Mutuals are ageing well

The UK is an ageing society and with that comes a growing recognition of the needs and aspirations of older people.

There are more people over the age of forty five than under, more people over sixty five than under sixteen. That means changes to the way that business operates, says Mark Beasely, from the Mature Marketing Association, who presented to cooperative retailers in the UK last month. 

The concept of age, he reports, is almost entirely associated with negative attributes in marketing and yet that is not a good reflection of how it feels to be older. Ninety five percent of marketing, he reports, is focused on people under fifty. 

But that doesn’t mean it makes sense to talk to older people as older people. Age is not how people want to be defined.

The social economy sector has some outstanding examples of people working to redefine age – such as Change Agents – including in sectors such as health and social care, where services based on co-operation and mutuality rather than financial return make all the difference. One of the best exemplars I have seen of action is what building societies are quietly doing to meet the financial service needs of older people.

“Already one in four people borrowing beyond the age of 65 is a first time buyer” says Dick Jenkins, Chair of the Building Societies Association. “The assertion that the over 40s can’t get a mortgage following the changes to mortgage regulation is overstated, but there are challenges.”

Building societies are therefore stepping back from simple age policies, beyond which you can’t borrow. They are working with insurers to help older people get cover for the mortgage risks they face. They are making sure that older customers have good information and advice in terms of their consumer rights.

The Vernon Building Society for example has lent to a married couple, both aged 70, who were renting in Poole, having moved back to the country from Spain. They had some capital and the Vernon lent them £80,000 on an interest-only basis, paid from their pensions (at a lower costs than their rental outgoings) and repayable from the sale of the property on death or if they move into alternative accommodation. They pay a discounted rate for registering a Lasting Power of Attorney to mitigate against the risk of not being able to deal with their affairs. It meant an end to our sleepless nights, the couple remarked.

Another approach is ‘right sizing’ where people move to a smaller house. Although 32% of older people have considered this in recent years, only 7% have done it, according to Legal and General. Having a trusted product designed for their need from a building society could help make a difference – even if we also as a society need to build more homes designed to be suitable for older people.

The origins of the term ‘mortgage’ is of course the grip of death (the words death and debt being similarly intertwined). Because it is a long-term product, building societies like the Vernon are taking on the stigmas of old age – while keeping an astute commercial eye for a growing market. Death may come to all, but as a society and economy, we should do better for all the years of life before it. 

Think of ageing? Think of life and not death.


John McDonnell, David Cameron and the growth of the UK co-operative economy

It is great news today that the Shadow Chancellor, John McDonnell, commits that the Labour Party will aim to double to the size of the UK co-operative sector if in power, as a way to boost the economy.

Drawing on figures from our co-operative economy report, he compares the size of the UK co-operative sector to counterparts in Europe, saying “We should be more ambitious about what can be achieved here. We want to see resilient, high-productivity businesses in an economy that is fairer for everyone. The next Labour government will look to at least double the size of the co-operative economy. That’s a £40 billion boost to the economy.”

His suggests mechanisms for supporting the growth of the co-operative sector chime with a number of our policy proposals, including legislation for ‘mutual guarantee societies’ which will enable small businesses to pool resources in order to access much-needed finance and support for self-employed workers to form co-operatives, both of which are recommendations from our latest report on freelancer co-ops that picked up significant media coverage.

I will blog soon on mutual guarantee societies to say more of our work on this innovation for enterprise finance.
The Shadow Chancellor also cites the limited resources allocated to co-operatives in central government, which points to our case for consolidating responsibility for co-ops in the department for business. And he commits to reversing the cuts in support for community energy ventures.

This is the most far-sighted speech from a front rank UK politician since January 2012, the start of the United Nations International Year of Co-operatives – and the speaker in question then was… David Cameron.

Designing in gender equality

Howard Roizen is a successful entrepreneur, confident and accomplished. When his story is studied in Business Schools, students that are given him to assess rate him highly. But the truth is that he doesn’t exist. ‘He’ is Heidi, a real life case study written up by Kathleen McGinn of Harvard Business School. When students are given her story, identical in every other respect, what they perceive is a degree of arrogance and self-promotion.

