Tuesday, March 12, 2013

@MEC @Vancity #CIRA boards unwilling to restore accountability to members

Last year, I studied the trend toward violating the second fundamental principle of co-operatives -- democratic member control -- as co-ops become large. As examples, I focused on three organizations: Mountain Equipment Co-op (MEC), Vancity Credit Union, and the Canadian Internet Registration Authority. (CIRA, which manages the .ca domain, is not formally a co-op but faces similar issues of accountability.)

I wrote a detailed exposé of how these organizations' boards have been changing the rules in ways that shift power to themselves by reducing their accountability to members, while maintaining a facade of democracy -- see We Want Our Co-ops Back at votermedia.org/publications. Last September I announced the first draft on this blog and on Twitter, and emailed it to all three boards, inviting feedback. Here I'll report how they have responded so far.

To make it easier for them to give at least a partial response in the near term, in December I suggested that they focus on just two practical reform questions:
1. Do you plan to create a year-round online member forum?
2. Do you plan to create a competition for informing members, in which members vote to allocate award funds?
For both these questions: If so, when? If not, why not?
Mountain Equipment Co-op (MEC):

The MEC Board referred the matter to their new Chief Governance Officer, Shona McGlashan. Her main reply was on February 25:
This year, for the first time, MEC has created an online discussion forum for members to talk about special resolutions proposed by the Board and by members. We’ll be assessing how well it went following the end of the election period, and considering how we can build on and improve it. This may include the creation of a year-round member forum; I simply don’t know at this point.

At the moment we have no plans to create a competition for allocating funds between blogs to discuss election candidates. We are watching with interest how your system works in the UBC alumni society and we’ll also keep an eye on any other organization that adopts it. For now, we are concentrating our resources on the “your vote, your cause” campaign, which we hope will achieve the dual objectives of engaging more MEC members in our elections as well as supporting three great causes that align with MEC’s values.
[BTW it's the UBC student union, not the UBC alumni society -- see video How VoterMedia Affects Election Campaigns.]

For those interested, full text of the MEC correspondence is linked here.

Vancity Credit Union:

Director Patrice Pratt responded on behalf of the Board. The main points of our correspondence were:
Patrice Pratt, January 3:

We do not have any plans for an online member forum at this time. We are actively engaged and involved with our members in person, in our branches and Member Services Centre and at a great variety of events each year. In addition, our member research activities, website and social media are examples of other channels where we are gaining our members' insights and answering their questions.

This year we completed the installation of digital signage in each of our branches and this has provided us with another great way to update our members on what is happening at the credit union.

Mark Latham, January 8:

I agree that Vancity's existing member communication systems are valuable for you to gain members' insights, answer our questions, and update us on the credit union. But as my paper ("We Want Our Co-ops Back") explains, it's also important for Vancity to facilitate communications among us members. So I'm disappointed to hear that you have no plans for a member forum at this time, and hope that you will reconsider this issue before long.

Patrice Pratt, February 28:

We have past experience with a year-round on-line forum with Vancity's ChangeEverything.ca, a site where anyone, including Vancity members had the opportunity to discuss topics of their choice, or participate in discussions about featured topics with each other. The site was launched when the social media landscape was very different from what it is today and while it was very successful in its time, it has now been discontinued and we have no plans for a new online forum.

A note of interest, during the 2008 Director's Election, we opened up the Change everything forum to our candidates to generate discussion in support of their individual campaigns.

As we now have robust social networking tools and platforms like Twitter, LinkedIn and Facebook available to us, we made the shift from hosting our own online community to joining the conversation 'out there'. Vancity is active on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and Youtube and also posts all the options for joining us in person through the listings in our events calendar.

Nevertheless, we continue to add to the tools and two-way communications channels that we use to connect with our stakeholders. This year, we will start four new advisory groups to generate discussion and innovation in support of how we serve our members and help to build their communities.

We have no plans at this time to create a competition where members vote to allocate award funds. Vancity operates as a representative democracy, in which members elect other members to represent them on the Board of Directors. Once elected, board directors bring their skills, attributes and judgment to collectively make decisions on behalf of all members.
For those interested, full text of the Vancity correspondence is linked here.

Canadian Internet Registration Authority (CIRA):

The CIRA website's About the Board page gives this invitation: "To share your views on internet governance matters with the Board, contact board[at]cira.ca." So I sent my emails to the Board at that address. I received one reply, from CIRA CEO Byron Holland. (Full text of correspondence is linked here.)

