From shell to shelf – or how the snail farmers of Greece are responding to austerity

Now, I haven’t tried them myself, but still I’m wowed by the garden snails of Greece…

The Snail Farmers of Greece has been formed in recent years and is showing how one way to beat austerity is by doing it together. The coop organises the processing and packing of snails, long a part of the Mediterranean diet. Last month, it became the first business to offer full traceability from shell to shelf, along with compliance assurance on all European health and safety regulations.

For the lover of snails, the snails for eating are rich in nutrients and low in calories. The entire snail is used, whereas most commercial snails has its digestive system removed, so no one knows what it has eaten or where it has lived – the rest of the meat then becomes something of a shapeless mass, the snail remains packed together with others from a nameless region or country.

For the snails who are lovers, the farming is done with care, allowing for breeding with controls on time periods and climate conditions. 

This co-op is one of a number that is emerging in Greece, and it is a heartening story in the context of extraordinary economic stress: wine co-operatives; agro-tourism; a ‘superfoods’ co-operative formed in Karditsa processing and marketing four best selling berries – including the goji berry and blueberries.

The UK co-operative sector formed links with our Greek counterparts when austerity hit, funding work through Co-operatives UK and Cooperatives Europe to improve the legal and regulatory framework in the country. A UK code of governance for farmer co-ops, for example, has been translated into Greek and is used to support best practice. 

Today, bringing news of snails, wine and berries, I was able to welcome Lucas Mprecha from the Greek co-operative sector to Holyoake House in Manchester. Lucas is over for a month, working with the grocery co-op, Unicorn. In his bag, he brought two or three marmalades and ‘trachana’ from Muses Pierion, a first social co-operative, on the Italian model, formed by unemployed women in Katerina.

Snail co-ops remind me of an old Italian saying, quoted by George Jacob Holyoake in relation to the nineteenth century co-operative sector. That if you travel slowly, you can travel far – as long as you keep moving.

In a world of seemingly brutal competition, there is hope and vision in new acts of co-operation. 

Worker tech and freelancer co-operation is a nugget of gold in the Taylor Review

While the Taylor Review – on work and self-employment in the ‘gig’ economy – might not have floated everyone’s boat, there were a few exciting nuggets in there for anyone interested in self-organising and co-operation, which as you might expect is where we have a particular interest.
The Review picked up the theme of self-organising a few times, notably in relation to tech solutions. The ‘WorkerTech’ concept the Review highlights turns out to have a lot a co-operative and collaborative stuff behind it.
So, the following recommendation the Review makes to Government is particularly bold and forward-thinking:
“Government should work with partners to create a Catalyst to stimulate the development of a range of WorkerTech models and platforms in the UK. This would allow new and emerging solutions to develop and grow, in a “sandbox environment” with a view to better supporting self-employed people.”
Along with one or two others, such as the Co-operative College and potentially  Federation, a hub of digital enterprises in Manchester, we are eager to champion this recommendation, plus one or two others, and work with anyone interested in making a impact. This means championing the recommendation in policy terms but also crucially in practical development, as per our National Co-operative Development Strategy.
My colleague James Wright has completed a short analysis here on this in the Review. Our next steps in relation to the Taylor Review are as follows:
  • Add our voice to calls to create such a Catalyst to stimulate the development of a range of WorkerTech models and platforms in the UK
  • Support the recommendation to develop advice and support for the self-employed, and push for it to include practical help to understand and adopt co-op options
  • Restate the case that worker ownership is the best way to align profit, power and worker benefit in a business
  • Ensure co-ops are well represented in the coalitions forming around all these agendas.
If you’re working along similar lines or would like to help us carve out a co-operative space, where workers have genuine agency, in whatever develops please do comment or get in touch.

Why we all need a national voice for social housing tenants

Ten years ago, I was lucky enough to chair a Commission for the National Housing Federation to raise the voices of tenants in social housing.  The life of the Commission was a participative exercise in itself, ending with a large-scale deliberative forum held in Leeds with a representative sample of tenants and leaseholders across the field of social housing.

Our report was called ‘What Tenants Want’.

There were and are some outstanding examples of ‘dream landlords’ in the UK of housing bodies that champion the interests and the voice of tenants, including but not limited to the UK’s co-operative and mutual housing. At the same time, this was far from universal.