The reason, explains economist Iris Bohnet in her book, What Works: gender equality by design, is unconscious bias. The stereotype for Heidi is closer to the traditional fables of women and it is this stereotype that frames people’s response. The same unconscious bias can hold back and exclude men from caring roles, she adds.

 US companies spend $8 billion every year on diversity training, she estimates, and yet little if any of this is proven to change attitudes or outcomes. What is needed instead are tools and techniques to remove bias in a systematic way.

Iris is a lecturer at the Kennedy School in Harvard, and I have had the privilege of being taught by her on two short courses over recent years. In her book, eagerly awaited, she opens with a wonderful example of how to de-bias decisions:

“As late as 1970, only 5% of musicians performing in the top five orchestras in the United States were women. Today, women compose more than 35% of the most acclaimed orchestras, and they play great music. This did not happen by chance. Rather, it required the introduction of blind auditions. The Boston Symphony Orchestra was the first to ask musicians to audition behind a screen, and in the 1970s and 1980s most other major orchestras followed suit. When they did so, usually in preliminary rounds, it raised the likelihood that a female musician would advance by 50% and substantially increased the proportion of women hired.”

It is not enough to believe in equality. In our unconscious, we inevitably draw on stereotypes, shortcuts, that we have drawn from the culture and tradition around us. Changing those is possible over time, where there are new role models and new rules set, but in the meantime, to act on equality – for gender, race or other difference – means finding intelligent ways to bypass our unconscious bias.

Self-employed? Join a co-op.

The new tax year is starting and will see record numbers of people over the next twelve months filing returns as self‑employed workers.

Our new report, Not Alone by Alex Bird, Pat Conaty and Philip Ross tracks current levels of self-employment and the ways in which co-ops can help freelancers meet shared needs.

4.6 million people are now self-employed – the highest numbers in the UK since record began – and the numbers are likely to rise further, not least because it is an option that appeals to many people. One in four people (27%) of employees in medium-sized firms in research for the report say they would rather be self-employed.

In response, freelancers are starting to club together to form co-ops where they are better placed acting together rather than operating alone.

An example is RICOL. The service for interpreters in London was shaken up when the Government in 2011 moved from a national register of public service interpreters to a contract for all of England and Wales from a single provider, won by Applied Language Solutions, owned by Capita. To deliver on the contract, the firm then offered court interpreters work at what was in effect between 25% and 40% of the established rate.

There was a mass refusal to sign up and a protest group was launched, Interpreters for Justice. Many new interpreters hired by ALS were poorly qualified. Severe delays and chaos in the courts were widely reported in the press.

With help from Co-operatives UK, RICOL was established in November 2012 as a London-based interpreters and translators co-operative. They are now generating new work and contracts with law firms, commercial companies, human rights organisations and media companies.

It is early days for co-ops like these in the UK, but there are inspiring examples from overseas to learn from, such as the Self Employed Women’s Association in India, a trade union and co-operative network giving voice and opportunity to 1.7 million members.

Self-employment means that you take on the risks and the opportunities that the economy affords you. By coming together in co-ops, freelancers can share the risks and pool the opportunities.

You are on your own, but not alone.


School children benefit when parents have a voice in their schools

The Education White Paper launched this week has its strong points, but being pro-parent is not one of them. Alongside the headline policy objective of moving all schools to become academies, whether parents approve or not, it announces the Government’s intention to remove the obligation to include parents on the boards of schools.

The best boards, whether in business or in public services, have an outstanding mix of skills and expertise. If you get the governance right, you are improving not just performance, but also the sustainability of the organisation over time. But that doesn’t mean that accounting, finance and HR are the only skills that a board can benefit from. From my work across the co-operative sector, including over eight hundred co-operative schools, I know that being a parent can be a form of expertise, to be used alongside the other skills that board governors can draw on as a team.

