International Joint Projects on Co-operative Democracy - A Scottish Perspective

  This document has been made available in electronic format
     by the International Co-operative Alliance ICA 
                         June 1995

               International Joint Project
                on Co-operative Democracy 
                - A Scottish Perspective 

                    by Iain Macdonald*

Readers of this magazine will not be unfamiliar with the view
that the traditional consumer co-operative has long ceased to
resemble the vibrant democratic structure of old and that for
most people the memory of their mother's dividend number was
as near as they came in contact with it.

This is not a view which I share and having worked with the
Co-operative Wholesale Society to revitalise the democratic
structure of the Scottish Co-op over the last eight years it
is clear that the Scottish Co-op has a very clear democratic
structure, has a large active membership and at the same time
is enjoying significant commercial success. All, of course, is
not perfect. There is much more work to be done and it is true
that the 1960s and 1970s did see some diminution of democracy
in the Co-operative Movement which interestingly enough went
hand-in- hand with a fall in its share of the retail trade.
The CWS, to its credit, realised that there was a genuine link
between democratic involvement and commercial success and that
we should exploit that which makes us different from other
conventional businesses. Happily this call is now being taken
up by other Co-operative Societies throughout Britain and a
lot of good work is now going on to this end.

It was from this background, therefore, that we in CWS were
approached by Co-op Kanagawa in Japan who, at the 1992
International Co-operative Alliance Congress in Yokohama, had
advocated the setting up of a project on co-operative
democracy and had approached colleagues from Italy, Canada,
Sweden and the UK. Some of you will know that the theme of
that Congress was built round the publication of a
comprehensive study by the Norwegian Co-operator, Sven Ake
Book, who has initiated a great debate in the Movement about
the Principles and Values of Co-operation.  It is the
intention of the 100th ICA Congress to be held in Manchester
in September this year to receive a report on the reactions to
Sven Ake Book's work and so make comprehensive proposals for
the operation of the Co-operative Movement in the next

The Japanese Co-operative Movement has long had a tremendous
interest in the philosophical side of the Movement - for
instance, the Chief Executive of Co-op Kanagawa is much more
involved in democracy and participation than he is in trade
which he leaves to his deputy - and they felt that one way
they could contribute to this "great debate" was to set up a
project involving a group of Co-ops from other countries. 
Then, in conjunction with the ICA Centennial Congress, a
report would be presented with the findings of this select
group on how democracy and participation can work hand-in-hand
with commercial operations.

This Project is now nearly completed and I have been
co-ordinating the British end of the Project.  This was a
deliberate move recognising the progress that has been made by
the Scottish Co-op and (as is the purpose of the project) our
country is presenting a case study and practical examples of
how democracy has or has not been important in a given area. 
It is therefore not the Co-operative Movements of Japan,
Sweden, Canada, Italy and the UK that are involved in the
project but specific Co-operative organisations, namely, Co-op
Kanagawa, Kooperativa Institutet, Co-op Calgary, Associazione
Nazionale Cooperative Di Consumatori, and Scottish Co-op
(which as you will know is the retail wing of the CWS in

As far as the Scottish Co-op is concerned, we have prepared
materials referring to the current trading position of the
Scottish Co-op, the level of membership activity and how we
fit into the wider structure of the consumer movement in
Britain.  In addition, we have linked our position with the
governmental structure of the country and indicated how that
link affects our trading position, i.e. an economic/social
analysis of Strathclyde Region has been used to compare and
contrast the differing structures in each of the other
countries with Scotland.
Much of my work with the Scottish Co-op over the last few
years has been the setting up of a new committee structure of
fifteen committees, identifying and encouraging activists to
be involved in these committees who, in turn, liaise with area
managers and concern themselves very much with the performance
of the shops in their area.  One of the more successful
examples of this was the setting up of the Oban & Lochaber
Branch Committee and it is that committee and area which is
the subject of our case study.  This shows how an area with
comparatively low co-operative turnover and almost
non-existent membership has now grown to be one of our most
successful areas from a trading point of view and one of our
most active areas from a membership point of view.  Indeed, we
have just entered the final part of our development programme
and members in our outer islands are now part of an innovative
committee linked by telephone conferencing. It is positive
examples of this sort which are being given from each of the
five participants and it is this work which is being compiled
for presenting to the Congress.  Most of the compilation of
the report is being handled by Professor Jack Craig of York
University, Ontario and regular meetings have been held in
each of the countries to ensure that the document is as
accurate and informative as possible. The Scottish meeting was
in New Lanark last September - a very timely reminder of the
role of New Lanark and the great Robert Owen in the promotion
of co-operation especially in the 150th Anniversary year of
the Rochdale Pioneers.

The Report itself is split into two parts.  The first part is
very much based on the practical side and includes case
studies of five areas of each country's Co-operative Movement. 
However, the main section of Part I is a description of how we
feel participatory democracy can be made to work in the 21st
Century.  This section is split into five main themes.
The first theme is that of expanding members' participation.
This describes a system of members' participation in expanding
membership and in decision making.  It talks of the need to
create new fields for members' activities and also promotes
participation in management, including the management of the
business itself.