A neglect of tenants voice, a downgrading of their concerns could be found in many associations, including the very largest. It was, one tenant said, a ‘get what you are given culture’.

What we argued, based on what tenants had said and then prioritised, was that there was a need for a new relationship of mutuality. A mutual ethos implies a relationship that goes beyond the commercial transactions and a normal customer relationship (all of which also matters) towards an expectation of reciprocity and accountability.

A new report out from the Confederation of Co-operative Housing has the same theme, in fact ten years on.

The Commission led to the development of a voluntary code on service and accountability by the National Housing Federation for its members.

The case for a national tenant voice was one that was picked up the then Government in its new regulatory system. It is one we argued for when I led the National Consumer Council in an influential 2007 submission with Bob Chilton called House Rules. The initiative was then, however, dismantled.

It feels like not just overdue business but urgent and timely therefore to read a formal letter from a network of tenants organisations to the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, Sajid David, calling for a national tenant voice.

They argue that the horror of the fire at Grenfell Tower and the subsequent work being done to ensure the safety of social housing tenants demonstrates the need for a coherent, legitimate and empowered voice for tenants – and leaseholders.

Slide05As the late Colin Ward, a pioneering author and commentator on community issues, wrote some years back: “ours is a society in which, in every field, one group of people makes decisions; exercises control; limits choices; while the great majority have to accept those decisions, submit to this control, and act within the limits of those externally imposed choices. It happens in work, politics and education and nowhere is it more evident than in the field of housing.” 

We need to listen to the voice of social housing tenants and we will all feel part of a fairer and more inclusive country if we do.

Twenty million conversations: how co-operation at street level is alive and well

People rallying to the support of neighbours and strangers has been part of the way the country has responded to terrorism and tragedy.

c14_logo_2017-200x155Some years ago, we updated research that was conducted for the Sunday Times back in 1982 on neighbourliness in Britain. So, this year, for Co-operatives Fortnight, we thought we would take another look with some fresh polling.

The results suggest that, while we know less neighbours than a generation ago, Britain remains a co-operative nation.

So, yes, the number of the neighbours people in Britain know by name has halved over the last three decades (down to six people, on average) and the number of people who do not know any of the neighbours’ names has increased five-fold – from 2% to 9%. The younger you are, the less likely you are to know your neighbours. Whereas only 3% of over-55s could not name a neighbour, 22% of under-34 year olds did not know any of the people who lived around them.

But the number of people who say that neighbours help them has stayed steady (80% in 1982, reducing to 77% in 2017). 22% of people say they keep an eye on vulnerable neighbours to see if they need any help.

And we do help out neighbours in new ways. There is a rise in help doing DIY and around seven in ten people help out by accepting mail or parcels for neighbours. Online shopping might be destroying the high street, but is it possible that in the back streets, home deliveries are prompting a tad more contact between neighbours?

There are disputes and they can be bitter, of course, but most of us (58%) have never had problems with any of our neighbours.

Based on the survey data, I estimate that there are around twenty million conversations every day between neighbours (19.7 million).

Untitled2Tragedy brings people together, as does celebration – such as the Great Get Together / Big Lunch two weeks ago with perhaps around 100,000 local events inspired by the life and example of Jo Cox MP.

Short of those, the most co-operative thing you can do in a street – beyond popping to the Co-op – is to say hello and introduce yourself to your neighbour.

One co-op, Chelmsford Star in Essex, which was itself started by neighbours around the London Road Iron Works, exactly 150 years ago, has produced a creative Neighbour Introduction form that you can print off and use.

Pop it through the neighbour’s door. Start a new conversation!



Introducing… the Chief Values Officer

As the field of values, ethics and compliance develops and is taken seriously by companies, I imagine that we are likely to see the emergence of a new role – the Chief Values Officer.

It is an old saying that business does not have a culture. It is a culture.

Uber are likely to discover that, after Travis Kalanick stepped down as CEO (while remaining as a Board Director). The move is good PR and good for investor relations, but a problematic culture can take a long time to shift.

Barclays Bank was a company that had a go at changing their values and culture, but couldn’t sustain it. Corporate chief executives change faster than corporate culture and values. The charges now facing the former Barclays chief, John Varley, brought by the Serious Fraud Office in the UK is just one more drip in a drip feed of allegations and investigations stretching over a decade.