Public services have rarely celebrated the role of the user. Years ago, Anthony Crosland declared himself staggered after local visits by the extent to which statutory services depend on the volunteer. Today, this includes, in England:

  • 170,000 volunteers who work in the NHS, befriending and counselling patients, driving people to hospital, fund raising, running shops and cafes…
  • 12 million meals a year that are prepared by volunteers to people in care
  • 85 million people who are regular blood donors, with 8.2 million signed up as potential organ donors
  • 750,000 people who volunteer in schools
  • Around 145,000 tenants and residents who are involved in user groups in social housing
  • Over two million people who are members of NHS Foundation Trusts.

In the health service, patient involvement began in 1974 with the establishment of community health councils. In education, during the 1970s most schools began to encourage parent governors. By 1979, 90% of schools had parents on the board, and it was due to parental pressure that in 1980 that they gained the statutory right to be represented.

Having a parental view at the Board can bring the school closer to parents, who are after all the key partners in their children’s learning. The new White Paper does recognise this, and calls for improved engagement by schools with parents, but it misses the way in which having parents involved in school decision-making and not just at the school gates, makes this easier to do. With the move to multi-academy chains, there is a risk that the only accountability that pupils and parents will be able to call on is an uncertain and faceless performance and inspection regime.

One school in West Sussex sent out attendance letters to parents. When some parent read letters that said that, their children had only an 85% attendance record, they thought there was something to celebrate. After all, what did the percentage mean? They compared it to exam results, in which case 85% was excellent. At a suggestion from a parent governor, the head teacher changed the letters, to colour code them, as red, amber and green. In talking to parents, she explained that 85% was almost one whole year of education in five missed. The conversations with parents changed overnight, to how they could move their children from red to amber, or amber to green.

The co-operative schools sector is, in the main, an exemplar for this kind of partnership approach. Today over 250,000 young people attend co-operative schools in England, primarily as trust schools but a few as co-operative academies, such as my local school, Corelli Academy.

What is a co-operative school? There are two key features. The first is that the co-operative values of democracy, equity and fairness are applied as an ethos across the school. The second is a governance model that directly engages key stakeholders through membership of the trust, where it is a trust school. This model provides a formal way to include not just parents and carers, but also staff, the local community and the pupils themselves. Together they form a community-based mutual organisation.

The growth of co-operative schools reflects a growing attitude that expect public services, not least in the context of financial pressures and changes to service delivery, to work with them, rather than just for them – a real partnership.

co-operative_economy_2014-page-019_483x640_0When you ask people, what marks out the best public services – what is the public service ‘X Factor’ that differentiates them – then people speak about empathy, compassion, warmth, the human touch, respect and focusing help on people who need it most: “If I go into a school, I want to feel as if I have been listened to.”

But there are urban myths that have always gone hand in hand with parents as school governors, some of them kept alive by the part of the educational establishment that sees parents as a problem in schools rather than a partner. These are that:

Myth 1: Parents will demand everything. But there is good research that that this is simply not true. If anything, some may not demand enough, both because of respect for the profession of teaching but also because of a professionalized discourse that at times takes the focus away from children and their learning.

Myth 2: Parents are not interested. Wrong. They are not apathetic. They care about their children and their peers, but they may not care for the way for the questions and language that professionals tend to use. Research across public services suggest that seven out of ten people express a view at some stage, but don’t then feel they are listened to or engaged by the process.

Myth 3: Parents will look out for their own private interest, not the public interest. Again, wrong. They will speak for each other, not just for themselves. And when they speak from experience, that experience is often shared.

It seems to me that this government is in a complete muddle when it comes to consumer affairs. It wants to believe that competition and business will give consumers a voice – so much so, that it will remove the voice of parents at board level in education to help pave the way to a more commercial market. Where that has patently failed, such as in energy, it falls back on regulation and market investigations. Where that in turn has patently failed, such as in football, it has encouraged a move to direct representation of fans on boards. Sports Minister David Evennett said recently that “the FA is embarking on a review of its governance, and we hope genuine progress will be made, including on giving supporters greater representation on its decision-making boards.”

