Is there a crisis of participation?

by. Tim McAlpine

I attended the International Co-operative Governance Conference at St. Mary’s University in Halifax, Nova Scotia in early September. I was there with my Mount Lehman Credit Union Board Chair hat on and ready to soak up different perspectives and new ways of thinking about governance.

There were presenters, panelists and attendees from Albania, Argentina, Canada, Congo, Ethiopia, Finland, France, Gambia, Ghana, India, Jamaica, Nigeria, Pakistan, Palestine, Poland, Qatar, Sri Lanka, Switzerland, Trinidad and Tobago, the United Kingdom and the United States representing all aspects of the co-operative sector including co-operative banks, credit unions, consumer co-ops, worker co-ops, agricultural co-ops and more. There were academics, practitioners, legislators, regulators and historians on stage and in the audience. It was a real melting pot of co-operative enterprises at an event singularly focussed on co-operative governance.

Among so many other things, I learned that the number-one goal of the International Co-operative Alliance (ICA) in its new Blueprint for a Co-operative Decade is to elevate participation within membership and governance to a new level. It was pretty clear in listening to all of the experts that participation within our democratically controlled co-operative enterprises is extremely low. In fact, less than 2% of all members in the entire co-operative sector participate in the democratic process by voting with an even smaller portion actually attending annual general meetings.

Does democracy equal participation?

On the surface, this lack of participation sounds troubling, but it made me question what participation means within credit unions and how it is being measured. In a perfect scenario, we imagine a fully engaged membership that see themselves as owners, not just customers. These engaged members are interested in how their financial institution is run, perhaps they have an interest in serving on the board or a committee and they fully understand how their credit union impacts their lives and the communities that they live in. And, maybe, just maybe, they are politically engaged and are working in the trenches to make sure that credit unions are being heard in Washington (or in Ottawa).

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