Peter Couchman is the Chief Executive of the Plunkett Foundation.

The Plunkett Foundation is the organisation which promotes and supports co-operative and social enterprises in rural communities both in the UK and internationally. It provides support, networks and knowledge which offers practical solutions for rural communities that helps to create thriving places where people live and work now and in the future.

Monday, 18 October 2010

A mutual solution for the Post Office?

Fear of crime in rural areas is high, yet actual crime is lower than most urban areas. By the same token, fear of losing the local Post Office is high even though the network closure programme is long over and Post Office Ltd has been working hard to build a modern network that can meet rural needs. Even so, the fear remains.

The Government's announcement on the future of the Post Office last week will have triggered that fear again. Yet its plans offer a real opportunity for rural communities. It has stated that the Post Office will either remain under state control or become a mutual. Plunkett's position on mutualisation is to judge each by how genuinely mutual it will be and to challenge if it isn't. In the case of the Post Office, it looks good so far. We see clear criteria to ensure a balance of interests and a real opportunity for community-owned shops to have a voice at the highest level.

We'll be urging all communities that want to protect their postal services to engage in the consultation to ensure that the final outcome is as mutual as the draft bill intends. Genuine ownership of the postal services, so vital to village life, could turn that fear into pride.

Monday, 4 October 2010

An end to an irrational fear of irrationality?

It was great to spend time on Saturday evening with Tom Webb from the Masters of Co-operative Management at St Mary's University in Canada. Tom has been one of my great inspirations for over a decade now. His work on Marketing Our Co-operative Advantage (MOCA) led to the creation of much of the work at Oxford, Swindon & Gloucester Co-op. Tom went on to create the Masters programme at St Mary's and its sister programme the Center for Excellence in Accounting and Reporting for Co-operatives. In all this work, Tom has been relentless in asking the question "I know how this works in mainstream enterprises, but how does it work at a co-op?". He has applied this to every area, from marketing to accounting.

To me, our conversation had the feel of light at the end of the tunnel. We have both spent our lives trying to convince managers that acting as a co-operative is the only rational approach to running a co-operative. This is approach has often been dismissed by managers who sought to slavishly follow big business ethics. Our way was seen as somehow wooly and less rigourous. Tom saw the credibility of a co-operative approach as being vindicated with co-operative economics now being given three nobel prizes in recent years. I saw the supposed irrationality of our approach being vindicated through our rapidly growing understanding of behavioural economics, in which so many of the levers of change were strengthened through co-operative action.

So we spent a pleasant evening, together with the Program's Director, Larry Haiven, exploring the bridge that was being built between the two. Ten years on and still inspiring me.