Whatever the future for education policy, surely parents need to be more involved in education not less. In other countries, such as Sweden, Spain and Canada, pre-school education and childcare is delivered by successful parent and employee-led co-ops. In the UK, regulations get in the way of having parent-led children centres. Rather than step back at board level and hope to push forward elsewhere, it should be time to widen parental involvement at all levels.

The National Governors Association has collected evidence on the case for parent governors. A wider campaign petition has started to oppose the forced transfer of schools in England to academies. The Co-operative College and Schools Co-operative Society are supporting co-operative schools in the context of change.

Having school parents on boards was an innovation introduced by Margaret Thatcher in 1980. She took school milk away. But she supported school parents as governors, because they bring schools closer to those they are there to serve. I think she would still support them today.


Forgery and the future: the story of Hans Van Megeeren



Talking to the annual conference of the Workers Education Association in Sheffield today, on the theme of ‘A Sustainable Future’, I point to the story of the forger, Van Meegeren.

Hans Van Meegeren was an artist who had been rejected in the 1920s by the art establishment, as too derivative. So, he set out to prove that great art could indeed be copied.

Over the 1930s, he painted a series of pictures in the style of Frans Hals, Pieter de Hooch and Johannes Vermeer.

His most successful forgery was Supper at Emmaus, created in 1937 while living in the south of France.

This was hailed as a real Vermeer by famous art experts. Abraham Bredius acclaimed it as “the masterpiece of Johannes Vermeer of Delft” and wrote of the “wonderful moment” of coming up against an unknown painting by a great master.

Through a Nazi art dealer, Meegeren sold one, Christ with the Adultress, to the up and coming German politician, Hermann Göring.

When Goring was informed that his “Vermeer” was actually a forgery, Goring looked, according to one contemporary, “as if for the first time he had discovered there was evil in the world”.

And all this didn’t last long. After the war, accused of selling national treasures to the Nazis, Van Meegeren confessed to producing the forgeries.

What is remarkable now is that you look at his Vermeers, they look like 1930s pastiches.

This is the Supper at Emmaus.


For art critics in recent decades, that is as 1930s as Agatha Christie and Eltham Palace. And the Depression.

It is not the 1660s.

But in the 1930s, you can’t see it. You can’t escape your time so easily, even if you can’t see how it shapes everything you see.

Like looking through the bottom of a glass, our assumptions make some things larger and clearer, but others hazy and obscure.

To imagine the future, we first have to explore how to let go of the present.


The business case for values


                                                                                                                                  Photo by Pontus Edenberg

Business is the art of bringing different people together to create commercial and wider value out of their interaction. Do values help that?

There is plenty of evidence that businesses with strong sets of values perform better than those without. Research on around seven hundred firms, using five years of data compiled by the Great Place to Work initiative, suggests that while there is no performance link with firms that have simply published a set of values, there is a strong positive link with those firms whose values are seen within the company to be prominent.

Interestingly, the same research concludes that going public reduces the extent to which companies can focus on “integrity as short-term decisions can carry undue weight. Privately-owned companies (including venture capital-backed organisations) tend to have higher levels of integrity than publicly-quoted companies.”

What the research can’t prove, though, is whether this is correlation or causation. Is it the case that the best performing firms are so well organized that, as an illustration of their high performance, they have strong, embedded values? Or is it the case that those values help to reinforce and even drive that high performance?

A different way to approach the case for investing in values is the extent to which they can drive positive norms and behaviours, such as loyalty or ideas for innovation, in customers, suppliers or employees. The extraordinary success of open source or free software, the importance of volunteering in the third sector, the power and reach of faith communities, are examples of institutional activity that are dependent on the free and willing collaboration of people on the basis of sufficient overlap of values and purpose.