While his reply to my first question was helpful, he did not answer my second question, instead dismissing it as transcribed below. That made me wonder whether he was replying on behalf of the Board, so I asked (on December 7):
Since I addressed my previous emails below (Sept 17 and Dec 3) to the CIRA Board (board[at]cira.ca), did all Board members receive them? Has your response (from board[at]cira.ca) been reviewed and approved by the Board? Or will the Board respond separately?
I've received no reply to that (in over 3 months) from the CEO, nor from Board Chair Paul Andersen whom I cc'd, in spite of my followup email on February 5. To me this seems unresponsive.

Q1: “Do you plan to create a year-round online member forum?”:
Byron Holland, December 5:

We have no plans to do so at present. CIRA has numerous open and active communications channels through which we not only share information, but encourage .CA Members and other engaged Canadians to share with us.

First and foremost we actively engage our Members through the election process that supports the Governance model for the organization. This as you know involves active participation in the election of our Board members. It is worth noting that recently we have also expanded the engagement of Members by developing a broader on-line audience for our AGM.

In addition, we are active in many social media environments (Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, Google+) and do engage with followers on a daily basis on these networks. Lastly I have a blog (cirablog.ca) where I often write about governance issues where I encourage participation and engagement, and we always welcome and respond to email from our .CA Members.

We also host the annual Canadian Internet Forum (CIF), where all Canadians are encouraged to speak with us about how they would like to see the Internet develop. The CIF national event is held in February,
followed by an online, moderated discussion forum.

Mark Latham, December 7:

Thank you for outlining the ways CIRA engages Canadians on internet issues. I agree that CIRA's extensive use of communication channels to encourage discussion is laudable. It's great how your blog is open for discussion, and I've participated there as you know.

I'm especially impressed with how you enable on-line participation in the AGM, including voting. I've attended the AGMs of quite a few organizations (including publicly traded corporations), and the 2012 CIRA AGM is the best I have seen, for facilitating voter participation both in person and on-line.

After reading your email, I took another look at the discussion forum that followed the 2012 Canadian Internet Forum (CIF), at http://cif.cira.ca/en/. Although the in-person CIF was on February 27, 2012, the online discussion (now relatively inactive) still seems to be open for new comments and topics. Is the CIF online forum going to be open year-round? If so, it would seem to fulfill my suggestion on this question.
Q2: “Do you plan to create a competition for informing members, where members vote to allocate award funds?”:
Byron Holland, December 5:

CIRA does not “award funds.” Our mission is to operate the .CA registry, a critical piece of Canada’s digital infrastructure, and we do so in a 100 per cent uptime environment. As noted above, CIRA has over the past few years, conducted certain activities in support of Internet-related activities in Canada. To this end, we have in the recent past, provided limited funding to certain partner organizations and their projects that enhance and develop the Canadian Internet community.

Mark Latham, December 7:

Even if CIRA has not awarded funds in the past, the CIRA Board could choose to let CIRA members allocate funds to information providers in the future, so I look forward to the Board's response on whether they plan to do so.

What I infer from the above three discussions is that we members will not regain our democratic rights until more of us push for it. This gradual degradation of accountability wouldn't be so serious, except that it parallels the disconnect between voters and elected leaders in our largest organizations: corporations and national governments. But the parallel offers us an exciting opportunity: we can pave the way for global reform by starting with our smaller, less corrupt local organizations, like MEC, Vancity and CIRA.

So stay tuned. I welcome any comments, ideas, and allies -- email mark[at]votermedia.org.


Mark Latham said...

Update: I chatted with CIRA board chair Paul Andersen at the .ca member networking event in Vancouver today. Looks like I'll have some followup correspondence on the issues I raised. Thanks Paul!

Mark Latham said...

I should acknowledge some constructive response from the Vancity Board on a few of the election rules issues raised by me and others. Quotes from this message from Patrice Pratt, Chair of the Vancity Nominations and Election Committee:

"We revised the election guidelines to clarify information about campaigning, including how candidates can express their personal views on issues. This clarified that candidates are free to express their personal views on current issues affecting Vancity and the financial industry, but may not commit the Board to a specific course of action if they are elected."

"Candidates may now use endorsements and testimonials in their campaign material."

These positive changes help make the election process more democratic, which I appreciate as a Vancity member. Depending on how they are implemented, the changes could increase my estimate of Vancity's democracy score from 22% to as high as 27% on this spreadsheet.

So there is still a long way to go.

James McRitchie said...


This is a great initiative. What a difference it would make if even 2% of co-op members began requesting a forum and two way communication. Co-ops would soon be reconnected to their democratic roots.