The process of liberalization and deregulation of public services has brought to our attention the debate on the organizational form of companies operating in these sectors. Usually, this debate has focused on the dichotomy of public-private for-profit businesses. Another possible alternative is represented by cooperatives and non-profit organizations.
This paper deals with consumer cooperatives and those organizational forms that are characterized by the involvement of consumers in the supply of services through their participation in the management of these same services. In other words, the main aim of this paper is to spark a debate on this form of organization. Consumer cooperatives can be defined as users of a service that join together in order to meet their needs mutually. They are an alternative model to the private and public provision of local public services. So, the process of liberalization and deregulation could be a new field of development for the cooperative movement, and at the same time an opportunity for consumers themselves.
First, the paper will demonstrate how the concept of consumer cooperatives in public services could be similar to the one of social enterprise, also through the concept of community cooperative. Second, a review of the economic literature on the involvement of consumers in the provision of public utilities will be presented with the aim of outlining advantages and disadvantages of this form. In particular, Hansmann’s work will be examined as well as the work of economists who came after him and contributed to a better understanding of consumer cooperatives. Third, the paper will give a general overview of consumer cooperatives in public services in Italy in order to understand this phenomenon.
This overview will also include some general remarks drawn from case studies. Finally, some general data are provided on consumer cooperatives in public services in the United Kingdom, Spain, Germany, France and the USA.