The Big Society, mutually employee owned, John Lewis style, social enterprise public service delivery vehicle!

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It has been rather a strange month or so for the co-ops, mutuals and employee owned sector.  And education.

 First we had the news that Central Surrey Health (CHS) , held up as the employee owned model to create the Big Society, had not succeeded in the tendering processes for other parts of the Surrey NHS.  This brought forth claims of unequal playing fields and too much emphasis on financial costs at the expense of social benefit.  Then we learn that Circle, again a company who describe themselves as an employee owned social enterprise (can someone tell me what that is along with an employee owned mutual) were successful in securing a hospital contract and £40M of debt.  (Maybe someone should inform the board of Glasgow Rangers FC about this organisation which is willing to shoulder massive debts, just in case they lose their tax tribunal with HMRC).  The coalition were adamant this was not a privatisation but the media invariably referred to Circle as a private concern with no reference to the employee involvement or Big Society (Haven’t read the Guardian yet)  So we have a flagship “Big Society” business losing out and an employee owned privatisation (or not) succeeding.  Confused?  You should be! 

 To add to my confused state of mind, I then encounter the news that the NAHT has balloted its members and found them in favour of strike action.  The first time in their 100 or so year’s history.  Their spokesperson suggests that this is an indication of how dire the economic situation is but I can’t help thinking how you could be a trade union for over 100 years and never have considered strike action!  Did they miss the Great Depression and the 1970s?  Again, much of the media coverage focussed on the disruption to parents child minding needs, presumably because they perceive education as much of a child minding service as an investment in society?

 Next up to highlight the confusion and unrest in the public sector we had students marching against fees.  As someone who had their university tuition fees paid plus an enhanced grant as a mature student I am wholly supportive.  When are we going to accept the fact that education is necessary investment in our younger citizens and not a cost to be minimised.  Yes, we have decisions to make with limited resources about where we incur public expenditure.  We had them before the greedy bankers blew a hole in our PSBR – it’s called economics, deciding the best use for scarce resources and recognising that if you spend on one item , you can’t spend on lots of other things (opportunity cost).  Surely, investing in our future workforce and citizenry is a fairly basic concept in any civilised, modern democracy.  Instead we are trying to create a market in education services.  I have said before and will keep saying, if I am being asked to buy a degree at £36.000 then I will be demanding (yes, in a market economy the customer is always right and his demands have to be satisfied) a first class honours.

 So, are we on the road to a new Big Society or are we simply looking to reduce the role of the state. 

Are we as confused as the US Republican presidential candidate who was most certainly for reducing government but couldn’t, despite some very helpful prompts from competitors and the audience, decide exactly which parts he wanted to cut.  Does the creation of a public sector as commissioning agent rather than the delivery mechanism fundamentally change a national health or education service so long as it continues to provide on a basis of need and not an ability to pay.  If it is on the basis of need, does it matter who delivers as long as the quality is assured and value for money is achieved.  But what about wider social benefits, which brings us back to Central Surrey Health and level playing fields.

 I have come across a couple of academic papers in the past week making the point that when we try to measure the performance of co-ops with traditional scientific management tools they don’t necessarily come out looking too good in comparison to investor driven models.  Co-operatives are not profit maximising, rational economic entities.  Until we get government and society to stop measuring everything in monetary terms and start recognising and accounting for wider social benefits then we will remain stuck in the mind blowingly confused state highlighted above.

 If Big Society is simply about motivating employees to be more productive then it totally misses the point.  If those who advocate public sector delivery can’t take on board the need to be more efficient with our scarce resources then we are in danger of doing a Berlusconi on our economy.  We need, more than ever, to get across the message that co-operatives understand the need to be viable and efficient but at the same time recognise the need to consider social and community objectives.  There is an opportunity cost in pursuing social goals, in terms of reduced profitability but there is also the need to generate surplus to support the pursuit of those social goals.  That’s a balancing act the co-operative sector has always had to perform.  Let’s hope government and the rest of our society can finally get their heads round that and we get to the point where I could have headed this piece “The Co-operative Option” and it would have been clearly understood.

Start Guy Fawkes day with a sparkle(r!)

