The ‘fourth right of citizenship’, alongside rights such as participation, is advice and information. So declared the great social innovator and co-operative champion Michael Young in the late 1970s.
It was around this time that a generation of co-operative business advice agencies came into being, supported by local authorities and designed to spur the growth of co-operatives. That they did, but the resource squeeze that faces those working in the field has got sharper and sharper over time.
In the report for the National Co-operative Development Strategy, we pointed to the accelerating loss of capacity and knowledge in these typically local bodies: “the co-operative development bodies that have survived [since the 1970s] have done so by operating entrepreneurially. Their emphasis is typically on face-to-face and generic advice and hands-on business development, and there are some outstanding examples of impact – often unsung if subject to commercial confidentiality.”
As a result, “the provision of and access to co-operative business advice is therefore patchy. Wales is well supported with co-operative advice, while Scotland receives government assistance that does not exist in the same way in England and Northern Ireland.”
There are other bodies that provide advice and support – in particular federal bodies that support co-operative models in specific sectors, whether credit unions or community shops. As the late Robin Murray suggested in his work for us, these have eight potential roles as a catalyst and community for co-operative ventures in their sector. But they too have faced a resource squeeze in recent years. Infrastructure is stretched and one way or another, there is an underinvestment in resources and no easy solution, beyond co-operation across co-operatives, to remedy that.
So, it is welcome that there is a substantive new research report published in the run up to Co-operatives Fortnight by Alex Lawrie. With long experience as an innovator and entrepreneur, plus skills of research and philosophy that shine in the report, Alex explores options for co-operative development bodies, with opportunities rooted in new ways of working – being an embedded participant and partner in new ventures, rather than being purely responsive to existing clients.
This has to include moving outside of the ‘values ghetto’, as the report puts it, by finding new ways in which people can work together with trust. “Trust is not a matter purely of goodwill and altruism, but to a considerable degree is the security that emerges from protocols fixing interdependence.”
Some of this can be rooted in physical spaces. Somerset Co-operative Services, where Alex works, for example manages a hot desking hub for co-operators at 10 East Reach in Taunton, where the new social enterprises taking shape include an urban farming collective, the UK’s first co-operative train operating company and a community business developing tram systems.
As part of these systems for ‘community and calculative trust’, and alongside more consistent ‘systems of practice’, giving people a voice in enterprises as they emerge is particularly powerful – “the findings of this study are that… accountability repays the investment made in it.” And he points to the scope for an ambitious agenda for co-operative education and training – pointing to the example of the recently opened Dyson Institute in the UK.
He makes the case in the report for co-operative development bodies, but cautions that, without change in practice and steps like these, “the winnowing of the co-operative development movement is far from over.”
The recommendations for practitioners are carefully thought through and include the following steps:
- lock clients into long term obligations to repay all of the costs of co-op development when they are able to do so
- develop co-operative incubators
- invest in knowledge and skills
- adequately capitalise new co-ops, incubators and co-op development bodies themselves by involving investors in mutual relationships, including the use of multi-stakeholder co-operatives.
This is an important contribution in a debate that is important for all concerned with and supportive of co-operative development.