Structural changes discussion

I’ve been thinking about the piece below, partly to establish a framework for bringing Athletic Community Action Birmingham (and perhaps the proposed Friends of the Warehouse Cafe?) into Cooperation Birmingham but mostly just to adapt the organisation to the demands of reality.

Past experience has shown that if we’re going to be a large and effective organisation with initiatives of varying levels of complexity and autonomy then we need a supple structure that allows that (well either that, or go full democratic centralism). Sean has given me a lot of help with this and I think it plenty going for it but I want it to be discussed more widely before it becomes a proper proposal. For one thing I think there are elements of the bylaws of the Willamette Action Collective that you circulated @nick that I think could be helpful: Bylaws_DRAFT_-_Official.pdf (411.2 KB)

Background

The current organisational model of Cooperation Birmingham is only really suitable for a situation when all the resources of the organisation are directed towards a single goal, with a high degree of engagement from members. This reflects our origin as a mutual aid disaster relief organisation in the early pandemic. We encountered conflicts when people began to feel that they had a authority over the projects that they were personally committing time and energy to.

In hindsight it is fair to criticise their disinterest in accountability and responsibility to the entire organisation, but we must also recognise that the organisation needs to establish the kind of structured autonomy that allows people to work effectively in a decentralised way. This proposal aims to develop Cooperation Birmingham as a body uniting numerous initiatives, each with varying degrees of autonomy.

Individuals

Individuals are the fundamental agents of self-organisation. Our structures should neither be so rigid and bureaucratic that individuals feel they don’t have the space for taking initiative, nor so unstructured that we end up with a do-ocracy of individuals taking authority over the things they are interested in. Every member is entitled to having a say on all matters that affect them. Conversely no-one gets to make decisions on behalf of others. No decisions are made at a level which excludes individual participation.

Projects

On a small and time-limited scale, CB works in society through projects. Every member is encouraged to participate in projects directly - both by contributing their energies and acting on their own initiative, and by voting on decisions via the forum. Projects are entirely accountable to the organisation and the membership with no autonomous authority.

These projects are the equivalent of the ‘operations’ illutrated in the current organisational model: https://testing.forum.cooperationbirmingham.org.uk/t/organisational-structure-open-discussion/325. Their executive functions would continue to be carried out by the general CB working groups, as currently.

eg: a motion is passed to establish a newsletter as a project. Individuals contribute articles, arrange printing and distribution, etc. The newsletter has no independent role, it is just the mouthpiece of the organisation and reflects its consensus opinion.

Divisions

More complicated or long-term activities require higher levels of autonomy and independent structure. Decision-making authority still rests with the individual, but only those individuals who have an active interest in the division. This allows for faster and better decisions, while supporting the autonomy of groups to make decisions on their own business. Individuals may be assigned to as many divisions as they wish.

eg: a motion is passed to establish a sports division. Interested individuals voluntarily assign themselves and gain the right to post and vote in the divisional section of the forum. The division elects its own officers to be responsible for specific mandates. Divisions may propose that the organisation gives them a budget, or apply for expenses to be covered. All decisions affecting the division alone (for instance if a division wishes to publish its own bulletin, or carry out activities within its area of authority) are made by division members alone, either directly or by working groups within the division. Decisions influencing the direction, finances etc of the whole organisation are still made by the full membership.

Affiliates

Cooperative / member-controlled organisations which are fully supportive of Cooperation Birmingham but want to maintain full independence are able to apply to become affiliates. They will remain financially and organisationally autonomous but have to act in broad alignment with the CB principles. Trading affiliates pay a subscription according to the number of paid workers they employ.

Transition between different modes

In practice some initiatives will move between different modes over time as they develop. For instance:

  • A project might take on a life of its own and warrant the autonomy of a division, eg. a newspaper becoming a media division with responsibility for papers, radio, etc.
  • A division might become so developed that it makes sense for it to become a worker coop which affiliates to CB, eg. the new media division might one day have its own revenue sources and become a local media cooperative.

Changes are also possible in the other direction:

  • An affiliate might desire closer integration with CB to access greater support from the network and choose to become a division, eg. an independent growing project becoming the food division of CB in order to involve more people and have access to more resources.
  • A division might shrink over time until it is taking on only minor or temporary tasks which are more suited to being run as a project, eg. the food division no longer operates on a large enough scale to be a division but becomes a project doing weekly meals.

The primary limitation on moving between different modes is that cooperative assets and work should remain under common control. In the case of a division or a project becoming fully independent, this can only be done by adopting an organisational form which is approved by the membership of Cooperation Birmingham, for instance a worker coop. If in future they stop trading then assets should be transferred either back to CB or to another cooperative. If a cooperative organisation form is not appropriate or possible for the leaving initiative then they should return any money, relevant assets or data provided by CB.

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Just to say I’m supportive of this and I’m happy with the bylaws. I’d prefer to have something in place which we can build on than to get these perfect first time round!