, (not that integrity is not a good thing in itself!)

How can co-ops avoid problems arising from poor governance? A co-operative organisational structure should facilitate clear lines of delegation and accountability for decision-making. Directors must have clearly defined roles differentiating their responsibilities from those of operational management. There should be agreed policy on election of Board members to ensure a healthy turnover whilst at the same time retaining continuity. Member engagement is critical, with members involved in a range of different ways, including standing for the Board, so that there are contested elections at the AGM. And of course all members need excellent co-operative skills – good communication, efficient meetings and decision-making and effective techniques for coping with conflict. Inclusiveness is key – cliques and cronyism have no place in a successful co-operative.

Co-operantics has recently been part of a team delivering the ILM-accredited training programme: Core Competencies for Co-operative Business Advisors, which addresses these issues in detail, including organisational structures, legal forms, governance and co-operative management. The programme is funded through the Co-operative Enterprise Hub, itself funded by the Co-operative Group.

We are extremely pleased that our good friends Co-operative Business Consultants are organising a major conference on Friday 17th January 2014: Co-op Bank Crisis Ways Forward for the Co-operative Movement where activists, co-operators and co-operative business advisors will debate how we move on from the current crisis, building on the successes of the last few years.

And don’t forget: Co-operative businesses have a higher survival rate than conventional businesses, and the co-operative sector is growing faster than the UK economy, increasing by 20% in the last five years.

For more detailed discussion of the issues we recommend:

Ed Mayo

Ian Snaith

Andrew Bibby

December 2013