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Phone Co-op members demand clear limits to risk 6 February 2018

Posted by cooperatoby in cooperative, Social enterprise.
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I am now eagerly awaiting the decision of the Phone Co-op board following the decisions of the AGM last Saturday in Sheffield. The meeting, which was attended by 153 people – about 15 of whom were not members – voted overwhelmingly to support two motions critical of the co-op’s new growth strategy and asking for greater transparency and care with the members’ investment.

Overall the experience of the AGM was very pleasant: a convenient venue right opposite Sheffield station, a copious lunch served in an airy atrium, and a lecture theatre fitted with electronic voting equipment.

Even better were the two guest presentations: the first from Jean-Paul Flintoff introducing the 1 Million Conversations campaign. “A transformative conversation may only take five minutes,” he said, brandishing a mug designed to stimulate exactly such talk. I was disappointed not to pick up one of those mugs myself – I’m sure they’ll become collectors’ items. The second presentation was by Vivian Woodell (ex-CEO) and Dame Glenys Thornton on the plans of the newly-established Phone Co-op Foundation.

The meat of the meeting was however more serious, and concerned the whole culture and strategy of the co-operative.

Part of the solution to inequality?

I moved the first motion, which noted the apparent doubling of pay differentials to a ratio of 10 to 1. I alluded to my previous jobs where pay was much more equal – above all at Suma, which now has 162 workers and has practised equal pay for upwards of 40 years. I mentioned Wilkinson and Pickett’s 2009 book The Spirit Level, which correlates income inequality with a host of social ills from obesity to imprisonment. I said how much I admired the Phone Co-op’s balanced model of development, the way it cares for members, employees and the environment, and the impressive contribution it makes to the co-operative movement. “It is indeed the inspiring ‘better model for business and the economy’ that it claims to be,” I said. I called on the board to continue their commitment to honest and open communication about recruitment – and only 2 members disagreed with that, while 89 supported the motion.

The second motion was moved by Simon Blackley, who chaired the co-op for the first nine years of its life. The motion queried the ‘dash for growth’ strategy that had been briefly set out in the annual report. While welcoming growth, he felt that the upside of the plan was unrealistically ambitious, while the downside was downplayed. That downside has already absorbed a quarter of the co-op’s reserves of ₤1m, and risks eating into the member’s share capital of ₤7m. Seeing as this capital is withdrawable, retaining the members’ trust in the liquidity of the co-op is paramount.

A credible plan?

Interim CEO Peter Murley had already given much greater detail on the new growth strategy he has masterminded since his appointment in the middle of last year. His starting point is that the co-op is “A telecoms business with a co-operative USP, not a co-operative with a telecoms USP”. He believes that the co-op has underinvested in systems as well as in people, and that it must achieve critical mass or wither on the vine. This means achieving a sixfold increase in customers and targeting the business market, which is growing four times faster than sales to individuals. This turnround requires the co-op to sustain losses of ₤2.3m before reaping the reward of much higher profits.

All business plans follow this curve, so the question is whether it is a credible projection – and whether it is fair to risk the members’ investments without a more inclusive debate. In the 3 hours at our disposal, and even by overrunning for ¾ of an hour, debate had to be curtailed. But at the vote, 79 members supported the motion, with 12 against. Some members had had to leave by then, and at least one, attending by internet, reports that he could not vote.

These two reverses leave the board, and the new permanent CEO Nick Thompson, who takes up his post on 19th February, with a tough nut to crack. One solution proposed was that the coop could issue a separate class of shares to fund this investment. Then members would be clear about the risk they are sharing. I for one would buy some.

Video of the AGM: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tOw0qFOk3d0 (I am on at 2:44:40)

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Community wealth building through anchor institutions 3 October 2017

Posted by cooperatoby in cooperative, social economy, Social enterprise.
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A report to the British Labour Party analyses the characteristics of different forms of ownership of businesses – co-operative, employee-owned, local, municipal and national. It proposes the creation of ‘Anchor Institutions’ to promote local economic development.

