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Engaging Members : Action Research to Get and Keep Your Members Involved Cohesion and Democratic Character. On Co-op Gala Share, Learn, Grow Burlington ON 18 October 2006. Brett Fairbairn Fellow in Co-operative Thought and Ideas Centre for the Study of Co-operatives

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Engaging Members:Action Research to Get and Keep Your Members InvolvedCohesion and Democratic Character

On Co-op Gala

Share, Learn, Grow

Burlington ON

18 October 2006

Brett FairbairnFellow in Co-operative Thought and Ideas

Centre for the Study of Co-operatives

University of Saskatchewan, Canada


  • Why is democracy important to co-ops?What is democracy?

  • Practical ideas to take away and test

    • Alternative democratic practices

    • Self-Assessment of Democratic Character in Organizations

      Workshop materials:

    • Copy of overheads

    • “Six Views of Democracy”

    • Self-Assessment questionnaire

Why is democracy important
Why is democracy important?

  • Definition of a co-op: “autonomous association of people” who meet their common needs through a “democratically controlled enterprise” (ICA 1995)

  • Various writers have argued democracy is the thing that makes co-ops distinct

  • Also definitive for the social economy

  • Democracy produces legitimacyDemocracy produces trustIt produces decisions and leaders(Imagine the cost of not having these!)

What is democracy
What is democracy?

  • Despite (because of?) its fundamental importance in our society, there is no clear definition

  • People feel it is important, but respond negatively to many of its manifestations

  • It is often most clearly expressed in oppositional terms, i.e. denunciation of things as undemocratic

Democracy is
Democracy is…

  • (1) “Rule by the people” (demos+kratos)

  • (2) Electing leaders to make decisions

  • (3) Liberty: the freedom of the individual

  • (4) Justice for all

  • (5) Informed deliberation

  • (6) Dignity and autonomy; values

A common paradox
A common paradox

  • Democracy is most often associated with voting…

  • … but people distance themselves from voting processes and results

  • In co-ops, members have the vote but do not seem excited about using it

  • Are we looking for democracy in the wrong place? Perhaps there is something we are missing?

What is democracy cntd
What is democracy? (cntd.)

  • Does democracy always involve voting?

    • In ancient Greece, some positions were filled by random lot. Is this democratic? Why?

  • Is democracy only European?

    • Thought experiment: imagine a decision being made in a traditional village by means of “talking circles” and a consensus pronounced by hereditary or clan leaders.

    • Is this democratic? Why?

  • On what basis do you judge?

Is democracy a way of thinking
Is democracy a way of thinking?

  • For some people, democracy is a social philosophy, not only a procedure

  • This is why people in co-ops and the social economy value democracy

  • So: A democratic organization is one whose structures, culture, and cognitive processes express an underlying set of values

  • Values may be long-lasting, butexpressions change over time

What values are democratic a work in progress
What values are democratic?(a work in progress)

  • Equality

    • equity, fairness

    • respect, dignity

  • Inclusion

    • openness

    • harmony, solidarity, mutuality

    • participation

  • Self-determination

    • autonomy, freedom, liberty

    • responsibility, accountability

Ideas democratic procedures without voting 1
Ideas: democratic procedures without voting (1)

  • Randomly select ordinary members to serve on committees, or conference participants to speak on panels

    • Random selection confers a different kind of democratic legitimacy

    • It speaks to populist ideas of democracy, the importance of what ordinary people think

    • It avoids excessive self-promotion or recruitment through narrow networks

Ideas democracy without voting 2
Ideas: democracy without voting (2)

  • Run talking circles in committee meetings or table discussions

    • Each person is invited to speak in turn

    • No one can interrupt

    • You hear from everyone

    • No individual can dominate

    • If a consensus is needed, you can keep repeating the process

    • There is an opportunity for cross-cultural education

Ideas democracy without voting 3
Ideas: democracy without voting (3)

  • Use a variety of more interactive techniques in large meetings

    • (Table discussions and report-back are a well-used example.)

    • Obtain frequent audience response

      • “twinkling”, “clickers”

      • Ask the audience questions

    • Roving “interviewers” with microphones – “person in the street” interviews

    • Reaction panels of ordinary participants talking about what they just heard

Ideas democracy without voting 4
Ideas: democracy without voting (4)

  • Use participatory techniques that draw in members on a short-term basis but also involve enabling them to educate themselves about issues

    • Action research - “interactive focus groups,” advice from members with education built in

    • Member committees to study specific issues over a period of time, ending with presentation of recommendations directly to the board

Ideas democracy without voting 5
Ideas: democracy without voting (5)

  • “e-democracy” techniques

    • Internet feedback

    • Digital brainstorming – moderated real-time discussion (see the Globe and Mail online)

    • On-line member panels

    • “Deliberative polling” – small-group online discussion accompanied by random sampling

    • Virtual question periods – “ask the CEO”

    • Scenario modelling – show several different choices (e.g. facility designs; financial policies) and invite member feedback

Democracy without voting democratic character of organizations
Democracy without voting:Democratic character of organizations

  • Organization benefits or outcomes

  • Interactions with key stakeholders (e.g. clients or members)

    • Goods and services

    • Staff-client/member transactions

    • Locations and spaces

    • Communications

    • Decision-making

  • Other internal relations – staff

  • External relations

    • Community and other stakeholders


  • When is the word “democracy” used in your organization?

  • What do people appear to mean by it?

  • Who uses the word?

  • Where do you think democracy is evident in the life of your organization?

A self assessment of democratic character
A self-assessment of democratic character

  • 2003 CARD II Leadership Development

    • Côté and Fairbairn “Diagnosis of Democratic Functioning”

  • Expanded concept: how democratic values are communicated in all aspects of an organization’s activities

  • Action-research project 2006-7CASC research forum, May 2006CCA Congress, June 2006

  • “Open-access” self-assessment tool

Introduction to the self assessment tool
Introduction to the self-assessment tool

  • 84 questions – approximately 8 pages

  • Questions of perception and judgement (self-analysis)

  • Practical purpose: intended to structure thinking to focus on areas that can be improved

  • Suitable for groups

  • Voluntary use and reporting of results

Working with the questionnaire
Working with the questionnaire

  • Work through the questionnaire, answering with respect to one specific organization you are part of

  • For today, skip to sections that interest you; don’t worry about every question

  • When you are done, form a group of 2 or 3 with people near you, and begin discussing what was easy or difficult, straightforward or revealing


  • Where did you rate your organizations at a high level? At a low level?

  • Has the questionnaire given you ideas for specific things to investigate or work on?

  • What was hard to answer or did not apply?

  • Could your board of directors, staff, or other stakeholders do this assessment?

  • Would it be useful to have a database of results (benchmarks)?

Closing thought
Closing thought

  • Research is the creation of new knowledge

  • We are all researchers

Comments and Questions Welcome

Brett Fairbairn

Professor of History and

Fellow in Co-operative Thought and Ideas

Centre for the Study of Co-operatives

University of Saskatchewan

101 Diefenbaker Place

Saskatoon SK S7N 5B8 Canada

Tel. (306) 966-8505 Fax (306) 966-8517

E-mail [email protected]

Check out the centre’s website!