As a nation, the UK has strong and positive values, even if that is not the story that we tell ourselves. There is a great new survey of values across the UK put together by the Common Cause Foundation, which suggests that 74% of people (higher for women, higher for men and women in Wales and Northern Ireland, lower in London) tend to put values of compassion above values of self-interest. But when it comes to their perception of other people and the values they hold, the reverse holds true – others are seen, unfairly perhaps, as putting self-interest higher than compassion.

Private integrity, public suspicion.


Adjusted compassionate values scores                                                                                                 Source: Common Cause Foundation, Perceptions Matter, 2016


In commercial business, where participation is subject to contract and compensation, there are times when that same voluntarism is critical to the enterprise. An example is staff retention. For larger firms, staff recruitment is one of the clearest cost variables – and if strong values can mitigate high levels of staff turnover, the financial gains are significant.

One report in 2014 from Oxford Economics puts the total cost of replacing a member of staff at £30,000.  It is less in retail, at around £20,000.  Mostly these are hidden costs through looking at lost productivity. But even just stripping down their numbers just looking at advertising, backfill, interviewing and administration, they show more than £5,000 on average.

In the retail sector, labour turnover is estimated to be at the extraordinary level of 40% staff turnover per year. This is average, where best practice will be much lower. The John Lewis Partnership, employee owned and co-operative, has cited much lower rates, of 3.0% average in 2014. Even so, this is across the group, and in the food sector, for Waitrose, it is reasonable to assume that it is still a lot higher than this.

There are many commentators predicting that labour turnover is now set to increase, if unemployment continues to fall. So, for UK consumer retail co-operatives, even if they already have a lower staff turnover rate, if investing in values led to greater staff retention, then for every one per cent turnover reduced, the businesses would benefit to the tune of £21 million. £14 million of that would be for The Co-op Group.

A reasonable target over time for the co-operative retail sector would be to realize £100 million worth of gains on an annual basis, through reduced staff turnover. This is not just about values, but it is about the culture change that values and expectations of fair dealing are a critical dimension of, seeing employment in a co-operative as a psychological contract – as Professor Denise Rousseau of Carnegie Mellon University in the USA puts it – based on reciprocity, as much it is also a legal one.

The effect of values on business performance is explored in the academic research around employee ownership. Research by the Cass Business School shows that giving employees an ownership stake in the business significantly boosts their productivity. The real benefits come not from the simple fact of ownership but from having a culture of ownership.

In a recent research report, Professor Virginie Perotin draws on a range of international econometric studies to conclude that businesses create more sustainable employment where they are structured as worker co-operatives, in which the key feature is active employee control of, and involvement in, the life of the firm rather than philanthropic ownership in the name of employees. A study of family owned firms, by Henssen et al, argues likewise for an approach to ownership that includes its psychological dimension – the feeling of ownership – as crucial for understanding family business in addition to formal, legal ownership structures.

The effect of values in binding people in to a venture holds for customers too. Sue Pryor is a member and co-owner of The Bell Inn, an iconic music venue and pub in Bath that locals and musicians raised £750,000 to buy and save. Sue says that “when people come into the pub there’s a lot of pride that they’ve bought into something very special and part own it.”

It is the emotional benefits of ownership, with the values of being engaged, working together, taking responsibility, that explain why it is also a powerful driver for psychological well-being.

So there is a business case for values, but what happens if being unethical is even better for sales?

A survey in 2012 of 500 financial services professionals in the US and the UK suggested that one in four believe that, in order to succeed, financial services professionals may need to engage in unethical or illegal conduct.

A similar number reported that they have first-hand knowledge of wrongdoing in their workplace. To be ethical in a market that is systemically unethical is a point of differentiation, but may also be a straight commercial risk. The business graveyard has enough examples of businesses where the values didn’t change but the competitive position did.

Does that mean that the business case fails? No. That is to accept far too narrow a view of what business is and can be.

The true business case for fairness, and the best approach to making a success of it, is not to make it about financial costs and benefits. Fairness is more than a means to an end. From the extension of legislative rights around equalities to the growing interest in the space for faith in business, there is always a larger story than money.

At root, the business case for values, such as fairness or sustainability, is for the sake of fairness or sustainability.