Download Alternative Models of Ownership at: http://www.labour.org.uk/page/-/PDFs/9472_Alternative%20Models%20of%20Ownership%20all_v4.pdf

Further information:
A description of the work on community wealth building developed in Preston in north-West England, as part of the URBACT ‘Procure’ partnership:

Community Wealth Building through Anchor Institutions, Centre for Local Economic Strategies (CLES) can be downloaded at: https://cles.org.uk/our-work/publications/community-wealth-building-through-anchor-institutions/

David Bowie as a tool of social innovation 29 September 2016

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The Social Innovation Community (SIC) launched itself with élan this week. At 9:30 on Monday morning I was surprised to find myself singing along to Bowie and Bon Jovi under the guidance of Sanderson Jones, founder of the Sunday Assemblies. Sanderson turned his experience as a stand-up comedian to good account as he told us the story of how the (so far) 70 Sunday Assemblies – a sort of secular replacement for church congregations – are rebuilding communities and combating mental illness: Congregation – spirituality + science (mindfulness) + pop songs = Sunday Assemblies!

It was cheering to see the Britons who were there being so keen on European collaboration. It was inspiring to hear Fabrizio Sestini from DG CONNECT say that innovation is inherently social, and that economic innovation should be seen as a subset of social innovation: “Whenever there is a social change, eventually someone will make money from it. But that’s not the point.” I met lots of new people, and wrote all over tables covered with white paper. The two main ideas I put forward were that the 8 SIC networks (public sector, corporate social innovation, collaborative economy, social economy etc.) should formulate demands which the work packages (research, education, experimentation etc.) can then satisfy. Secondly, one key set of stakeholders that should be more involved is the funders of social innovation such as ESF Managing Authorities and foundations. But it’s still early days.

I noted two very disparate underlying models of what social innovation is: on the one hand an essentially political movement that has to challenge the financial system – and on the other hand the less disruptive idea that digital media can empower people to solve their own problems (‘tech push’). Social innovation is a broad church. In between, there is a lot of serious work to be done to measure what welfare benefits result and what return on investment social innovations produce.

It was interesting that in our final exercise, when we considered what governance model SIC should aim for, out of the three choices offered – organisation, collaboration and market – a surprisingly large number stayed on the ‘organisation’ table, rather than migrating, as the facilitator expected, to the ‘collaboration’ table. So there seems to be a long-term confidence in the value of what we are doing, and a will to establish SIC as a permanent entity.

Money not laws 23 June 2016

Posted by cooperatoby in EU, social economy.
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160623 EP SE report coverThe European Parliament has published a report on the social economy. I’m glad to see it features a lot of good practices we identified in SEN, like the UK’s Social Value Act and the Le Mat social franchise, although the authors seem never to have visited the SEN website.

The study packs a lot into its 120 pages. It has 6 big-country studies (DE, ES, FR, IT, PL, UK), boxes on EQUAL, DIESIS and Mondragón, and makes some interesting proposals on taking the social economy forward:
– a digital transformation – on the grounds that “The digital single market can help protect Europe’s economic and social model and increase citizens’ well-being, by being a key component of the renewal of public services”;
– indicators of added value other than GDP
and…
– a clear definition.

So it comes up with another new definition:
“Distinctive features of the social economy can be identified – par ricochet – on the basis of what sets them apart from other enterprises. These elements include:
(i) the primacy of people: the social economy is based on the primacy of the individual and of social objectives over capital,
(ii) sustainable growth: the overall aim of the social economy activities does not emphasise the pursuit of profit and its distribution to the owners as an ultimate goal,
(iii) social and economic balance: in conducting their activities, social economy actors are engaged in a social aim and
(iv) democratic governance: social economy entities function in accordance with democratic, transparent and participatory decision-making processes.”

I think the social economy could improve service delivery by using digital tools more, and that the EU agenda should give an explicit place to them. Measures of social value are definitely needed, and the SBI as well as SEN worked on this. The main issue is for stakeholders such as public authority customers to start using them.

It’s difficult to disagree with the four ‘distinguishing features’ above, but I’m not sure they are any clearer than all the definitions we’ve navigated between so far. I fear that the again repeated call for a supposedly clear EU-wide definition misses the point. Will it enable very much to actually happen? It’s much more to the point to improve access to public funding programmes such as the ESIFs and to private investment in projects on the ground, and to help the sector’s federal support bodies to do their job. As in: “Existing social innovation and social investment programmes tend to reflect a focus on investor-led models and could be opened up to innovation based on member capital and on participatory innovation.”

See: http://www.europarl.europa.eu/RegData/etudes/STUD/2016/578969/IPOL_STU(2016)578969_EN.pdf

Bremain 18 June 2016

Posted by cooperatoby in EU, Uncategorized.
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Of course I’ve become infuriated and dismayed by the referendum campaign, and doubt that even Jo Cox’s incomprehensible murder will bring campaigners to their senses.
Of course also I’m something of a Brussels insider – but this is a rational choice, by a political refugee from Thatcher, you might say.
I’ve been dismayed by one of my oldest friends teetering on the brink of voting ‘out’ because he sees the EU as undemocratic (people who live in glass houses…) or – an argument even harder to counter – not up to the job of world unification (but it’s the best approach we have). I’ve been annoyed by facetious French calls that Britain should just go away and leave Europe alone (playing with fire). And I’m intrigued to wonder how much the referendum result will matter: whichever way it goes the Tory party will be riven down the middle so the sniping will go on. I’ve been given pause for thought by being called a ‘transnationalist’ in the ESF community, as if transnationality was something odd, rather than being the raison d’être of it all.
Multi-level governance and subsidiarity are complex arguments to make. It seems to me that the popular sentiment against ‘Europe’ is a matter of displacement, a sleight of hand by the UK’s own politicians. The government has hollowed out democratic accountability, stripped local government of its relevance though centralisation and privatisation, so that people have lost their sense of agency. The country they “want back” has been stolen from them not by Brussels but by Westminster.

Mission-led business – building another half-way house 13 June 2016

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The British government is trying to consolidate a newly-defined sector of what it defines rather broadly as the ‘social economy’.

It has coined the term ‘mission-led business’ (MLBs) to fit between social enterprise and corporate social responsibility. The definition is stronger than the latter in that it ‘identifies an intention to have a positive social impact as a central purpose of its business; makes a long-term or binding commitment to deliver on that intention through its business and operations; and reports on its social impact to its stakeholders’ – but weaker than the former because it ‘can fully distribute its profits’.

Rob Wilson, the UK’s Minister for Civil Society, has published a call for evidence on MLBs, saying: “I want every UK entrepreneur to be able to easily establish a business that makes a good profit while at the same time making a commitment to social impact. And I want everyone – consumers, governments and companies – to integrate mission-led businesses into their buying and investing habits.”

This initiative thus seeks to give an identity to businesses which want to a have a positive social impact – and who doesn’t? – but whose investors are unwilling to share any profit or power with other stakeholders. The definition is silent not only about ownership and participation, but also about the distribution of profits or assets. It relies solely on good intentions and social reporting.

The evidence will be considered by an advisory panel led by Nigel Wilson, CEO of Legal & General, but which has no representation from co-operatives, social enterprises or charities.

To comment, before 8 July 2016, go to: https://www.gov.uk/government/consultations/mission-led-business-review-call-for-evidence See the Pioneer Post report at: https://www.pioneerspost.com/news-views/20160512/global-social-innovation-round-34

See Senscot post – thanks Alison Lamond in Facebook Worker co-operatives group.

A slight change of tack? 14 April 2016

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It’s good news that Elżbieta Bieńkowska, the hitherto elusive Commissioner in charge of social enterprises (her portfolio comprises the internal market, industry, entrepreneurship and SMEs), has finally found the time to meet members of the European Parliament’s Social Economy Intergroup, as Social Economy Europe reports.

Sadly, one thing the Commissioner did not do is announce that the Commission is planning to launch a “Social Business Initiative II”, though this has been hinted at by officials. But she did at least signal her desire to avoid any potential rift between the two main tendencies in the social enterprise sector – those that institutionalise participation and democracy in their legal structures, and those that don’t. So the drift in terminology from “social business” to “social enterprise” continues and the buzzword is now “social economy enterprise”: “The Commissioner agreed on the necessity to share -within the different EU institutions- a common and inclusive understanding of the social economy. In this way, she stressed that the term “social economy enterprises”, seems to be the consensual one and therefore it should be used by the different institutions whilst developing its policies.”

Hopefully this hatchet-burying means that the Commission and the sector can concentrate on increasing the number, scale and impact of social economy enterprises. Their potential contribution is recognised. It would be a wasted opportunity if the Commission did not focus efforts on maximising it.

Found in translation 8 April 2016

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Every Christmas my cousins ask me what it is I actually do in Brussels and every year they claim they still don’t understand. Waiting to board a plane for Manchester at Charleroi on Tuesday to go to Keith Richardson‘s funeral, I piloted the following non-technocratic response: “We help European governments to improve their employment, inclusion and training policies by learning from each other” – and it worked brilliantly. The young woman who’d asked said she’d started to turn off when she heard the word ‘government’ but it sounded really interesting. I’m glad to say: it is.

