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The Swiss ‘don’t lead, we coordinate’

Switzerland’s Federal Chancellor Walter Thurnherr
Walter Thurnherr speaks at a press conference in April. Keystone

As Switzerland’s Federal Chancellor, Walter Thurnherr has unique insights into the inner workings of the country’s government. He shares how the seven-member cabinet prioritises issues and runs the country on a day-to-day basis.

Mr. Thurnherr, as Federal Chancellor, you have a special perspective on the work of the government. Is it true that the seven-member cabinet mostly looks at business from individual departments and rarely deals with strategic issues?

Walter Thurnherr: The cabinet processes around 2,600 issues a year in around 40 meetings. You can work out for yourself the average time it can spend on one issue. This is only possible because the topics are very well prepared, discussed and sometimes dealt with in advance by the administration and department heads. Some of the issues are of strategic importance and the cabinet has to be able to discuss them more in-depth. That’s why we are holding a whole series of internal sessions this year on agriculture, health and European relations, for example. These time windows are important because many issues are becoming more and more complicated, more networked and more international.

Investing time is one thing, but the cabinet must also have the will to proceed together. That will is difficult to recognise, especially when it comes to European politics.

In this respect, European politics is a special case because we are currently in the middle of negotiations with the European Union. In this situation, the cabinet needs a negotiation strategy. You should not hatch your plans in public or leak them to journalists.

However, there is also a domestic dimension to the debate. And there is little evidence of leadership in that respect.

“Leadership” is a contradictory term in Swiss politics. Because among all the criticisms that people often like to express about lack of leadership, there is no doubt about one point: a situation with one person leading should be avoided at all costs. In Switzerland, we don’t “lead”, we coordinate. The maximum amount of leadership we allow others to have is called “guidance”. And it has never done us much harm.

How can we pave the way for continuing to develop a bilateral approach in parliament and in the Swiss population if the cabinet itself is not even united?

W.T.: There is probably a consensus among many people – including the cabinet – concerning Switzerland’s goal of maintaining bilateral relations with the EU and making them legal. The question is: how do we get there and what price are we willing to pay to do so? Clarifying this with a single strategic effort is not very easy under the system of direct democracy. Being a bit smarter than average pays off. But those who deem themselves far more intelligent in politics are living dangerously as they are balanced out with a referendum that comes, on average, every three months. People may be critical of this. I personally think that this system produces an astonishing amount of collective intelligence.

The government needs to have a consolidated attitude on the specific question of the price [to pay for maintaining bilateral relations.

Negotiations on the institutional questions are now underway. And, as I said, during this time, experience has taught me that holding your tongue is the smarter option. Of course there is uneasiness, but not just in European politics. Because parliament and the population are increasingly realising just how interdependent foreign and domestic politics are, and just how much this limits their scope for action. Take bank secrecy or the automatic exchange of information, for example. To some extent, they are difficult or frustrating experiences for the legislators.

In addition to increasing international integration, rapid technological development is also putting politicians under more and more pressure. Is our political system reaching its limits?

W.T.: There will certainly be more tensions. Our political processes, with all the consultations and discussions, demand a lot of time. However, technological change is arriving more and more quickly and inevitably. The pressure will therefore increase.

And what can we do about it? Should the right to have a say be restricted?

W.T.: No. We still need to take the time needed for contemplation. This normally creates better laws, not worse ones. The question is, instead, whether we can regulate differently. Do we always require a new law, or would a regulation suffice? Would regulations have to be increasingly target-oriented and technology-neutral and would the path to them need to be kept open? This, of course, requires a certain amount of trust in the administration and the Federal Council. Another issue is being able to recognise and decide early enough whether something needs to be regulated at all. Politicians and the administration should cooperate more with academics and economists in this respect.

Do we need a sort of think tank to recognise the need to regulate early on?

W.T.: The [Federal Institute of Technology] ETH used to be a sort of competence centre of the state. Nowadays, everything has been neatly separated or outsourced. You also don’t want to disrupt its independence. However, cooperation could once again be intensified. Our research institutes – including universities and universities of applied sciences – will become aware of certain developments earlier on than the administration. The same applies to the economy. People used to assume that the militia system ensured the necessary exchange [with people serving in the military together]. This is not necessarily the case anymore. Perhaps it needs a new approach.

The fundamental question is whether Switzerland is sleeping through digitalisation.

Digitalisation is a huge challenge for all countries: they must have the necessary infrastructure available, new business models emerge, as do competition issues. Security is a key issue that demands fundamental requirements from the State.

Can you put that into concrete terms?

W.T.: Let’s take the global ransomware attack on May 12. How is the State to guarantee protection of its citizens’ property and integrity in the event of cyberattacks like these? Or the “Internet of Things”: lots of people are talking about data privacy in regard to this. But I still see quite different challenges.

Like what?

W.T.: For example, if you want to get a car approved today, you need to complete a variety of tests, such as whether the car meets safety requirements. Now, and particularly in the future, vehicle software will be updated via the internet on an ongoing basis, which can lead to fundamental changes in the car. How can the State still verify safety and other requirements in this respect? How can it turn a single approval procedure into a continuous process? Of course, this doesn’t just apply to cars, but rather to all things linked to the internet.

Politicians are clearly trying to transfer the analogue world of regulations to the new, digital one. But should there simply be fewer regulations?

W.T.: Politicians can be a little hypocritical when it comes to regulation. Out of the 1,500 parliamentary proposals that are submitted to parliament every year, only a few are messages of congratulations to the cabinet. Most are asking for something to be regulated. However, the problem with digitalisation is primarily that national regulation is often not possible. Things like network neutrality, data protection or the fight against cyber criminality can’t be regulated on a national level. There is increasing pressure for international regulation here.

Last week, the cabinet declared itself in favour of slowing down the flood of regulations. For every new law passed, one of equal value is to be abolished. Do you think this is possible?

W.T.: Everything is possible. I would just point out that parliament regularly asks the cabinet to review the administration’s tasks. And every time the cabinet suggests abolishing a task, it faces resistance in parliament. I am interested to see the debates that will arise if the cabinet makes specific proposals about which laws it wants to abolish.

You talked about the value of collective intelligence. How do you rate our government in this respect?

W.T.: I am a fan of the system with seven cabinet ministers. Tackling a problem from seven different angles creates added value. In other countries, decisions are often made more quickly – and more mistakes are made, too.

But does collective intelligence come into play in the current cabinet?

W.T.: That’s a sneaky question you’re asking. I think so, yes. And by the way, scientific studies also show that collective intelligence increases when both genders are adequately represented.

Translated from German

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SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR