Ahead of the Co-operatives UK annual Practitioners Forum on Thursday 22 November at The Studio in Manchester, we caught up with Elliot Roberts, Head of Sector for Co-operatives at Electoral Reform Services (ERS), to find out more about how ERS works with co-operatives and what highlights he’s looking forward to at the Forum.
You’re Head of Sector for Co-operatives at ERS – could you tell us a bit about the sector?
I find the co-operative sector really interesting. It’s a pretty significant chunk of the UK economy – there are now over 7,000 independent co-operatives right across the country with a combined turnover of more than £36 billion. What’s more, there are co-operatives in almost every area of the economy, not just obvious areas like membership associations, trade unions, or sport and social clubs.
The strongest co-operative presence is probably on the high street, with John Lewis, The Co-op and a number of other longstanding independent co-operative retailers. But it’s remarkable how many other sectors co-operatives operate in successfully – Agriculture is massive, then you’ve got Housing, Education, Manufacturing, Finance, Energy, and Health & Social Care to name just a few.
What do you actually do for your co-operative clients?
The majority of our work with co-operatives is around elections – to their Boards, councils or committees – and AGMs. We provide an end-to-end service and offer traditional and digital solutions, or a blend of both. Communicating effectively is an important part of ensuring strong membership engagement in elections, so we support our clients with the best combination of digital and postal channels for their audience.
For postal ballots, we deliver everything from the design, print and mailing of voting materials and other literature to the receipt and count of the returned ballots or proxy voting forms for AGMs.
As the ability to engage and disseminate via digital space has evolved and developed greatly over the last few years, we’ve worked closely with co-operatives in creating engaging and user friendly websites and platforms for members to discover more about the bodies that represent them and to submit their vote instructions.
In most cases, we are the Returning Officer and Independent Scrutineer for co-operative elections, ballots and AGM voting, which helps to inspire confidence in the election process and brings integrity to the results.
We’re always working with our clients to keep developing and improving the services we offer and ensure they meet their specific needs. One development for the 2018 cycle was the provision of voter registration/verification processes during project voting periods to allow members to cast provisional votes if they weren’t able to locate their vote instructions. We also set up a postal vote request process for members who received electronic communications but wanted to vote in the traditional paper based way. A full vote submission de-duplification process was applied to maintain the integrity of these elections.
What do you most enjoy about working with co-operatives?
What I find fascinating about co-operatives is that they are owned by their members, so they have a real say in how their organisations are run. There are over 13 million people who are active members of the UK’s co-operatives – that’s nearly 20% of the population!
Obviously, democratic processes are absolutely crucial to how co-operatives function – democratic member control is one of the core principles of the co-operative movement. That’s where we come in, enabling co-operatives to deliver that democratic control for their membership in making decisions, from elections to their Boards, councils or committees to voting at their AGMs. At ERS, our strapline is ‘Making Democracy Happen’, so we really understand that ethos at the heart of what co-operatives are, what they do and how they work.
I’m really proud of the work we’ve done with our co-operative clients. ERS is the UK’s leading provider of independent election and balloting services, but we also have over 20 years’ experience working specifically with clients in the co-operative sector. That’s completely unrivalled and I think that knowledge and experience, as well as our wider reputation, gives co-operatives confidence that their democratic processes are independent, impartial, transparent and also engaging for their members.
ERS will be exhibiting at the annual Practitioners Forum in Manchester this month. What are you looking forward to at this year’s event?
We exhibit at the Practitioners Forum every year and it’s always a great opportunity to catch up properly with our co-op colleagues. The delegates are normally people operating in key roles in co-operative businesses large and small, so I’m looking forward to hearing from them, what they’re expecting for 2019, new trends, developments and challenges, and how we can help. If you really want to understand the sector, that face to face contact is so valuable.
This year’s event is also a bit special because, after the final session, we’ll be going next door to Pie and Ale for the launch of the Co-operative College’s centenary year celebrations. I’m looking forward to celebrating their achievements over the past 100 years and hearing about what’s to come. If you’re coming to the Practitioners Forum and you’d like to come along to the College’s event too, just register online.
Lastly, what have you got on the horizon for 2019?
Well, hopefully I’ll be talking to delegates about it at the Practitioners Forum – we’ll be rolling out our enhanced AGM platform to all our clients through 2019. We’ve had great feedback on it so far, so it’ll be great to take them through all the new features and functionality we’ve added. I think 2019 is going to be a very exciting year.