It reminds me of the dictum attributed to Einstein that if you can’t explain something to your grandma then you don’t understand it. Here’s the more technical version.

Social innovation is more than start-up support 8 March 2016

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The BENISI project aimed to identify 300 social innovations and help them to scale up. But faced with the enormity of this task it seems to have fallen back on promoting start-ups, without assessing whether they are either social or innovative.

I’ve just come back from the BENISI final conference and I have to say I am disappointed. I encountered at least two circular arguments, and ended up quite unsure whether the project was promoting social innovation, social enterprises or just start-ups.

A circular notion of growth

Firstly, the presentation of the project’s outcomes was couched in purely economic terms. It measured whether a business had scaled up by whether its revenue hadP1000111 BENISI grown – and then reported that one of the requirements for growth was financial investment. An unsurprising deduction. Even less surprising is that innovations that generate revenue are easier to scale. The only social outcome reported was employment growth, which is a by-product of revenue growth rather than a social outcome in itself. Social impact can grow even without revenue growth – for instance if a better method of delivering social services was replicated. If it was more efficient, revenue might even fall. In fact many ‘social innovations’ rely on using IT to cut the cost of service provision, and along with it cut the jobs they provide.

A circular notion of impact

Then there was the workshop on impact measurement, in which I was astounded to be told that the three factors making for impact are the values of its workers, the corporate culture and the management methods. That’s all very well, but these are not indicators of impact. They are drivers of impact, or as another participant contributed, indicators of a capacity to achieve impact. Impact is what happens in the outside world, and is about improved quality of life for the enterprise’s intended beneficiaries. Intention should not be confused with success.
Regrettably values, culture and management are not enough – witness how many social enterprises run by the best-intentioned value-led people you could possibly imagine nevertheless go bust and fail to achieve any impact.

Where’s the evidence?

Maybe BENISI could not have been expected to prove scaling in a 3-year timeframe. Maybe the project has served its purpose in making social innovation visible to a larger number of people – reportedly 14,000 have been reached.
But there is deep confusion over what the object of the exercise was. The discourse was about social enterprise, but no one is measuring these enterprises’ social impact – or at least the summary report did not attempt to make any sense of what social impacts the 300 projects did report. Surely one must at least one of them must have got some clients into jobs, or taken x tons of poisonous heavy metals out the waste stream, or housed some poor people, or cut its energy consumption, or even just got some letters of appreciation from its clients?
Unless an enterprise has a notion of what it is trying to change, and measures and reports on whether it is achieving that, then it is not a social enterprise. Having an explicit social goal is one of the principles of social enterprise the European Commission set out in the Social Business Initiative.
Social enterprises reportedly measure impact mostly as an internal management tool (“you can’t manage what you can’t measure”), but it’s also useful in building customer loyalty and essential in getting impact investors on board. Also see EVPA guide.
Public funders like the ESF are also keen to fund social innovation – but taxpayers’ money has to been seen to be benefitting somebody. Otherwise the fascination will fade.

Social what?

It seems to me that the Impact Hubs are hard at work promoting start-ups, and that many of these will be innovative in some way, but that doesn’t make it social innovation and it doesn’t make the start-ups social enterprises.
I also missed any explanation of what the different methods for scaling are – are they social franchising or organic growth or new products or new markets or acquisition or what? And then I’d like to have known which of them were tried, and which worked best in the sample of 300 enterprises. I was left wondering whether scaling is any different from good old growth. Maybe it is just that ‘growth’ is a taboo word which is too reminiscent of capitalist economics.
I left when a speaker pronounced that it was a problem that no social enterprise had yet done an IPO. That’s a key feature of a social enterprise – it can’t be floated on the stock market as a financial investment!
So that’s the trouble: social innovation is everything to everybody, and the name of social enterprise is being taken in vain.
To protect the guilty, this report is made under Chatham House rules.

Horizontigo 27 February 2016

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CIMG9333 Horizontigo. Twiske mill in the distanceI thought I’d coined a new word to describe that feeling of disorientation I still get when faced with an entirely unrelievedly flat landscape – horizontigo. It still gets to me even after 2 decades of constantly travelling through it in Flanders and Holland; I long for a rolling Chiltern hill or a Yorkshire moor.
So I was disappointed to find the Urban Dictionary has got there first, defining it as the feeling you are going backwards when the vehicle next to you starts up. I think the Germans have a great train-related word for that, but I can’t find it.

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