Helen Milner: Why we became a mutual

The chief executive of the Online Centres Foundation, which helps communities tackle social and digital exclusion, talks about the steps the organisation took towards becoming a mutual

Helen Milner
Helen Milner

Last year, the organisation I run – the Online Centres Foundation – spun out from its parent public body to become one of the first national staff-owned mutuals to emerge from the public sector. 

Nine months down the line, I can look back at what we've achieved with pride and amazement. The team and I have learnt a lot of useful lessons that we can share with anybody who is going through a similar process.

My first top tip would be that commitment is key. It's not always an easy process to go through, so you need to be really clear why you're becoming a mutual. Mutualisation was something that really fitted our culture: we’ve always been open and entrepreneurial, and we’ve always been quite businesslike in the way we delivered our social ambitions. It was holding on to the vision of how good it was going to be that kept me going through some pretty stressful times.

Second, becoming a mutual is all about your staff, so make sure they’re key to all your decision-making. I’m pretty lucky that the team here is really engaged and we've always been consultative, but the process of mutualising means lots of upheaval, so it’s always important to keep your staff involved as well as informed. Information was always shared openly and the team was encouraged to ask questions and to talk about things that were worrying them.

A staff-owned mutual does mean more decision-making by staff. For us, it means we have three elected staff members on our board. However, democracy isn’t the same thing as anarchy - there is still a management structure and decisions may be taken that an individual colleague doesn’t agree with. Staff must still respect the authority of their line managers. We’ve collectively written up the role description of board directors and have emphasised that the staff-elected members are individuals with their own ideas and expertise; they are not representatives who need to go back to the team to gauge views. Once the team elects them they are still an individual. This is important because the staff board members need to be equal to all other board members and they need to be able to clearly express their own views in the middle of a lively debate.

And lastly, you can’t engineer it all - nice surprises will happen along the way. For example, from day one the money felt like our own and everyone in the team behaved as if it was ours. It is the same budget from the same source as before we became a mutual, but now we wanted to spend it more wisely and make savings where we could. The whole team cared about the bottom line – our survival as an organisation is about earning that money, even if it’s the same government money from the same department. Any savings we make against the budget are then put back into a pot and the team decides how to spend it to reach our social goals (and our contracted targets, of course).

The process of transfer hasn't always been an easy one. There have been even more late nights along the way and it's been a huge learning curve for the whole team, but looking back I wouldn't change a thing. As an organisation we're smarter and more independent, and we’re able to deliver a better service with a greater social impact – which is why we’re all here. For this reason, I’m so glad we’ve gone through the mutual journey.

And for anyone else who’s just setting out on a similar journey, do feel free to get in touch. I don't have all the answers, but I can certainly offer a few words of advice and a strong cup of coffee. I'd love to hear from you.

Helen Milner is chief executive of the Online Centres Foundation

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