The other democratic event today

If anyone doubted that politics was always bigger than the political class that has come into disrepute, today is the day. It is the Scottish Referendum, but hundreds of miles further south, I am participating in an other democratic experiment… called NHS Citizen.

NHS Citizen is a work in progress and will eventually be a participation infrastructure for NHS England, where participants can become citizens of the NHS, not just consumers of its services. Through NHS Citizen, the idea is that people are more able to hold the Board to account, set the agenda for discussions, and find others with shared interests – all in an open, transparent and public environment.

The lead design agency is Involve, the recognised national centre of expertise in public participation and open government and a small charity that is led by Simon Burall and of which (to declare my interest) I am trustee and chair. Other agencies are DemSoc, Public-i and the Tavistock Institute.

NHS Citizen will be a system that listens to citizens through both online and offline channels, curating these conversations and exploring evidence.

Today is the first, prototype Assembly, with 250 people brought into an open, facilitated space to talk about priorities for NHS England, with the Board present as equals and able to respond at its AGM later in the day.

NHS Citizen has three layers:

• The Discovery space where information and opinions are gathered through social media, public comment, online and offline tools. This gives a picture of the “state of the conversation” on health, allowing issues of public concern to bubble up.

• The Gather space which will give people opportunities to work together around particular issues, either those that NHS bodies want public opinion on, or those that arise from issues in the Discovery space. These might be issues concerning experiences of patients, users or carers, or those that highlight more general challenges (e.g. how services are commissioned). In this space, a participant “raises a flag,” seeking others who are interested in taking action on that issue.

• The Assembly Meeting will happen twice a year to consider the most important issues in an open and deliberative format, and hold the Board to account. The Assembly Meeting will be able to commission Citizen Panels to consider particularly challenging and controversial issues as part of its way of working.

Democracy is a tool that has far wider reach and potential than we give it credit – in many ways this could be a great age of democracy. It needs to work through across both society and the economy, and at different levels of scale.

The question of how mass membership or public organisations can listen and respond in ways that are open and authentic is a issue on which that the co-operative sector has an enormous amount to offer, but also, with new technology, new expectations, much to learn too.

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Save the Guardian? The infectious ideas of Stephen Lloyd…

Some people are impossible not to love – and the late Stephen Lloyd, lawyer and social entrepreneur, was one.

Some organisations you love or hate. And then it is possible to have some, more rare, that are organisations that you can love and hate at the same time – of which the Guardian newspaper is perhaps one.

So what happened, a few years ago, when Stephen Lloyd and a few of us had a go at trying to save the Guardian?

What’s to love? George Orwell wrote for the Guardian and the humanity he gave to the paper has never left. The Guardian has championed causes like freedom of information, something we now take for granted. The Guardian put Jonathan Aitken in prison at the height of misrule in the mid 1990s Conservative government. It was the whistle for the greatest of today’s whistle-blowers, Edward Snowden. The Guardian is unique because it is owned by a trust, the Scott Trust, that is dedicated to liberal, critical journalism and to preserving the independence of the Editor from political and commercial interference.

What’s to hate? Not the spelling mistakes…they’ve largely gorn. It is a bigger set of errors. Without a fundamental new model of business, it has long been clear that the Guardian is going down the pan. The Editor’s nest has been feathered, the headquarters plumped up, but it is an unhappy workplace and a commercial slow suicide note.

For the moment, it has enough readers who buy it most days, but the majority of people who read the paper now do so from abroad using the internet. And they get it for free. Just as content has moved online, so has advertising… but the result is a toll of losses, offset only by selling other business assets.

Stephen, I, Dave Boyle (author of Good News) and a number of others came together to have a go at persuading the Guardian that it could turn itself into a social business.

Stephen wrote that “in a cooperative a large number of members unite to meet their common aspirations through a jointly owned and democratically controlled enterprise. The common aspirations of the Guardian cooperative would be to further the principles upon which the Scott Trust was founded in 1936: to secure the future of the Guardian and to promote independent journalism. The basic premise of the cooperative model is that the Guardian would be owned by a huge group of readers who pay to own a share of the paper and pay a yearly membership amount. Thus the cooperative model generates an ongoing income stream.”

