The reason I was first interested in workers' co-operatives was the democratic governance structure, meaning that the organisation we were setting up would have to be an ongoing discussion among its members, the workforce, about what to do.
Part of the reason I wanted to set up that kind of organisation was that over the last few years, I've started to think that at least one way to be creative is not to have any ideas at all.
Just to listen carefully to other people and the things they need solutions for, and then have a talk with them about what might be worth trying out. After that, tell yourselves as detailed a story as you can about what is going to happen, put it into practice based on that story, then learn from your mistakes. Whether it is creative or not mostly depends on whether you listen in good faith and how much effort you put into the story.So is that a good way to run a company? When the first thing that needs a solution every day is what the company is and what it's going to do about it.
Could we make coming to work creative? And would that make the work we did more creative?
What I hadn't really given much thought to before is that one of the foundations of a co-operative is that it can distribute a bonus to its members if the organisation does well. A co-operative is a self-help organisation (self-help in this context meaning to fight against The Man), and if it helps itself effectively, the members should benefit from that. After all, they did the work.
Before my talk with Co-operatives UK, we were going to set up a cooperative community interest company (c.i.c). I like the c.i.c. structure because the legally binding community interest statement means that you have to think through and declare a kind of value that isn't just financial profit, and then live up to that.
But one of the things a c.i.c can't do is distribute a bonus.
At the moment, this is all a bit "what if" because there are only two founder members, but, what if the co-operative became modestly successful, and it could afford to distribute a bonus to its handful of members?
I can imagine that the yearly bonus day in an organisation is very good for collective spirit and motivation, especially if the organisation is one where members have as much invested as they do in a workers' co-operative that they manage for themslves. People will feel it is a reward for shared effort and endeavor, earned by working together, and they will go on into the following year ready to use their individual and collective energy and initiative to develop the organisation further for the good of themselves and each other.
That individual responsibility for shared endeavor is a much better way for an enterprise to organise itself than top-down dictates from management. If the enterprise is a self-organising system, in which the parts of the system take responsibility for being innovative at all levels all the time, then the job of the leadership, elected from the members, is to define the system, to put a boundary round it by asking questions rather than issuing orders.
But what systems need, if they are going to regulate themselves, is feedback, and a bonus is a blindingly good feedback mechanism, that can be easily read by everyone involved. Bonus is up this year? What are we doing right and how can we do more of it? It's down, what are we doing wrong?
But what about the wider public purposes that are written into the legal bones of a c.i.c.
Our cooperative will exist to "develop and implement new ways to use mobile and internet technology for public participation and civic engagement." Which is a bit wordy but I can't do better at the moment.
If we become a c.i.c. we will be legally bound to do that in the interests of the community as we define it, and we can be held to account if we don't. And because a c.i.c exists to benefit a community that is wider than just its own members it can't distribute any surplus.
Which is fine for me. I'm a founder member and it's my principles that the structure is founded on. Everyone who bought into it at the time (all two of us!) knew what we were getting into and why.
But what about the people who join afterwards? I'd hope they might agree with those principles, and it might even be a reason for wanting to join the organisation, but they don't really get much of a choice. They are bound by my decisions whether they like it or not. Which is fine for people with well paid and fulfilling jobs in the creative industries, why wouldn't they put a bit of commitment into their work? But what if the organisation is modestly successful enough to employ, say, a cleaner? I'm sure the cleaners in the old NHS took pride in being such an important part of a great and worthwhile collective effort, and that affected the way they did their work. But cleaning is still a boring, unfulfilling job. I know, I've done it. And I'm not sure I'd like to ask someone to forgo a little bit of extra personal reward in order to uphold my principles for me.
And more than that, is the law the best way to make those principles meaningful anyway? Is the best way to inform how an organisation acts to have it legally bound to act that way?
I'd hope that any organisaton that is a co-operative considers a value beyond just financial gain, and offers something to a wider community than itself, but shouldn't the guarantees of that be its own internal principles of self-education and participation, rather an article of law set in stone?
Isn't it better to allow the organisation to repeatedly decide that for itself through the collected individual choices of its members, who might agree to accept less than the maximum financial reward in order to contribute something to the wider civic world in which they live, however that contribution is defined.
But that should be their choice, to be made and remade over and over again, and the remaking of the choice (or not) will be what defines the character of the organisation. If it decides in the future not to make the right choices, that will reflect a failure of leadership (as opposed to management), or maybe an unescapable entropy.
Everything comes to an end, after all. It's what happens on the way that is important.