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Morag

5th November is a date I’m looking forward to – not because of fireworks but because it is the next Enterprising Practitioners Network meeting to be held in the Young Enterprise Offices in Glasgow.

Of course I am not ruling out some sort of sparks flying as the attendees at these events are inclined to say what they think and are happy to have strong opinions – one of the main reasons I enjoy this group! You can join in the conversation on Linked in at The Enterprise Practitioners Association Group on twitter @EPAScot.

The inaugural EPA meeting was held on the 27th August, in the Scotmid headquarters at Newbridge – accommodation and great lunch provided for around 50 attendees by them too! The theme of the event, of course, was co-operatives! David Erdal came along to offer his insights into employee ownership and explore how this can give people a stake in the organisation that can in turn create a more sustainable and fairer business models.Having been to Mondragon recently, (see previous blog) I now  also have a much better understanding of the value of employee ownership too. I would thoroughly recommend a visit to the Basque Region of Spain to see for yourself how successful this model can be – and their red wine is pretty good too!

This event also boasted the Real David Cameron as one of the guest speakers and as expected, thee attendees found lots of what he said, to agree with!

Also, come along to run a workshop on how to set up and run a Young co-operative within your school – they also didn’t miss the opportunity to sell some of their excellent fairtrade products!

If the 5th of November – focus on Young Enterprise this time – proves to be half as interesting as the August meeting then you will regret not having got out of bed on a Saturday morning to come along and get involved! Start Guy Fawkes Day with a ‘bang’ – or at least a bit of a sparkle!

Notes:

Stonelaw High’s fairtrade group http://theco-operative.ethical.tv/node/180

What I Did on my Holidays or Co-ops Really Are Everywhere (Except in the Travel Sector)

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Author :Hugh

Last year I started collecting photographs of co-ops I encountered whilst on holiday, to support my oft made claim that there is virtually no where in the world where you won’t find a co-op (or mutual or employee owned operation)  The collection now ranges from a community co-op pub in the lake district (I was on holiday!) to a plumbers merchants co-op in Sicily (yes, sadly I was on another holiday); a small community based credit union on the West coast of Ireland to an AFL-CIO (trade union) credit union just round the corner from the White House (Obama’s place, not the derelict public house in Holytown).

 I have to confess to visiting Corleone, of Godfather fame, whilst in Sicily but I didn’t manage to get any photographs of the Libera Terra agricultural co-ops, created by handing over former Mafia owned land to community co-ops.  A colleague has come across their produce being sold in Palermo markets (olive oil, fruit and veg).

 Conversely, there was little glorification of the Godfather connection.  The Museum was an Anti-Mafia one and we parked in the Piazza to the Victims of The Mafia.  The Italians seem to be better than most in using co-ops for social cohesion.  In Genoa they brought warring factions from Sampdoria and Genoa football clubs together in a Type B co-op to provide the cleaning service in the communally owned stadium used by both teams.

 Whilst I continue to ramble (I did get a lot of sun on my hols), I have been reminded by some recent reviews that there are co-operative champagne houses out there and that the Co-operative Food and Waitrose do stock them.  I suspect that much of the other supermarket own label wines still come from “caves co-operatives” in France, Italy and Spain and I was delighted that several of the reds I enjoyed on holiday were from co-operatives.  There really is nothing I won’t do to support co-ops.

 Co-ops not only feature in the real world but pop up regularly in fiction.  Inspired (?) by my visit to Sicily, I have started re-reading one of the first novels to tackle the Mafia concept – “The Day of the Owl: Leonardo Sciascia (1961).  The opening scene is a young man being gunned down as he tries to board a bus to Palermo.  It soon becomes apparent that he is targeted because he is a member of the Santa Fara Building Co-operative Society and has not been showing due respect to the men of honour i.e. refusing to get involved in bungs relating to public contracts.  So even in fiction, co-ops are held up as the ethical alternative.

 In the Stieg Larsson novels (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo etc) there are repeated references to Konsum (the Swedish food retail co-operative) and several characters are members of housing co-ops, reflecting the role of co-ops in Swedish culture.

Which does beg the question, if co-ops started in Fenwick and they are ubiquitous socially, culturally and literally speaking, then why don’t we have more of them in Scotland?

Education?

