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benefit fraud Citizen movement campaigns to curb social detectives

crowd of people in bern

German-Swiss author Sibylle Berg addresses supporters of the 'social detectives' referendum campaign in Bern, on April 5, 2018.

(Keystone)

The deployment of ‘social detectives’ to track welfare fraudsters is nothing new in Switzerland. But since the passing of a law granting the investigators more powers, an unprecedented citizen movement has emerged in protest.

It began on Twitter. On March 16, soon after a parliamentary decision granted wide snooping powers to welfare detectives, author Sibylle Berg tweeted her disgust and asked what could be done. Dimitri Rougy, a young Social Democrat activist from Interlaken, quickly replied with a simple “I would help!”

A day later, the team expanded to four – plus a coder – and a website was created. After a week, almost 12,000 pledges of support were collected. Finally, on April 5, the official referendum campaign was launched in Bern.

The scale and speed of the movement is “something that Switzerland has never seen before”, Rougy reckons.

The quartet, who didn’t meet face-to-face until a week after the campaign began, had set at 5,000 the threshold of online supporters that would give them the confidence to launch an official campaign. They more than doubled this.

The enthusiasm, followed by the belated support of the leftwing Social Democrats, has left Rougy hugely optimistic about reaching the required 50,000 signatures before July 5 to force a referendum.

Why now, and why this issue? The now, as Rougy explains, can be explained by the fact that none of the established political parties initially wanted to launch or support a referendum against the new law. The Social Democrats were reluctant to politicise an already sensitive issue; the Greens reportedly had financial qualms. This meant that the space opened up for – and required – a broader citizen movement, he says.

Although he is involved in local politics with the Social Democrats, Rougy does not like to be called a politician. He is rather an activist and a campaigner, he says, words that chime with the type of cross-cutting appeal that this “social movement” has inspired. He is also in tune with recent trends towards crowd-sourcing: “I believe in crowds, social movements, not single people changing the whole world.”  

‘Trespassing on privacy’

As for why this issue, few other provoke such strong reactions as welfare fraud. The new regulation, which came in response to criticism from the European Court of Human Rights in 2016, will give private detectives hired by social insurance bodies the right to follow, and record, welfare recipients anywhere in the public space.

Most controversially, they will be able to use technology such as GPS devices, which activists say could open the possibility of drones being used to snoop on people (though a judge’s permission may be required for going this far).

Sharp reactions have come from the left. “We’re going to take more care in tracking potential benefit fraudsters than tracking potential terrorists, paedophiles or murderers,” said Social Democrat Rebecca Ruiz in the wake of the vote.

Rougy goes further: the law runs counter to democracy and the Swiss constitution, he says, particularly Article 13, guaranteeing the inviolability – except under certain circumstances – of the private sphere.

“I am against fraud and against abuse of the system,” he says. “But it’s the ‘how’ of policing this that is the big question.”

He says that in giving private detectives virtually the same powers as police and official investigators, the regulation undermines the rule of law. The judicial system already has means of tackling fraudsters, he says. The new methods amount to a “trespassing on privacy”, and gives the insurance companies – who lobbied for it “aggressively” – disproportionate power.

If you’ve got nothing to hide…

Welfare in general, and fraud in particular, is always a heated issue – but whether the numbers are proportionate to the hype is a matter of opinion.

In Switzerland, around 1% or less of recipients of health benefits are “false handicaps”, says Swiss public television, RTS. Weeding them out could save up to CHF60 million ($62.8 million) annually.

“Abuses are happening, and those committing them should be punished,” Raymond Clottu of the rightwing Swiss People’s Party told the 24 Heures daily newspaper.

“If somebody has nothing to hide, then even if they are followed, this doesn’t raise any problem. Society has changed. We live in a connected world and it’s normal that tools are adapted. When it comes to publishing your private life on Facebook, nobody has a problem with that.”

Andreas Dummermuth, president of the cantonal compensation funds, which coordinate welfare payments, also defended the law, saying that benefits are not for “picking and choosing”.

The social insurance system is the most expensive infrastructure in the country, he told the Swiss public broadcaster, SRF: about a quarter of Swiss GDP is spent on social security each year. Besides, he said, the new law has “clear rules”, and abuse will be examined on a case-by-case basis. It’s not an issue of “guns being used to shoot sparrows”.

Experimenting in digital democracy

Daniel Graf, the last addition to the referendum quartet, says the issue is fundamentally important, hence the interest. “Everybody has insurance,” he says (state-coordinated social insurance is mandatory in Switzerland). This means everybody is liable to one day be affected by these measures.

“There is a fear of losing your private life to a commercial organisation,” he says. “It’s a very existential issue.”

But as the political scientist and digital democracy aficionado of the quartet, Graf is equally as interested in the potential of such broad-based citizen action for the future of politics and democracy.

In this context, whether the referendum succeeds or fails is not always the point; the point is to try new things that can blossom and then subside quickly, he says. It’s about “living” democracy, and “this is a very strong impulse”.

What makes this current project different, he adds, is the level of engagement of those pledging to support the referendum. Rather than simply adding their names to an online petition, supporters have pledged to provide concrete support: by promising to secure the signatures of a certain number of friends, for example, by helping to print and deliver leaflets, or by donating money (some CHF30,000 has been collected).

This marks a shift from passive clicktivism to digital activism, something Graf says he also saw in Bernie Sanders’ grassroots US campaign, where the message was that “the most important thing in organising a political campaign is to give people something to do”.

Another thing he sees as new – and promising – is that the bulk of the movement’s organisation has been taken up not by digital natives but by 40- to 60-year-olds. These operate not necessarily only on social media but also by word of mouth in the “offline space”, which remains important, he says.

What about the future of political organisation – does this spell the end for traditional political parties? Graf thinks not. Parties, as established structures, are important for longer-term stability and votes, he believes, while digital democracy gives more power to the people to propose.

“The two methods of legislating are complementary. It’s not about killing the middleman,” he says.

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