The Guardian would, if so, become the first mass UK reader-owned national newspaper. Rather than a transactional, consumer relationship, readers could become members, owners and supporters of something they love. In Germany, Die Tageszeitung shows the way – a newspaper owned as a co-operative by 12,000 readers.

So, did we get anywhere?

Well, it was and is a great idea – as so often with Stephen Lloyd.

But, no. Lots of words, glimpses of hope, endless circles – as so often with the Guardian.

Stephen Lloyd to size

Congratulations go to… new garden city ideas

URBED co-operative and partners have won the lucrative Wolfson Economics Prize for their proposal for a new garden city. Congratulations to them. Their proposals offer a super example of how the social economy can meet Britain’s needs for housing and community

With nice timing we are running a conference in the original garden city, Letchworth on Monday, with members and practitioners that include URBED, Wolfson Economic Prize runners-up Shelter and the Confederation of Co-operative Housing. For more information on the co-operative agenda for land and housing, there is good stuff in the Co-operatives UK report and/or slideshow.

Too much, too young?

The Prime Minister announced plans this month to extend parental warnings to cover music videos – not something that on its own will turn the tide on everyday sexism and violence, but very welcome all the same.

It also marks another suggestion from the 2009 book, Consumer Kids, by Agnes Nairn and I to make it into the real world.

Companies now spend tens of millions of pounds marketing to children. The advertising plays on young people’s vulnerabilities and sell them back to them – you will fit in, you will be beautiful, you will be happy … If you just buy this.

Is this true?

Well, beyond any initial buzz, obviously not. But there is also something of a hidden cost that comes with this tide of marketing.

The truth is that the more children are exposed to commercialism, the more materialistic they are encouraged to become. Materialism means that your self-esteem starts to rely more from what you own rather than who you are. This holds for a variety of age groups.

If anything has been learned about the nature of happiness, from the days of the Greek philosophers through to the work of positive psychologists and neuro-scientists today, it is that young people need inner strength and understanding to flourish – not materialism. Children need warm bonds of friendship with their peers – not competitive consumption. They need strong relationships with their parents – not the alienation that can be encouraged by marketing. They need to be occupied in projects which work for the common good of a community.

In an increasingly commercial world, the odds can be stacked against achieving this.

Fine isn’t enough and we’re still not equal – the Co-operative Women’s Challenge

Mary, bright, tall and 14, from North London tells a story about her walk back from school one afternoon.

“A few days ago, a friend and I were walking down the road, chatting away, when a man more than twice our age leaned impertinently out of his car window and wolf whistled at us. Although this is in no way uncommon, the two of us were outraged. We then had a lengthy discussion about the impertinence, the rudeness and the disrespect of so many men. So when I asked my friend the question, ‘Are you a feminist?’ I was sure I knew the answer. But to my utter astonishment, she replied, ‘No, I think women’s situation nowadays is fine’… Ask girls and women what they associate with ‘feminism’ and they will say: hairy legs, hatred of men, dungarees and not a thought to their appearance. Personally, I call myself a feminist but I have hair free legs, I hold a great interest in fashion, I certainly don’t hate men (well, not all…) and I would never be seen dead in a pair of dungarees! So does that mean I can’t be a feminist? Of course not! Why can’t females realize that fine isn’t enough and we are still not equal.”

Mary submitted this for an essay competition for The Times, under the title of ‘Why aren’t all girls feminists?’. The winner would be selected, with school friends, to edit Section 2 (T2) of The Times. To her amazement, and nervous surprise, she won and found herself on a two-day work experience trip as the editor of T2. With 11 friends from her class, this was a school trip to the citadels of fame and power.

“I was very excited” she said, “it seemed so amazing to be having my writing published in a national paper. It was a bit in this really industrial area, and the entrance was a bit fancy, but inside it was just like any big office, with paper everywhere. We decided all the content. the only things that we were made to change was the length of some pieces, and one boy was told by the school to change his piece on gang culture because it made the school look bad or something. [He had to] cut large sections.”