The second theme picks up on this last point and talks in
greater depth about the relationship between members and
management.  It looks at the role of the co-operative and how
it should grasp the needs of the members.  We feel in this
case it is necessary to innovate a system of communication
that actually elicits initiative and naturally develops into
promoting a system of members' education which includes a
comprehensive system of training. Indeed, it is in this area
that the Scottish Co-op makes some very definite proposals
which I will describe later.  This theme also develops the
role of top management in taking strategic initiatives to
promote participatory democracy whilst using the resources of
both staff and members.

The third theme is on the innovation of an organisational
structure which will allow members a greater say in running
the business and to initiate ideas.  Some time is taken here
to work out what this structure actually could be.

The fourth theme expands the potential relationship with
employees and how staff can support a partnership with
members.  Clearly, in this area, no democratic structure can
work effectively without the support and participation of
staff. The report also makes it clear that staff have to be
more involved in actual decision-making and looks at how
worker participation in management has been developed

The last theme is on economic and social responsibility and
looks closely at the more philosophical and futuristic aims of
the Co-operative Movement, not unlike the continuing hopes for
a Co-operative Commonwealth.  Here we try to set out the
importance of establishing a co-operative identity and the
ability of any co-op to ensure that people both inside and
outside the organisation are aware of what that organisation
is all about.  We feel here that introducing systems of social
audit and social accounting are very important.

Part I of the report actually details techniques for a
participating membership. These techniques are grouped under
five theme headings already identified and try to ensure that
the practical suggestions are linked to the more academic
proposals of the report.  In addition, each technique, of
which there are fifty, are linked to examples of good practice
in one or more of the participating countries.  Indeed, one of
the main aims of the report is to try and ensure that all
levels of the Co-operative Movement can use the report for
practical purposes.  The second part of the report goes into
the more academic area of the theory of participative
democracy and describes the methodology used by the Joint
Project in research and procedure.  Finally, there is a very
helpful reference section which, in itself, will be of great
use to many co-operative organisations.

As I explained earlier, the Scottish case study, other than
describing developments in the Oban & Lochaber area, also
shows how a comprehensive training programme has been
developed for members of Co-op committees in Scotland and how
this is being developed elsewhere in the United Kingdom, and,
indeed, is seen, as has already been stated, as an important
feature of this report.

This training course is perhaps the most innovative
development since setting up the committees and it is run by
tutors from the Co-operative College. All committee members
receive a package of information detailing the movement and
giving information about other co-operative organisations in
Scotland, such as credit unions, worker co-operatives and
community businesses.  A video entitled "This is the CWS - The
People's Business" is also issued.  Participants are then
asked to do a pre-course exercise based on the information
pack and video and are debriefed on arrival at the course. 
The course concentrates on the role of the branch committee
which, in practice, revealed many interesting features about
how the committee could be regarded.  With the participants,
the tutors explore the role of the branch committee from
several possible angles, including ways in which they, as
individuals and collectively, are involved in their community;
the challenges faced by that community; the relationship they
feel they have or should have with the CWS and the Scottish
Co-op; and finally, and most importantly, the powers of the
branch committee (within CWS rules) and the ways in which
these can be exercised.  The word "power" is used in its
widest possible sense, but manages to convey the extent to
which a branch committee can be influential.  For instance,
branch committees have the power to:

-    nominate to the CWS Board;

-    nominate to the Co-operative Union Sectional Board;

-    send a delegate to the Regional Committee;

-    initiate motions to the CWS Half-Yearly Meeting;

-    initiate motions to Co-operative Congress;

-    receive and discuss reports from the area manager;

-    receive and discuss reports on member relations and staff

-    advise management on trading and member policy issues;

-    ensure that staff are educated in co-operative

-    receive reports from other CWS trade groups in the area;

-    act as the representative of the society in contacts with
     the local community; 

-    disburse finance at a local level.

These powers make the difference between a committee which
accepts its traditional and relatively subservient role and
one which maximises its potential.  The training programme
concludes with a simulation exercise in which a committee
meeting takes on board many of the activities and problems
which any committee might encounter.

In recognition of the importance the Project places on
training, a Symposium to discuss the Project's Report is being
held at the Co-operative College, Stanford Hall on Saturday,
16th September 1995. This is designed to allow delegates and
others attending the ICA Congress to look at our Report in
more depth and to promote its adoption. Details of the
Symposium will be sent out with delegates' information.

This year's Congress will be a watershed in the Movement's
history and we hope our Report will help to revitalise
co-operatives all over the world and so face the challenges of
the 21st Century.
* Mr Macdonald, M.A. Dip.Ad.Ed., has been Membership
Development Officer with the Scottish Co-op since 1986. He is
also Vice-Chair of Strathclyde Credit Union Development Agency
and closely involved with the development of many co-operative