Culture, and the values that shape people’s behaviour over time, is therefore an asset, or a liability, that has a lasting influence on the performance of a company.  So, who leads on values?

At the moment, it is relegated to one or another professional lead, viewed through a narrow professional lens. If the lead is given to Human Resources, you get one set of solutions, but they might not reach the supply chain or investor relations. If the lead is given to Risk and Compliance, you can operate in a systematic way, but with the mindset of risk mitigation rather than making the most of values as a driver of value in the business. If the lead is given to Corporate Responsibility, well, you are typically trying to plant flowers in the garden while the really big decisions are taken in the Boardroom.

So, could we see the emergence of a Chief Values Officer?

The idea for this was one that we had a go at writing a template job description for, at a workshop run for the Values Alliance in the UK. This is an entrepreneurial network of values professionals, behind the start of World Values Day every October. This year, the day falls on October 19th and the ask is to take the ‘values challenge’ – recognising that for so many organisations, there is a gap to fill between the values they proclaim and the values they operate with in practice.

So, with acknowledgement to fellow members of the Values Alliance for their input, here is a draft Role Profile for a Chief Values Officer…


Developing an appropriate culture and ethos

  • Formulates, reviews and refreshes the values and culture of the business
  • Curates agreement through a participatory approach, internally and with stakeholders externally, and acts as steward of a core values statement

Facilitating a culture of integrity in line with the core values

  • Integrates work on values across key business functions, including HR, Marketing, Compliance, Corporate Responsibility, Business Development, Internal Communications, Finance, Risk and Internal Audit
  • Oversees an appropriate system of assurance and reporting on key aspects of culture and values

Supporting good governance on values and culture

  • Assists the Chief Executive and Board to achieve high quality oversight and governance in relation to organisational culture and values
  • Embeds values across relevant corporate policies and accountability mechanisms for these policies across the business

Builds the capabilities for acting in line with core values

  • Shapes the programme of learning and development in the business to build understanding and competence around core values
  • Supports the effective recruitment of senior staff in line with core values.


The post holder will:

  • be self-aware, able to act in line with their own personal and with shared corporate values
  • model what it means to live up to the core values of the organisation
  • display empathetic listening and communication skills, understanding the agendas of the business, and different points of leadership in the business, and stakeholders outside of the business, in order to influence practice in a positive way
  • collaborate with other points of leadership in the business in a flexible way, without seeking to duplicate their work and activities
  • have proven skills in terms of the use of methods for individual, group and organisational development and change
  • respect the role of bodies that give voice to those engaged in the business, including trade unions
  • have the confidence to offer constructive challenge, being resilient in the face of inertia or inappropriate resistance

Is this in fact a Job Description for the Chief Executive Officer?

It is absolutely the case that accountability for values and culture belongs with the Board and CEO, on behalf of the owners of the business, but how do you organise to make a success of that accountability?

You could argue that the CEO should in fact be the Chief Values Officer, but to my mind in a larger business or organisation, they are better separate. The CEO has responsibility for envisioning the future of the business and in taking the organisation towards that, leading relationships to that end and operating with the Chair and Board to do so, while managing business as usual. Values and culture can shape that vision and that work. They are a piece of the wider jigsaw, albeit an essential and often overlooked one.

The Chief Values Officer can support everyone, including the Chief Executive and Board, to focus on values and culture in a consistent and open way over time. That is my thinking.

Comments welcome!


What makes a brilliant women’s organisation?

Doctor Jane Grant gained her doctorate in 2001 with a study on the governance of women’s organisations over time. It was something she had practice in, helping to form and then run the National Alliance of Women’s Organisations for a decade from 1984.

Last year, she published In the Steps of Exceptional Women, a biography of the Fawcett Jane GrantSociety from 1866 – 2016. A good place to buy that online, of course, is the women’s worker co-operative News from Nowhere – or the Fawcett Society’s own online bookstore.

After a conversation on governance in social movements, Jane passed me a precious hard copy of her 2001 dissertation: Governance, Continuity and Change in the Organised Women’s Movement. An original is preserved in the Women’s Library, which is now at the LSE and which she helped to champion, along with others such as Mary Stott, celebrated journalist who was the first editor of the Guardian’s women’s page and a longstanding contributor to Co-operative News. There is also a summary online, for the Centre for Institutional Studies.

