The austerity agenda is often presented as inevitable, which is really just a way for corporatists and conservatives to dismiss any discussion or debate. “There are no alternatives!” they thunder. But as Co-operatives UK demonstrates in a brilliant new report, there are a growing array of highly practical alternatives that are both financially feasible and socially effective. They are known as multi-stakeholder co-operatives, or more simply as “social co-operatives.”
While most of us are familiar with consumer or worker coops, the social co-operative is a bit different. First, it welcomes many types of members – from paid staff and volunteers to service users and family members to social economy investors. While many coops look and feel like their market brethren, with a keen focus on profit and loss, social coops are committed to meeting social goals such as healthcare, eldercare, social services and workforce integration for former prisoners. They are able to blend market activity with social services provisioning and democratic participation, all in one swoop.
Pat Conaty is author of the report, “Social Co-operatives: A Democratic Co-Production Agenda for Care Services in the UK.” He explains how the legal and organizational structures of multi-stakeholder co-operatives – as well as their cultural ethos – generate all sorts of advantages. They can deliver services more efficiently than many conventional businesses. They are more adaptable and responsive than many government programs. And they invite active, inclusive participation by members in deciding how their needs shall be met -- and in contributing their own knowledge and energies.
The report examines best practices in co-operative health and social care services, and profiles the success of social coops in Italy, Japan, France and Spain, among other countries, as well as in Quebec, Canada.
The Italian experience with social coops is especially impressive. Since passage of a 1991 law that authorizes social co-operatives and provides public policy support for them, Italians have started 14,500 social co-operatives that employ 360,000 paid workers and rely on an additional 34,000 volunteer members. The typical coop has fewer than 30 worker-members, and provides services to the elderly, the disabled and those with mental illnesses. Some provide “sheltered employment” for people with disabilities and other vulnerable groups.