Why multi-stakeholder co-ops have so much to offer for the good governance of public services

I recently gave a talk to Cardiff Business School about the model of governance which Cartrefi Cymru operates now that it‘s delivering social care as a multi-stakeholder co-operative. My principal focus for the talk was to talk about why we adopted a co-op model with three different membership categories, and I emphasised the relevance of this model to the aspirations of the Social Services and Well-being (Wales) Act 2014.

The Act (especially the Codes which explain it in detail) promotes the concept and practice of co-production. Co-production means doing things with people, not just for them. Lots of research, backed up by everyone’s own lived experience, demonstrates that people feel better, and are more confident and motivated, when they have a say about what’s happening to them. Consequently, giving people a say about their care and support is a good way (the Codes say an “essential” way) for public services to support people in pursuit of well-being outcomes.

By becoming a multi-stakeholder co-op, Cartrefi has built co-production into its constitution and governance. The people we support, and our employees, and our community supporters, have a democratic say in how Cartrefi is run. Most obviously, they elect a representative body (which we call the Council of Members) who are involved in high-level decisions on strategy and remuneration, and they sit at the top of our organisation chart with the sole power to appoint people to the Board of Management.

Council of MembersPictured: Council Of Members

It’s worth noting that Cartrefi is both a charity and a co-op. Charities are typically top-down and co-ops are typically bottom-up, so one might imagine there is an unhealthy tension between the two approaches. After two years with this hybrid identity, it seems more like a healthy tension. The charity requirements keep us strongly focused on doing right for the people we support, whilst the co-op requirements pull power away from a benevolent few to the reciprocal many.

Anyway, my host at Cardiff Business School sent me a document setting out the Six Principles of Good Governance in Public Services, and I did a little exercise to see how well Cartrefi’s multi-stakeholder co-op constitution fared against these principles. Here’s what I found:

Principles of Public Service Governance Relevance of Cartrefi Cymru’s constitution as a charity AND multi-stakeholder co-op
Principle 1. Focusing on organisations purpose and on outcomes for citizens and service users
  •  As a charity there is a clear focus on doing right by service users
  •  As a multi-stakeholder co-op this is strengthened by having users sharing power
  • It is also complemented by sharing power with staff and community supporters
  • They typically want what is best for service users
  • They are also more motivated to do right if they are valued too


Principle 2. Performing effectively in clearly defined functions and roles


  • The Board is no longer the unaccountable source of all authority
  • The Board no longer relies solely on internal challenge and self-scrutiny


Principle 3. Promoting values for the whole organisation and demonstrating the value of good governance through behaviour
  • Involving users and others in Board decision-making role-models equality and respect
  • Additional scrutiny and accountability encourages good behaviours and attitudes
  • As a membership democracy there is an on-going requirement to be open and honest


Principle 4. Taking informed, transparent decisions and managing risk


  • Council of Members voices enrich Board’s knowledge and understanding
  • Key decisions are shared with stakeholders through the Council
  • Some significant risks are reduced through this engagement with stakeholders


Principle 5. Developing the capacity and capability of the governing body to be effective


  • Council of Members’ primary power is to ensure trustees are fit for their role
  • Fitness is partly a matter of competence at running an organisation
  • It is also a matter of values and commitment to do right by stakeholders, especially service users


Principle 6. Engaging stakeholders and making accountability real


  • Users, staff and community members including family and friends are all offered a real say through democratic membership rights
  • Co-op principles of member education and transparency lead to greater commitment to on-going communication and regular meetings
  • Power is shared between stakeholder representatives and Board, with real leverage to ensure the Board listens

I can think of many other reasons why organisations might want to contemplate become multi-stakeholder co-ops. If you like people and diversity, I highly recommend it. It’s great fun and frequently moving and motivating. But the table above is a pretty compelling rationale for doing it to have the best possible governance – especially if you are delivering public services.

If you’d like to know more about becoming a co-op delivering public services like care, drop me a line via adrian.roper@cartrefi.coop  or contact the Wales Co-op Centre via info@wales.coop. 

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