Governance is as important to formal organisations in the women’s movement as anywhere elsewhere. But there are some distinctive challenges, rooted in the values that lead those involved to organise in the first place.

In the cause of empowerment, there can be power disputes. In the cause of unity, there can be internal conflicts. For those committed, often intimately so at a personal level, the challenge of governance can be an acute one.

The context can make that more acute still. As with the the rest of the voluntary sector, women’s organisations have faced cuts and challenges of funding.

Recognising what she describes as “an illiteracy with power and difficulties in adapting structures in the face of new challenges”, governance in women’s organisations was something that Jane set out to study.

She took case studies of women’s organisations, eight traditional organisations from ‘first wave’ feminism, eight from the women’s movement in the 1970s and the Fawcett Society as a bridge between the two.

The traditional organisations were all membership based. Several, such as the Women’s Institute and Mothers’ Union still are. But all have been affected in more recent times by falling membership. One of these is the Co-operative Women’s Guild, which in England and Wales closed two years ago. In 1939, as I recounted in a recent blog post, it had a membership of 87,000. Writing in 2001, Jane described how its “once vibrant local branches” had dwindled to “Wednesday clubs for older ladies with little or no campaigning content.” 

The Co-operative Women’s Guild was a success story for a long period of time. Models of membership though have to be renewed for changing circumstances – not least women’s changing circumstances, competing activities and a general decline in volunteering.

Many of the traditional organisations, such as the Soroptimists, while open and generous in their culture, were hierarchical in their organizational structures and governance. The 1970s introduced a more collective style. They began from the world as it ought to be, one in which gender hierarchies had been extinguished, rather than the world as it was.

Rape Crisis centres from the time operated on an egalitarian and inclusive basis. That could bring its own problems, and over time a more hybrid approach developed. By 2001, organisations such as the East London Black Women’s Organisation, an extraordinary institution itself that had faced periodic threats of violence, had developed models that were “basically hierarchical in structure, but women-centred, universally admired for a highly participative and supportive governance and management which seems to bring out the best in all concerned.”

Leadership has been central to the tensions of governance. “The women’s movement has had an ambivalent relationship with power and leadership” Jane explains. “In traditional organisations, these concepts were recognized as important – with models of very powerful women – but sometimes abused. In feminist organisations built on a participatory-democratic model, power and leadership were often rendered invisible… There is now a growing understanding that power exists in all organisations and can be both used or abused.”

What happens when things go wrong? Siobhan Riordan writes that “sisters are not always nice to each other; their positions and status are not always equal; and their relationships are not always supportive.” The best organisations, Jane concluded were those that created institutional solutions to conflict, lessening the chance of becoming locked into personalized disputes. An example from the Girlguiding, is a set of protocols for behaviour between staff and volunteers, welcoming difference but recognising what to do that turns to conflict.

Core to her research was to understand the factors by which organisations in social movements can endure over time. The organised women’s movement shares many of the challenges of other voluntary organisations, such as funding, structures and accountability, but experiences some challenges in a distinctive and acute way, especially those, Jane concludes, “around structure, power, leadership, income and conflict.”

Adapting, and simplifying what she says, for the purpose of a blog post, these are the eight criteria that emerge for measuring the success and effectiveness of a women’s organisation and its governance over time:

  1. Does it have a purpose which women see as relevant and important?
  2. Does it make a difference in the real world?
  3. Does it have a diverse and involved membership?
  4. Is it well-governed, able to deal with conflict?
  5. Is it able to evolve and adapt with the times?
  6. Is it accountable?
  7. Does it encourage partnership?
  8. Does it have the financial health to plan ahead?

What makes a brilliant women’s organisation is putting these into practice. As Monique Leroux, President of the International Co-operative Alliance, says “wishing for diversity simply will not do the trick, any more than wishing for nice weather. It takes strong measures and firm commitment.”

Happy Co-operatives Fortnight… #coopstories

It is Co-operatives Fortnight, from today until Saturday July 1st.

On that day, we hold our Co-operative Congress and it is the United Nations International Day of Co-operatives, linking people across the world.

The Fortnight is a time for celebrating the people in co-operatives and the stories of how they came together and are working together.

And if you are on Twitter or Instagram, by the way, then you are more than welcome to post your own comments -under the hashtag of #coopstories

It is time to co-operate…

Happy Co-operatives Fortnight!