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Losing the language of Co-operation?

Are we in danger of losing the language of Co-operation?

To bring about the transformation of ‘Social Services’ policy and legislation, the language we use, and the definition of concepts to empower require particular attention.

We observed in conversations and responses to the recent draft Social Services (Wales) Bill 2012 consultation, a lack of familiarity with the meaning of different service models.

A variety of models offer to achieve the reform of the social care system and are claimed to achieve ‘co-production’. However, their governance arrangements require particular scrutiny if they are to deliver improved quality services.

We must therefore be wary of using terms such as ‘co-operatives’, ‘mutuals’ and  ‘social enterprises’. They are not interchangeable concepts as we explained in our response to the above consultation. Without precise definition words can easily become all things to all people and just another slogan.

Historically, co-operatives have at least three roots – consumer, producer and worker co-operatives. Now, we can add Credit Unions and significantly the multi stakeholder co-operative model. There may be others?

The consumer model is a familiar presence on the High Street in retail societies, The Co-operative Group being a national example with an annual turnover of £14bn. The key point is members own this consumer organisation, and join for £1, with member and community benefits and opportunity for democratic engagment.

Mondragon is a Spanish example of a worker co-operative owned and controlled by its  “workers manual administrative and technical of both sexes’” who have invested in their own business to make it work. Robert Oakeshott is excellent at explaining ‘The Case for Workers’ Co-ops’ (1990).

Producer co-ops are a separate model reflecting the vital role of co-ops in agriculture. Producers, although they may own their co-op, are not formally employed by it. Their relationship to their co-op is very different operationally, from the relationship of workers-owners to their worker co-op, as in Tower Colliery.

A further distinction recognises the other key co-op structure as applied to financial services are credit unions.

Although often cited, the John Lewis Partnership is not a worker co-operative. It’s workers are just that, partners in the business.

With Welsh Government focusing upon ‘citizen centred service’ delivery, and early intervention, the multi stakeholder model is better placed to sustainably meet the needs of service users thorough engaging the service user, worker and wider community interests in service planning and delivery.

The success of the Quebec model was revealed in research commissioned by the Wales Progressive Co-operators for the Assembly Health and Social Care committee’s current Residential inquiry. Significantly, it provided further evidence that there are other choices to the private and public sector mix, but it requires people who wish to contribute to their own health and wellbeing.

This model has the greatest possibilities for transforming the relationship between the service user – as an owner and member and the organisation providing care. But it is not the only model. Nor is it suggested that frail older people must be active members. Clearly, informal carers, community and co-operative movement supporters can help ensure effective governance.

In our view, this provides in a substantive form what we think ‘co-production’ actually means, with local co-operative businesses owned and run by and for their members.

There are distinct differences between mutuals, co-operatives and social enterprises. Direct accountability isn’t an essential characteristic of social enterprises, compared with the formal accountability of co-operatives. In Wales, some small successful, relevant care models are being swallowed up by venture capitalists – an eventuality that co-operatives have learnt to protect themselves from through their constitution.

The Westminster government misuses the term mutual with the loosest of interpretations. Their Health Department has announced the investment of £19m over the next year for social enterprise to support frontline staff to run services that provide what they think their local population really need.  Is this privatisation being dressed up as ‘mutualism’?

The power of the multi stakeholder model is that it also serves the purpose of strengthening social work with social workers playing a role alongside people. People have their own answers to their problems. It is about how and what people working together wish to achieve – not thrusting things on people.

Social care people talk the same language as co-operators, with empowered service users and valued frontline staff. Good small-scale models of co-operative social care exist. Can they be scaled up in Wales?  

David Smith and Hilda Smith
Wales Progressive Co-operators

Details of a Canadian social care expert visit to Wales 26-29th June can be found at

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