Friday, December 20, 2013

Christmas has been outsourced to Santaco...

I hear that Christmas has been affected by austerity and outsourced to Santaco. The elves have been cut altogether (despite organised protest at the highest level). The elves have however been given funds to help them to set up a new Elvish mutual. The Elfing Hands Coop aims to bring peace and harmony to the world, according to its new Chairman who is enjoying spending time at the north pole surrounded by white powder. Santaco is being investigated for allegedly stealing children’s presents and making up false Christmas lists. This hasn’t stopped them continuing to be front runners for the upcoming tooth fairy contract (despite organised protest from the dental profession). 

Santa’s sleigh has been replaced by a high speed helicopter to try to meet new and ambitious payment by results targets. Industry insiders think that new restrictions on using chimneys to gain access to houses without permission means most presents will not be delivered until mid August at the earliest. 

The Minister for Christmas has announced that some people are indulging too much with disastrous consequences for the deficit. “We cannot let the reckless behaviour of a small minority ruin this ancient celebration”. In future the focus will be on early intervention – with Christmas starting in May. He also announced a shift to evidence based gift giving (only approved gifts which lead the recipients to healthy lifestyles, greater well being and reduced use of A and E or other public services) and promised legislation to end to the culture of excess which has blighted the ceremony for so long.

A new hard hitting inspectorate OffYule will be set up with sweeping powers to put people into special measures should they fail to meet new Christmas austerity targets.

(with thanks to Dave Hollings ;-)

Monday, December 16, 2013

why are private businesses supporting and promoting models of enterprise that are completely opposite to their own?

there’s a lot of talk and examples recently of how big business is starting to explore ways in which it can support and encourage the next generation of social enterprise and social entrepreneurs – either through direct sponsorship, or, as in the case of Coca Cola, using under-utilised capacity within its supply and delivery chains to reach those people that others just can’t reach...

and that’s great – right? Governments and NGOs don’t have the resources alone to address the needs of our world, so it’s great to see resources and cash being mobilised out of private hands into the public good.

but... I'm struck by a historical parallel and a philosophical question in all of this. What’s in it for them, and why are they promoting models of business (social enterprise) that are at odds with their own ownership and profit distribution structures?

Go back a little while in history and we see the British Empire setting up co-ops in all the countries it ‘managed’, telling everyone that these were the way to go in terms of economic prosperity for all, sustained wealth, etc, etc – but why then did the British Empire not do more in Britain to promote and support co-ops for its own citizens?
Tellingly, although credited with succeeding in shifting cultural attitudes to the co-op enterprise model, these ‘Empire co-ops’ have largely struggled to realise their potential. And its only now, several generations on, that bodies like the Co-operative College are having the opportunity to be able to revisit these nations and seek to fan the flame of what remains of the co-op legacy...

Without a clearer lead from national and international social enterprise bodies, I'm concerned that we’ll see big private corporate firms start to rush in, create loads of social enterprises that will ultimately collapse (or be stifled in what they could really achieve) – so perhaps the most pressing question is for those private firms like Coca Cola: why are you promoting models of enterprise that are opposite to your own? If you really think that they’re so great, why aren't you changing the way you’re structured as well?

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Why we’re to blame when our leaders fail us

A lot of media coverage has been given in recent weeks to an ex-chair of a national ethical bank, and it strikes me as interesting for a couple of reasons that you might not expect –

1) what finally ‘tipped the balance’: this is someone who’s expenses claims on the boards of several charities where they served as a trustee were seriously questioned over the years, and who’s Council computer they used in their duties as an elected councillor were apparently found to contain images that would breach most company’s IT usage policies... but it was only after they were ‘caught’ buying (not taking!) drugs that they were ousted: both as Chair of the Bank and as a Minister of the Church.

Does this mean that as a society we have a scale of (un)ethical behaviours that we’re prepared to accept? (probably - I've written about how pornography is more ethically acceptable than tobacco before...)

2) And given the above, how were they allowed to keep holding (and gaining) the positions of power and authority that they did?

And these questions get me thinking about how they were able to fall so far – why did no-one intervene sooner or spot warning signs?

I think it may be something to do with the way we treat and support those in authority: the higher up an organisation you rise, the less support you have available and offered to you.

For example: think about volunteering for a charity, or being the shop-front worker in a small business – there’s clear induction to make sure you know what you’re doing, regular check-ins to see if everything’s going well, and lots of legislation to make sure that employers are properly looking after you. But become a Director or a Trustee and all that seems to vanish... there are few formal inductions or reviews at the Board level in private, social and charitable enterprises I've walked alongside over the years – and this is echoed by the Charity Commission who've found that the majority of complaints they investigate are due to governance failings, and the need in the private sector over the years to introduce Codes of Conduct for Directors.

So – as the troubles of an ailing bank are heaped upon one person who succumbed to human weaknesses, do we really only have ourselves to blame when we've set them up with no means of helping to support them do the jobs we're asking and expecting of them?

Monday, December 2, 2013

Is there an ideal size for a co-op business?

The co-operative brand and model of doing business has taken a bashing in the public and media realms recently – the co-op bank being bought out by private investors; its board being found to lack the skills and awareness needed to manage such an enterprise; the co-op groups' collaboration with Thomas Cook over the future of its travel business turning sour, and plenty more besides… all things which anyone who's a member of any co-operative enterprise will feel shamed, embarrassed, upset, and angry about because they show that our ideals and hopes for this alternative model of doing business have been 'betrayed' by one of our largest number...

Many are commenting and writing elsewhere on the implications and reasons for these fall-outs, but I find myself wondering about the question it raises about the dangers of a co-op enterprise of any type becoming 'too big' and in doing so, too distant and removed from its members who are the reason for its existence, and if by extension that means that there might therefore be an ideal size for any co-operative enterprise?

Anyone who's been involved with any co-op will know that people become members of it for all sorts of different reasons: ideology, need, economic gain, community, employment, … and with those different motivations come different expectations as to how they want to be involved in, and influence, that co-op's trading and development.
Sometimes co-ops can focus on their members' interests over maintaining a profitable enterprise which leads to trouble, but conversely those co-ops who neglect their members' interests in pursuit of a profitable business also find themselves in danger...

But does this mean that as well as an ideal size, there should also be an 'ideal type' of co-op member? After all, doesn't it get too messy otherwise to be able to manage? But pursuing this line of thought likely leads to madness: we live in a wonderfully diverse world, and its because not everyone thinks the same that new expressions and ideas and opportunities can emerge.

So – back to the original question: should we limit the size of a co-op? I know of several worker and housing co-ops who've wrestled with this question in the past, and decided that 'yes', there are natural limits to how large a co-op should be allowed to become before it has to enact formal democratic structures that would dilute and stifle their members' voices and influence  to levels that they deem to be too low to be acceptable.
But conversely, scale brings advantages despite its governance and regulatory challenges, the Co-operative Group has been able to support thousands of local community projects with grants, campaign globally on numerous issues, and help hundreds of existing and new startup co-ops across the UK through its Enterprise Hub initiative solely because its large enough to be able to generate the levels of trading surpluses it needs to commit itself to these national programmes as part of its manifestation of the defining co-op values.

Co-ops exist for the benefit of their members. 
Co-ops need to be answerable to their members. 
Co-ops should be informed by their members. 
Co-ops should therefore regularly review how well and appropriately they are ensuring this in light of changes to their business models, marketplaces and wider societal expectations and pressures. If not, then co-ops fail to properly evolve, and just like dinosaurs will quickly become extinct after an all-too-brief parade and flurry of excitement.