 However, the big breakthrough for my photo album will come in October, when I am taking some students over to Mondragon.  There should be co-op photo opportunities galore.

 Whilst on the topic of photo opportunities, I was on my travels again at the weekend (business, not a holiday) and was snapped, at half time in An Camanachd’s Sutherland Cup Final, with the First Minister.  The Co-op connection was the Co-operative Group Membership were sponsoring a shinty taster event for school kids; we were providing shinty starter packs for Aberdeen schools and Aberdeen University Camanachd were celebrating their 150th, which puts constituted co-ops a hundred years ahead of constituted shinty clubs.  Not to worry, we did manage to get some interest from An Camanachd in looking at co-op structures for their member clubs, so yet another possibility of co-ops springing up in new areas.

 It would seem remiss to talk about travel and not mention the future of Co-op Travel.  It would appear that the deal with Thomas Cook is back on after consideration by the Competition Commission.  There has been some disquiet about the co-op brand being used when the Group and Midlands Society only retain a minority stake.  If the alternative was simply to exit from the travel market, making lots of people redundant then I would have to say the deal with Thomas Cook not only secures employment (maybe not for all as there will be some rationalisation) and offers the co-op partners the chance to maximise the value they realise for what was a failing business.  Personally, I would have liked to have seen the Co-op Travel employees given the chance to take the business over as a worker co-operative but I’m not sure that option has permeated the senior ranks of decision makers in the movement.

 Any engagement I have had with Co-op Travel staff in Scotland has been very positive and they always struck me as get up and go types.  The Webbs still have a lot to answer for.

 Anyway, this should be the last instalment of our Summer Special, as the schools return and the CETS nose is returned to the grindstone.  At least that is what the Resident “Hiedie” tells me.

Updated Summer Update

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Author: Hugh

Traditionally it is a quiet time for us here at CETS but that hasn’t stopped me taking the easy option of combining my turn to blog with a newsletter for general consumption. 

CETS NEWS – JULY 2011

Young Co-operative Enterprise

 There are two major strands of our efforts in this field which will take major strides forward when the Scottish schools return in August.

ASDAN Awards through Co-operative Studies 

Supported by the Co-operative Group Scottish Values and Principles Committee, we will be working with several secondary schools (Loudoun Academy, Alva Academy, Jedburgh Grammar, Broxburn Academy, Armadale Academy, Whitburn Academy and All Saints Secondary) to ensure that nearly 200 Scottish pupils will achieve ASDAN Enterprise and/or COPE accreditation through Co-operative Studies.  This will be a major advance in our primary objective of imbedding co-operative values and principles into the Scottish education system.

Young Co-operatives

We have often highlighted the excellent work done by longstanding Young Co-ops at Hillpark and Stonelaw and we are hoping to see a new wave as we engage with Govan High, Hillhead Secondary and Whitehills Primary (Forfar) to develop their co-operative business models.

We also had a highly successful 2 day Co-operative Enterprise Awareness Session at St Paul’s Dundee where 40 pupils investigated the potential for creating Young Co-ops.  This event was run in conjunction with Dynamix, the Bristol based worker co-op.

SQA Qualifications

As stated above, our main objective is to imbed co-operative values and principles and the co-operative model of enterprise into the Scottish education system.  The ongoing implementation of Curriculum for Excellence is starting to offer opportunities in this field.  We instigated discussions with the SQA over a year ago and it now seems that our message is getting through, that co-operatives as a context for learning are an effective way to achieve the outcomes laid down with Curriculum for Excellence. 

The SQA have themselves proposed the creation of an award in Fair Trade/Ethical trading which will sit nicely alongside our proposed award in Co-operative Studies, again supported by CG Scottish Membership V & P.  We are also awaiting a response from the Education Minister on his proposal for a new award in Scottish Studies and our suggestion that Co-operative Studies should be an integral part of any such award.

Hopscotch Theatre

Hopscotch has been involved in some excellent pieces of drama aimed at raising awareness amongst young people about the democratic system and trade justice.  We are currently working with them to take to our ASDAN schools (as above) a drama workshop which will introduce them to the concept of democratically owned and controlled businesses.

