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Federal employees face an uncertain future

A member of the civil service union demonstrating against planned government cutbacks

(Keystone Archive)

The untimely departure of the head of the Federal Personnel Office has cast a shadow over Switzerland's civil service reform.

Peter Hablützel, the outgoing official, has said he is "disgusted" at the way federal employees are being treated.

"Spring-cleaning" is how Finance Minister Hans-Rudolf Merz has defined plans to reform the federal administration.

But the "cleaning" has got off to an inauspicious start, with the sudden departure of the head of the Federal Personnel Office, Peter Hablützel.

Hablützel, who has held the post since 1989, had been intending to resign in February 2006 but Merz, his direct supervisor, has asked him to go at the end of September 2005.

Hablützel's departure gives a clear signal as to the new direction of staffing policy.

As Hablützel himself has admitted, he was unable to establish a relationship of trust with his boss. However, the reasons for his leaving go deeper, having to do not so much with the general principle – Hablützel is in favour of staffing cuts – as with the way in which the restructuring is being carried through.

"You cannot restructure overnight, by sacking hundreds of people," he maintains.

Action plan

At the beginning of September Merz presented his blueprint for reform to the government.

He said its purpose was to "simplify procedures and re-evaluate structures in order to make them more effective". Above all, the plan will result in savings of SFr30 million ($24 million) by the end of 2007 and SFr40 million a year from 2008.

The action plan put forward by the government – which was obliged to make savings after parliament approved the cost-cutting 2004 budget – provides for nine inter-departmental projects and a further 25 affecting individual departments.

Some of these will have immediate consequences, such as the shedding of certain civil service functions, while others will take effect in the medium term.

Some activities have already been reorganised. The Federal Refugees Office has been merged with the Federal Immigration, Integration and Emigration Office to form the Federal Migration Office.

A special committee, consisting of cabinet ministers Christoph Blocher, Hans-Rudolf Merz and Micheline Calmy-Rey, Chancellor Annemarie Huber-Hotz and the former senator from Lucerne Ulrich Fässer, will oversee individual aspects of the overall strategy.

"A protected environment"

While Foreign Minister Calmy-Rey will be responsible for reviewing how the various departments are run, Merz and Blocher will be in charge of the projects which actually involve reductions in personnel.

In particular, Justice Minister Blocher's task will be to simplify the regulations regarding federal employment and eliminate duplication.

This apportioning of tasks has been bitterly criticised. Some say that Merz has shirked his responsibilities as minister in charge of personnel matters and has handed them over to a man who will have few scruples in making cutbacks.

Blocher, who has referred to the federal administration as a "protected environment insensitive to financial constraints", has already given notice of how he intends to proceed: in June he announced a reduction of 116 posts out of 585 in the central services of his own department in order to save SFr13 million a year.

More recently he turned his attention to the Federal Court, asking it to propose ways of reducing its budget by one fifth.

Strained relationship

The spectre of reductions in staffing levels has been raised by the civil service union, which has requested that restructuring be carried out without redundancies.

However, with Christoph Blocher in control of the "duplication-busting" operation, it is unlikely that the reform will be carried out without some casualties. It is reckoned that, by 2010, some 4,500 of the present 37,000 posts in the federal administration will have been eliminated.

Hans-Rudolf Merz has nevertheless promised that the government will continue to be an "attractive, socially responsible and trustworthy employer".

For his part, Peter Hablützel has had no hesitation in saying he is "disgusted" at the way people are being treated: a statement that would have been unthinkable just a few years ago.

The government would therefore do well to keep the promise made by Merz. If it fails to do so, its increasingly strained relationship with federal employees, who until now have not been particularly militant, is in danger of breaking down.

swissinfo, Daniele Mariani and Luigi Jorio

Key facts

37,000 people are currently employed in the federal administration.
By 2010, it is likely that 4,500 posts will have been abolished.
The cost of the reform project adopted by the government is around SFr8.5 million.
The reforms should result in annual savings of up to SFr40 million.

end of infobox

In brief

In recent years federal administration staff have had to come to terms with various cost-cutting measures.

In January 2002 the new law on federal employment abolished their privileged status as civil servants and made it possible to dismiss them.

In May 2004 Finance Minister Hans-Rudolf Merz announced that federal employees would not be entitled to a cost-of-living rise in 2005.

Then in June 2005 parliament adopted a programme to cut the public spending budget, effectively reducing the allocation for "personnel" by SFr150 million.

end of infobox


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