Duane Ninneman is Executive Director of CURE in Montevideo, Minnesota. He lives on a farm in Big Stone County.
Q: What sparked this review and report on co-op websites? Why did you do it?
Ninneman: It all stems from the premise that a co-op is an amazing model in the energy sector, because it’s nonprofit and community-owned — and because empowering communities to be involved in energy locally gives people such a great tool for their economies, as well as for their homes and farms and other businesses.
But if there’s a big gap between co-op leadership decision-making and most co-op members — if it’s not easy for members to understand co-op policies and participate — then that can be a real problem. For example, that could lead to a perception of leadership speaking for a community when in fact much of the community isn’t informed or engaged. Or it could lead to widely shared values – such as around locally produced clean energy – just not being well-represented at a leadership level.
So reviewing co-op websites is a starting point way to glimpse how co-ops are doing at this core idea of energy democracy, at helping people with easy access to information they need to have and exercise a say in the energy organizations they co-own.
Q: So what’s your overall takeaway from this project? What’s your message to Minnesotans?
Ninneman: Pretty simply, it’s that there is a huge need for improvement. The majority of Minnesota electric co-op websites don’t have information about topics like how member-owners can vote in co-op elections, or contact their board members, or attend a board meeting. Most don’t have basic explainers for people about how they’re charged on their bills or what sources of energy they’re bills are funding. This is pretty troubling. People need easy access to that kind basic information, to help ensure that a co-op really is the democracy it’s supposed to be.
Transparency and good communication is especially important at rural electric co-ops because they’re owned by the residents and businesses they serve. Co-op principles are all about democracy, accountability to members and helping members to participate. An electric co-op website isn’t the only way to communicate but it’s certainly a vital one in the digital age — the web is pretty much the first stop when you’re looking for any information. It’s a fundamental public-facing place to show commitment to transparency and engaging your community.
The fact that a handful of co-ops in the state are posting much of this basic information on their websites shows this is doable. The fact that the large majority aren’t posting most of this information shows the work to be done.
Q: But doesn’t participation and involvement rest with the individual? If you don’t like what your elected officials are doing, you have to contact them, get involved, or vote for someone else, right?
Ninneman: Like any democracy, it has to be not only possible to participate but actually not difficult to do so — and that starts in part with good communication and access to information. If information about how to run for office or vote in an election is buried in fine print somewhere deep in a bylaws document, that’s putting a lot of burden on a busy person. That’s making it difficult.
If co-op board meetings aren’t easy for a working person to attend and there isn’t easy access to minutes or notes about what happened at a meeting, that’s making it difficult for someone to know if their priorities and views are being represented or not in decision-making. If there’s no email or phone number on the website for co-op board directors, that’s making it difficult for members to convey their views.
Q: So are you saying that co-ops in Minnesota aren’t democratic?
Ninneman: We’re saying there’s real cause for concern. In this report card, we’ve focused only on co-op websites and whether they are helping members be informed and involved, whether there’s good transparency and effort by co-ops on their websites. That’s certainly one measure, but it’s only one. There are others that are beyond the scope of this study, such as practices and policies around voting, getting on the ballot or participating at a board meeting. As we all know, an institution can have democratic policies on the books, but in practice there can be barriers or exploitation that interferes and limits its actual exercise.
What time of day are board meetings at? What’s the process for being able to speak at them? Are they comfortable or intimidating places for a member to participate? How do you get on the ballot to run for co-op board? Are there nominating committees or other procedures that might discourage or discriminate in any way? If you become a candidate, can you get a membership list? How much does it cost? If there is proxy voting allowed in elections, is a co-op abusing that in any way, such as by bundling votes? These are all other important questions toward gauging democracy at a rural electric co-op.
We haven’t looked at voting rates just for Minnesota, but we know from other studies that at the large majority of rural electric co-ops around the country, voting rates are under 10 percent. There’s a clearly a need to be doing everything possible just to make it easy to participate.
Q: What would you say was your most surprising or alarming finding?
Ninneman: It’s hard to say, given that so many of the pieces of information we were looking for are so basic. But one that really stands out was the frequent absence of a good clear “here’s how you vote in co-op board elections” page on most co-op websites. That’s pretty fundamental and I thought we’d find that information on more sites – even when elections aren’t going on — as a way of educating members about their voice. Most of the pages that did include information about elections tucked it away in old newsletters. It was also troubling that we couldn’t find a co-op in Minnesota that gave comprehensive information on the different sources of their electricity and how much came from where. Member owners want to know what percent of their energy is coming from coal and what is coming from wind and solar. It would also be helpful to be able to see how much electricity is being imported into Minnesota from out of state.
Q: If co-op bylaws are posted online, and they cover things like voting, isn’t that good enough? What about mailed co-op newsletters that may have some of this information?
Ninneman: Web content nowadays can be so much more user-friendly and accessible than just uploading a file for download. Good communication isn’t a long or dense document, it’s organizing and highlighting information for people on easy-to-digest web pages with headers and tabs or dropdown menus that get your attention.
And good communication today is also about publishing information on multiple platforms, distributing through multiple channels. While some people will look at a newsletter, others prefer social media or a website, or even a podcast or a video. Just checking one box isn’t enough, especially when you’re aiming to increase engagement. It’s important to get content out in many ways and let your audience access it in through the channels they like best.