Summer Events

Working with CG Membership we have agreed to sponsor (through the Cammanachd Association) the supply of three “First Shinty” kits for use in primary and secondary schools throughout the City of Aberdeen.  The kits will be handed over at half time in the Aberdein Considine Sutherland Cup Final at Aberdeen University’s King’s Fields on Saturday 30th July 2011.

Again, we will be hosting a short workshop on co-ops at the Belladrum Festival, alongside the “Verb Garden” when the Co-operative Group Scotland & NI Board will be joining the festivities.

Scotmid are hosting an Enterprising Practitioners event in August at Hillwood House.  This group of schools enterprise development officers came together under Determined to Succeed but not have to look at those co-operative virtues of self help and self sufficiency if they are to continue functioning.  The Scotmid session will be used to explore a co-operative model as well as further progressing their knowledge and understanding of co-operative enterprise.

They will also be able to hear how co-operative business engagement is enabling pupils at Craigmount High to work towards Intermediate Retailing Awards with support from Stevenson College, Scotmid and CETS.

Learning and Teaching Resources   

In our 2009/11 funding application to CG Social Goals, we forecast we would get over 1500 of our various resource packs into 750 schools.  With over 6 months still to run, we have surpassed those targets by at least 10%.

We are now working on a new “Co-operative Food Chain” resource with financial and technical support from SAOS.  There are many existing resources out there and it has been noted that the majority of co-operative activity in the UK still centres on food in some shape or form.

 This will be an online option which highlights the co-operative option at every stage of the cycle – food production, food retail and distribution and through to food waste and re-cycling/renewable energy.  This resource will be launched early in the next school year.

Year of the Co-operative 2012

 The aforementioned support from CG Scottish Values & Principles is intended to culminate with the launch of the new SQA Awards and the graduation of the 200 ASDAN Young Co-operators.  It will obviously be our intention to showcase these at a major event in 2012.  Once we are clear of the overall Scottish programme of events we will announce more detail.  It would be our intention to aim for June 2012.

Some of you might have noticed that we are engaging with schools (Govan and Loudoun, including Fenwick Primary) which can lay claim to pre-Rochdale co-ops within their catchment areas.  We have also approached schools in Brechin (1832) and Lennoxtown (1812) to see if we can develop a co-operative co-op history project, highlighting the Scottish contribution to the global phenomenon that is the International Co-operative Economy being celebrated by the UN. (A point we made in our communication to the Scottish Education Minister).  Watch this space!

Higher Education

 We are now at the halfway point in our Knowledge Transfer Partnership with the University of Aberdeen and the first learning and teaching resources should be available for the new university academic year.  This work has resulted in a grouping of co-operative academics working together and after an initial CETS presentation to the UK Society for Co-operative Studies Annual Conference 2010, there was a fringe meeting at Congress to progress the idea of a Co-operative University and Business School.

The Mondragon co-ops in the Basque Country already have their own university and CETS, with support from CDS, will be sending 3 students from the Scottish Agricultural College over on a study tour in early October.  The students won the CETS/CDS essay competition with a business plan for a farm forestry co-op.

Instantaneous Democracy

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Author:Hugh

As a registered charity it is not our place to comment directly  on the results of the Holyrood election or the party politics involved.  However, as an organisation promoting democratic forms of enterprise, I think we can safely make some observations on the processes and structures of said democratic process.

I have to declare an interest relating to the first point.  My daughter, a 3rd year politics student, now finds herself out of paid employment.  She worked one day a week with our local constituency MSP and he lost the tightest first past the post (FPTP) seat on SEVEN votes.  On the one hand you might see that as good for democracy that any seat is so tightly contested.  If you are a supporter of proportional representation you might think it highlights the inherent unfairness of FPTP that if such tight results were replicated in every constituency then you could collect 40-50% of the popular vote but no seats.  An impossibility many would argue but then we were told, until the early hours of Friday, it was impossible for any one party to gain an outright majority at Holyrood .

It might also be noted that there was a tactical option of standing on both constituency and regional lists.  There seems to me a certain irony, possibly even hypocrisy, to resort to a form of PR to gain a seat in our parliament whilst arguing against PR in principle.  I can’t give any specifics but on the law of probabilities?

