I want to tackle today what I think is quite a difficult question. It’s this: what responsibility do ordinary members of a co-operative have, if their elected directors are not making a very good fist of things in terms of governance and member democracy?
A little while back (and for obvious reasons I’m going to be imprecise and will be fictionalising some things) I went to the AGM of a co-operatively run organisation I’ve been a member of for some time. It has around 6000 members and it operates in the area where I live: let’s imagine that it’s a locally-based consumer co-op.
The AGM pulled in perhaps twenty-five members, if you include the directors and one member of staff who was there. So at least we just met the quorum, which was sensibly set very low. You can do the sums: about 0.05% of the members were there.
We were given refreshments beforehand, perhaps as a not-very-effective bribe to try to persuade more of us to attend, and then we began the formal business.
The accounts (handed out as the meeting started) did not look good and no dividend was possible, but there were perhaps one-off reasons for this. Every co-op can have off years. But more than this, there was a sense of an organisation struggling to get to grips with governance. The chair has been in post for almost as the organisation has existed and he dominated the meeting, including barging in in the middle of the treasurer’s report. He, and two other directors, were re-elected to the board in an uncontested election.
I asked some questions, trying to strike the difficult balance of being a responsible member asking necessary questions while at the same time showing that I supported the voluntary board and appreciated their efforts. A few other people asked some questions but mostly we listened.
So what responsibility do I have, and what responsibility do my fellow members have? I could of course put myself forward for the board, but I am already actively involved in several other co-op and community ventures and frankly this doesn’t seem like a priority for me. So if I rule myself out in this way from engaging directly, is it enough just to turn up once a year for the AGM?
Unfortunately I am prepared to predict that next year’s AGM will be almost a re-run of this year’s.