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A look at sociocracy amongst UK co-operatives

Blog post

Mark Simmonds
Written by
Mark Simmonds
8th June 2021
Co-op development
Group discussion
Credit: Leon on Unsplash

This blog looks at the rise in interest of Sociocracy being used within co-operatives in the UK.

We are experiencing a rise in the interest in sociocratic governance in the UK co-operative sector, particularly amongst worker and multi-stakeholder co-operatives. Ted Rau, Sociocracy for All, says:

"Sociocracy is a governance system, just like democracy or corporate governance methods. It’s best suited for organizations that want to self-govern based on the values of equality. Some people refer to sociocracy as Dynamic Self-Governance or simply Dynamic Governance."

Sociocracy for All is an international non-profit organisation which promotes sociocracy in general, but has a dedicated Coop Circle. I am the current facilitator of that circle and the relevance of sociocracy to co-operatives is illustrated well by a direct quote from their web page:

"Sociocracy offers a decision making and governance model in line with the ethos of the co-operative identity, which honours and centres the human individual within the organisation. As values-based and principle-driven socio-economic organisations, co-ops benefit from an operating system that has a coherence and a synergy with the Cooperative Identity."

"Sociocracy is an approach to decision making and organisational structuring that is relatively quick and easy for a co-op or start-up group to start using."

I have created a Google site collection of resources, which provides a short introduction to sociocracy in general and links to co-op sociocracy case studies.

The Co-op Circle recently ran an online conference – The theory and practice of sociocracy in co-operatives – attended by 150 co-operators from around the world, including many from the UK.

UK co-operatives actively exploring sociocracy (although not all would necessarily brand it as such) include:

  • Unicorn Grocery (worker)
  • Green City Wholefoods (worker)
  • Equal Care Co-operative (multi-stakeholder)
  • Organic Lea (worker)
  • Outlandish (worker)
  • Bristol Cable (multi-stakeholder)
  • Platform 6 Development Co-operative
  • Third Sector Accountancy (worker)

You can think of sociocratic governance as having two main dimensions:

  1. A structural or hardware aspect. The organisation is structured such that decision and policy making is distributed throughout the organisation in circles. Power, rather than being centralised, is exercised collectively by those most affected by, or competent to make, a decision.
  2. A meeting technology or software aspect. Meetings are run using rounds to ensure everyone is heard and that decisions are made on the basis of consent to what is “good enough for now and safe enough to try”. A way of working where solutions to a problem are part of a space which is defined by what people can tolerate rather than the perfect solution they prefer. This allows for fast, effective, agile decision making in a more constructive exploratory culture around policy and decision-making.

From my perspective, as a co-op governance geek, sociocracy whilst having an in built coherence with co-operation, does ask some questions of current custom, practice and our legal frameworks. Our legal frameworks in particular are designed for more traditional governance models and I explored this in depth at the recent conference above in my workshop, Designing sociocratic co-op structures in the UK.

As part of this work, the Co-operative Governance Expert Reference Panel is actively exploring how current guidance around good governance relates to co-operatives implementing sociocracy and I am actively exploring, with others, the creation of bespoke model governing documents for UK co-operatives wishing to use sociocracy.

EDIT: The Sociocracy in co-operative organisations guidance is now live. 

I’m particularly excited by the applicability of this governance model to multi-stakeholder models and how it easily encompasses a smooth growth of a co-operative’s governance, including spin outs and secondary co-operatives.

There is an exciting, community of practice in the UK of co-operatives and co-operators exploring and evolving this way of working to create what may be the operating system of our next economy.

Mark Simmonds is an experienced community entrepreneur and advisor, specialising in enterprise working towards social and environmental change. 

Want to explore Sociocracy in your co-op?

Access our resource and templates for introducing sociocracy in co-operatives

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Get in touch with our advice team to find out more.
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