Similarly, proponents of PR would suggest that it can’t be fair for public policy for the next 5 years to be shaped by the views of only 25% of the population i.e. 50% share on a 50% turnout (very roughly).  However, the attempt to redress that imbalance with a move to AV (albeit in Westminster) was resoundingly defeated. 

On a similar vein, my brief viewing of results coming in on Friday morning failed to identify any FPTP winners whose votes exceeded the combined total of their opponents, which obviously goes to the core of the additional vote (AV) argument.

It has also been noted that the Westminster FPTP system is the one which needed a negotiated coalition whilst the Holyrood system, supposedly custom designed with its own form of PR to prevent an SNP majority, has produced just that form of strong majority government that only FPTP can produce, according to its adherents.

The main issue from our perspective, of arguing the case for democratic forms of enterprise, is about the quality and levels of participation.  There are lots of different ways of creating a democratic co-operative structure (IPS, guarantee company, CIC and many variations within each) and there are a variety of ways of deciding who runs the country (FPTP, PR, AV, STV and combinations thereof) but if people don’t get off their backsides and get involved then nothing much is likely to change.

The aforementioned politics student who squats on my premises has pointed out that there are other ways of engaging in politics other than voting in elections.  Volunteering, community action, co-ops and stand alone campaigns.  There was somebody in the Westminster elections who suggested we needed a new form of politics and there are signs of significant, seismic changes on the political landscape.  However none of them seem to address the fairly fundamental issue of how do you, and how can you claim, to represent people who don’t engage with whatever system you adopt.

Whether you agree with AV or not, it is quite depressing from an educational perspective to see the credence given to the argument that it was too complicated for the majority of the population to understand.  Maybe we should learn from the X Factor and all those reality shows that consistently achieve such impressive voting turnouts and move to a system of rolling referendums on any number of topics and people can vote from the comfort of their own homes, cars wherever and whenever – is that the new high tech future with Simon Cowell and Lord Sugar competing to be the Presiding Officers in our instantaneous democracy?

Co-operation without co-operatives: recent examples

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Author: Diarmuid

Recent events and initiatives in the media, governmental and educational spheres have highlighted a growing trend of co-operation without co-operatives i.e. people coming together to achieve something they couldn’t indivdually.

Groupon
Touted as one of the fastest growing companies in history, Groupon is a online discount merchant that secures deals with local businesses to enable consumers to bulk purchase goods and services. Groupon has revolutionised how local communities purchase goods and services on a daily basis.

Mydata
Ed Davey, the consumer minister, has recently announced the government’s intention to release data on consumers, companies and prices online to “encourage collective purchasing, and increase support for vulnerable customers.”

Moodle
Moodle is a learning managament system/virtual learning environment/course management system; whatever it’s called, it has a co-operative pedagogy at its core. Moodle is used to deliver courses online and is based on social constructionism theory. In essence, this theory believes that people learn best by working in groups and teaching each other in a social setting.

What do these examples highlight and what is their relevance to co-operatives?

Well it is clear from each initiative that co-operation is and will be a key feature in the success of each initiative. We can clearly see that the government is keen for people to have (as close to as possible) perfect information, a key concept in economics, to empower consumers to solve their own energy, telecoms and food issues. A quick look at the government’s ‘community partners‘, the people who will assist in the delivery of this initiative, one doesn’t find any mention of co-operatives. Consumers coming together to improve their lives through collective and bulk purchasing of goods and services: if it looks like a co-op, feels like a co-op….

We might be biased but surely the issue here is education.  Why do people use Groupon to secure bulk orders if they can just as easily and more profitably achieve the same outcome through a co-operative enterprise? Why would Moodle adopt a social constructionist pedagogy if the concept of co-operative learning already exists? And why would the government seek to empower vulnerable consumers to collectively purchase key services through any other form of enterpise but a co-operative, especially in light of their Big Society agenda?

Each of the three examples discussed here are successful, idealogically sound and important initiatives. However, one cannot help but feel that each initiative has reinvented the wheel so to speak. Rather than look at these examples as missed opportunities, the co-operative movement should realise the fountain of co-operation unfolding before our eyes and both support and nurture it to achieve so much more through the structure of a co-operative enterprise.

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