The Mutuals and Cooperatives Advantage- We Own It!

A quiet yet noticeable revolution is shaping the NDIS landscape. It promises to increase choice and control for NDIS participants, their families and carers.

We are observing a growing interest in mutual and co-operatives as service provider types. This is a return to a business form dating back to the nineteenth century when member ownership shaped the social safety net in Australia. At this time, friendly societies, owned by their members, were a source of employment, social care and economic enterprise.

Co-operatives and mutuals are owned and controlled by their members – their core stakeholders - and operate for their benefit. This is a people-centred business model. The members can be consumers, employees, small businesses, communities or a combination of all of these. There are around 2,000 co-operatives and mutuals in Australia operating in every part of the economy.

Having more co-operatives and mutuals in the NDIS is a great outcome for Participants. These providers are generally agile and flexible in meeting the needs of their members and adapting to market changes. An employee owned business has a vested interest in providing quality services to Participants. These organisations are also proven to have higher rates of workforce retention, allowing people with disability to maintain long-term relationships with their support staff. Mutuals and cooperatives also give NDIS Participants the potential to partly own the business that employs them, thus helping to overcome the wealth gap between people with disability and people without.

There are great examples of how co-operatives and mutuals are re-shaping the human services landscape in Australia. These are pathfinder case studies leading the way in innovation, social and economic enterprise. They are:

  • The Supported Independent Living Co-operative – SILC is a family governed co-operative operating in disability housing and supports in the NDIS. It is an enterprise co-operative where its members are family governed houses. SILC is like a backbone co-operative, providing information, systems and support to families.
  • The National Health Co-operative – is a cooperative owned by its patients. It started in 2010 in West Belconnen in response to a GP shortage. It now provides primary health care to 40,000 patient members and is expanding into regional communities in NSW.
  • The Co-operative Life - a worker co-operative providing social support and home care in the NDIS and aged care sector. The Co-operative Life started when a group of personal care workers, dissatisfied with agency work, co-operated to form a new organisation where they as workers were the members. The Co-operative Life now has 75 staff and is scaling up with the increased demand as a result of market failure in regional areas.
  • Nundah Community Enterprises – is a member owned business and social enterprise that has enabled people with disabilities to be employed for over a decade. The workers and community members are all the members. They have social procurement contracts with Brisbane City Council and a coffee shop at Nundah Railway station.

Moreover, earlier this year, the South Australian Government and the Commonwealth Minister for Social Services announced that Australia’s first employee mutual would be formed from the South Australian Department of Human Services. This new employee mutual will operate in the NDIS providing Early Childhood Early Intervention services and other supports to children and youth. It is is modeled on the UK Mutuals Programme. In the UK program, public servants have been supported to “spin out” from government and establish quasi-public service enterprises, most commonly in health and human services. Research is showing promising results with higher rates of consumer and employee engagement and increased productivity compared to when the service operated in government.

Having more co-operatives and mutuals involved in the NDIS adds diversity in the market for services. This in turn, gives NDIS Participants more choice and control.

 

Editors Note: The Business Council of Co-operatives and Mutuals (BCCM) will be conducting a study tour for Australian human services administrators and commissioners to learn from the UK experience of mutuals and co-operatives. This is a rare opportunity to learn how member ownership has been incorporated into human services in the UK. More information can be found here. 


Gillian McFee is the Chair of the Mutuals Task Force at the Business Council of Co-operatives and Mutuals. The Business Council of Co-operatives and Mutuals (BCCM) is the industry voice for co-operative and mutual enterprises in Australia and provides information and advisory services to help organisations and communities consider how to establish them. She can be contacted at: gillian.mcfee@bccm.coop