I’m an AFC Wimbledon supporter, and when the club first became fan-owned in 2002 there was a debate about the sorts of decisions fans could and should be involved in, and the decisions best left to the staff (including the managers) and the Board.
Throughout the debate, the spectre invoked by those in favour of more power in the hands of the latter group was of fans voting to choose the toilet paper. This was self-evidently nonsense and those of us pushing for a more ‘maximalist’ conception of fan involvement had to agree that that was just plain silly.
But the more I recall this, the more I realise I was completely and utterly wrongheaded about it. Fans should be able to vote on the toilet paper – its colour, design softness and everything else. Hell, it’s their backsides the damned stuff will be used on, so why the hell shouldn’t they choose it?
The answer is all about power, or rather a conception of power, that sees it as a finite resource that if I share it with you, I have less and you have more.
This is a deeply conservative notion of power that jars in a sector that is fond of highfalutin talk about being part of a newly democratised economy. Put simply, until and unless people feel the power in their hands, we’re just polishing a turd, frankly. Or put it another way: when was the last time you loved the fact that an organisation you engaged with was community owned on an emotional level, when community ownership put a smile on your face and a spring in your step, where you felt the power?
It’s fair to say that the community ownership movement (and the co-operative movement it grows from) has been pretty rubbish at giving people that palpable sense of power and control. The rights given to members over governance – attend the AGM, stand and vote for the board – are actually responsibilities; members have to do this, because no-one else can do them. These powers might be described as solemn, or important, or perhaps even sacred. Regardless of the word, they’re all feelings that don’t have a huge overlap with fun.
There’s a theory of management and governance which held that this lack of participation didn’t matter too much. Members might have sovereignty over the organisation, but they delegated that sovereignty to the Board of Directors, who hired the senior staff, who hired the rest of the staff, and so on.
Things were done in the name of the members, but not by them. The smaller the decision, the further away from participative involvement it was. The members would be involved in strategic stuff, the staff the day-to-day stuff, and the board hover imperfectly over the distinction between the tactical and operational, and the strategic and existential.
Members were reduced to the Annual General Meeting, which was the one time they could all be gathered together and participate at the same time. Whilst some Boards would doubtless have found this limiting, the lack of practical tools to engage people was a barrier, but most Boards saw this as a feature, not a bug. The more decisions the great unwashed made, the worse things would be, because ordinary members didn’t have the information, time or expertise needed, so it was reasoned.
This pretty much continued for the next 150 years, not least because the Boards and staff of organisations (and the members who did manage to get to the AGM and thought it was the most fun you could have with your clothes on) who had the power to explore more creative solutions to empower members, stood to lose the most from that empowerment. Over time things moved further and further away as organisations grew and became less responsive and more hierarchical.
And then came the information superhighway (and other things) and everything changed. Except in the world of community ownership governance.
So, we now have people who are using technology to communicate with each other and with organisations. They’re given the opportunity to give their views in mostly vicarious settings (voting for Strictly, liking posts on Facebook) on a frequent basis, but never allowed to have views on the big stuff affecting those organisations. By contrast, in community-owned organisations, they’re not allowed to have their input into small decisions, and allowed to have infrequent views on set-piece issues that feel like a chore, not a delight.
There’s a big opportunity to give people a meaningful role in the small decisions at the same time as giving those people the sovereignty over the big stuff too. That’s something that few other organisations can actually offer and would be a compelling USP for community ownership.
So, my challenge would be to think about every decision you make and ask yourself two questions. Firstly, does the decision need to be made in the next 12-hours? And secondly, does the decision have serious implications – financial, strategic – that mean it needs to be considered on a more deliberative, iterative basis? If the answer to both is no, then you really shouldn’t be making it and your members should.
A pub could spend some time thinking about which new beers to offer to its punters. Or it could ask members using a snazzy web app, or a text message poll, or something much more lo-fi, such as buckets into which regulars throw beermats, or ping pong balls. A football club can (and many do) let fans choose the next season’s kit. A community centre can choose the broadband provider, and a shop whether to make late-night opening on Friday or Saturday.
And – and here’s my bet – the more people exercise their decision-making muscles, the stronger those get.
The thornier issues, those interconnected problems the Board have been keeping away from members, become things that a good board starts to think about how they can engage their members to help them resolve it.
What would that look like and how would you decide? You’d let people choose the toilet paper, because fundamentally, it doesn’t matter. The right toilet paper is that chosen by the people who give the biggest shit, if you’ll pardon the pun.