Doing my bit for democracy the cooperative way

I mentioned that I was at my local Co-operative Group area members’ meeting yesterday.  I want to return to this subject, because meetings like these – for all their problems – are worth some discussion.

The Co-operative Group has seven million individual members, so not surprisingly its governance structures are complicated.  It has of course an overall Board of Directors, the Group Board.  It then divides the country into seven Regions, and forty-eight areas.

As coop members, we elect the members of our local Area committee.  They in turn decide who will be members of the seven Regional Boards.  And (hopefully) the best and brightest from the Regional Boards end up being elected on to the Group Board, which has the task of strategically managing a £13 billion business on behalf of us all.  (Confused?  The details are on the Group’s website here.)

Individual members’ interface with the Group’s democratic structure comes in the annual Area Members’ meetings.  If you go along, you will normally have the chance to put your views to a Group Board member, to other elected members at regional and area level, and to senior regional management.  You’ll probably be rewarded with the chance to snack on some Co-op goodies.

Our area meeting began with a comprehensive overview of the Group’s recent trading performance.  It was not, of course, a comforting story:  as well as the Co-op Bank crisis, almost all parts of the sprawling Group business empire saw sales fall in the first half of 2013 compared with 2012 (only funeralcare has improved its turnover: I hope there isn’t a moral there).  The presentation was – as you would expect – carefully scripted (and partly in video form) but competently done.  This was exactly the sort of report which you would want the directors and senior management of any coop to be providing to its members.  Poor trading results, perhaps, but full marks for telling it straight.

Of course, when we got to the Q&A session later on the members present turned out to have other things on their mind than trading exigencies.  We asked questions, among other things, about first aid training for employees, Costa coffee machines in Co-op stores, grants to the Woodcraft Folk and Co-operative Women’s Guild, and the concept of junior coop members.  (We also discussed the tie-up with Amazon, but I’ve told you about this already). No-one proffered strategic advice on how to fill a £1bn+ capital shortfall – but that’s what the Group Board is elected to worry about.

There were perhaps fifty in the room.  Take away the Co-op Group staff organising the event and the regional and area officers, take away as well the people who turned up to be given Community Fund grants, and you were left with an audience of perhaps fifteen.  And a lot of these were, as they say, familiar faces.

So is it worth it?  Actually, I think it is. The Co-op Group may be struggling to face up to its competitors but it does have the one potential strong advantage of being structured as a member organisation and not one answerable to shareholders.  Of course,  the Group has a long way to go to make its ‘members’ understand that there are, indeed, members.  But this has to be its strategy: if it can get closer to its membership and listen to what they say they want, it could start getting those business decisions right after all.


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