Mary and another girl wrote the page on fashion – something she is passionate about. The experience of seeing her words laid out on the page was wonderful and it led her to express her views on the involvement of young people in the world around them:

“I really do think young people should have more of a voice. But more importantly, I think they should want a voice. I have loads of friends who don’t give a damn about politics, because they think it doesn’t affect them, or feminism, because they don’t think its an issue, but young people, on the whole, don’t really think about these things enough to realize that they are an issue, or that they effect them in many ways. Lots and lots of things concern me, but the three that concern me most would probably be sexism, especially in religion and middle eastern countries, global warming, and poverty and the completely unfair distribution of wealth. I think as an individual, I can make small differences, that do matter, but I don’t think I can make big changes on my own.”

Even if many young people are doubtful about their influence on a big world stage (only one in eight are interested in politics) and only one in three feel influential in the local area, they do want a say. Nine out of ten children believe they can influence the decisions that affect their family and six out of ten think they can influence decisions that affect their school.

The Co-operative Women’s Challenge is an agenda across the co-operative sector to push for gender equality within coops, on elected positions, in senior staff roles, but also to campaign for women’s rights in the wider world. The history of women’s activism in the co-operative sector is long and proud, particularly through the campaigning and mobilisation of the Co-operative Women’s Guild, and we have many inspiring co-operative business leaders, men and women, committed to this campaign.

But there is still more to do. It will be young people, like Mary, that question the world around them that can inspire it to change.

First for fifty years – a new law and a new sense of purpose for co-operatives

We have the first new consolidated Co-operatives Act in the UK for nearly fifty years. With our technical input, support from across the political spectrum and preparatory work by the Law Commission, the Coalition Government has made UK a better place to start and grow co-operatives.

The landmark Co-operative and Community Benefit Societies Act (2014) which comes into force today brings together long dated overly complex legislation into one unified statute. It also wraps up a programme of legislative reform delivered by the Coalition:

  • cutting quite a bit of red tape,
  • closing down some unhelpful loopholes where coops were overlooked in relation to business benefits and
  • confirming some new gains, such as a three-fold increase in the investment limit in co-operatives.

This shows what can be achieved when broad political support is backed up by firm government action. One new co-operative starts every working day of the week and the turnover of the sector has outpaced the UK economy in recent years.

There’s still more to be done though and we have a clear agenda for what the government can still do to harness the co-operative momentum.

Of course, there is focus and learning too, coming out of what went wrong at The Co-operative Group when it lost sight of what members wanted, with structures that didn’t advance their interests. Co-operatives are businesses that are owned by and run for its members and are at their best when that co-operative difference runs through it like a stick of rock.

In that spirit, co-operatives across the UK came together recently at a congress in Birmingham, to develop an Action Plan for the co-operative sector.

We are moving now, from what has felt like a year of defence to what can now be a decade of action.

Action Plan

Fairness is the shadow of the future

I was prompted by an article by the great Kiwi Co-operator, Ramsey Margolis, on how co-ops can tackle inequality to reflect on the deep connections that exist between ideas of co-operation and of equality.

Some might say that the concept of fairness is at odds with the complexity and apparent ungovernable dynamics of modern, open economies – there is little we can do and if there is unfairness, perhaps it will work out in the long run.

Co-operatives start from a different understanding and one that increasingly chimes with new research and evidence on human behaviour and social connectedness. We can make a difference. Fairness is about habits, as much as it is about dreams. It is about everyday life, as much as what someone in government (someone else) should do. In rather more dry, theoretical terms, it is about social norms of co-operation and reciprocity.

The truth must be that we are all more likely to co-operate if we believe others will behave fairly – and we are more likely to believe others will be fair to us, if we have collaborated with them before.

The more we take a long view of time, the more we are able to make a commitment to those around us.

Fairness, therefore, is the shadow of the future.