January 4, 2012

Part of cooperation must surely be telling voters about what’s happening in a way which addresses their needs and concerns. For coop or big society (bigsoc) to seem more than a cynical ploy to get us to sweep our own streets and run our own libraries, government must tell it like it is and in a way we can relate to.

My qualification for writing this is my being a council-tax payer and voter here in Oval-ward, and I hope I can help cooperative projects by suggesting ways in which they can inform the public about what they are doing. I suggest that this should be done in a way which accords with present trends and concerns in the areas of public spending, local government, the third sector, volunteering and localism.

Politicians may want to keep stretches of clear water between their parties’ ideas and others’, but Labour’s coop council and the government’s big society are both responses to the same situation and involve similar concepts.

The context for both coop and bigsoc is that of economic uncertainty, public spending constraints, protest (like the occupy-movement) and disorder (like the summer’s riots). Both coop and bigsoc movements also talk in terms of greater public involvement in:

  • decision-making about
  • delivery of

public services. I therefore suggest that coop/bigsoc projects talk to the public by referring to that context and to those concepts.

Promoters of projects understandably want to highlight those undertakings’ benefits and to namecheck the projects’ sponsors. The trouble with doing only  that is that a scheme can sound like just another government/quango plan with a snazzy (if incomprehensible) title. What it implies is: “here are some more government-funded agencies spending more of your money on something which may or may not benefit you”. It doesn’t really sound that cooperative, does it?

Coop/bigsoc projects can be better described in terms of:

  • how voters have been involved in deciding to do this thing
  • what practical contribution is being made by voters
  • what proportion of funding is from taxation and what proportion comes from individuals and business
  • how the project will deliver practical benefits and help with social cohesion
  • what the reader can do to get involved in this and/or similar projects.

For a project to be truly cooperative, involvement in decision-making can’t be restricted to voting for the council once every four years. However democratic things may be, Labour governs Lambeth with the votes of less than a quarter of the electorate. I suggest regular ward-based meetings, convened by councillors and reinforced through social media.

While funding may appear to come from independent organisations, communication needs to be transparent in terms of saying how much of the money actually comes from national government grants, council-tax and other sources which are really us taxpayers. I expect a lot of voters would be surprised to know how many charities rely significantly on state-funding.