Compe­ti­tion of expe­ri­ments in real time

Federalism is a collaborative form based on contrasts and opposites. It provides a diverse range of solutions and needs to be developed further for the future.

Anti-demo­cra­tic deve­lo­p­ments are making head­lines around the world. Social cohe­sion constantly needs to be reestab­lished. Without wishing to detract from the latest deve­lo­p­ments in any way, this insight is not new. But it shows that there are exis­ting and lear­ned measu­res that can be applied. Fede­ra­lism also needs to be nurtu­red and deve­lo­ped. In Switz­er­land, a constant flow of new initia­ti­ves play their part here. In 2022, the Swiss Society for the Common Good (SSCG), foun­ded in 1810, laun­ched the Think + Do Tank Pro Futu­ris to tackle the latest issues and chal­lenges. It is desi­gned to offer space for expe­ri­men­ta­tion with the aim of streng­thening demo­cracy. The same idea moti­va­ted Natio­nal Coun­cil member Nata­lie Imbo­den in 2022, when she tabled a motion suggest­ing that a fitting way to mark the 175th anni­ver­sary of the fede­ral consti­tu­tion would be to create a demo­cracy foun­da­tion for the future. These endea­vours join the ranks of exis­ting initia­ti­ves focu­sing on natio­nal cohe­sion and main­tai­ning demo­cracy. As far back as 1914, intellec­tu­als in French-spea­king Switz­er­land initia­ted the foun­da­tion of the New Helve­tic Society (NHG). On the eve of the First World War, they felt that the looming inter­na­tio­nal conflict threa­tened dome­stic peace between the German-spea­king and French-spea­king regi­ons of Switz­er­land. Many years later, in 1967, the NHG, along with the cantons, foun­ded the ‘ch Foun­da­tion for Fede­ral Coope­ra­tion’. The cata­lyst, accor­ding to the comme­mo­ra­tive publi­ca­tion by Swiss jour­na­list Hans Tschäni marking the 50th anni­ver­sary of the NHG, was the sense that the cantons ‘cannot bring them­sel­ves to colla­bo­rate properly’. 

Longer-term work

The foun­da­tion enab­led the cantons to support colla­bo­ra­tion. Since its crea­tion, it has initia­ted and nurtu­red a range of diffe­rent projects – for exam­ple it awards the Prize for Fede­ra­lism, and this March it laun­ched the Citoy­enneté Confe­rence to encou­rage the cantons to exch­ange ideas on poli­ti­cal educa­tion. In 1976, it intro­du­ced the Premier Emploi programme, which conti­nues to give unem­ployed gradua­tes the oppor­tu­nity to take up an intern­ship in a diffe­rent language region to promote cultu­ral-poli­ti­cal bridge-buil­ding. The foun­da­tion is the perfect vessel for promo­ting colla­bo­ra­tion between the cantons and imple­men­ting projects in the inte­rests of all 26. 

‘The ch Foun­da­tion is able to ignore poli­ti­cal rele­vance to a certain extent and take on longer-term tasks: main­tai­ning social cohe­sion and helping fede­ra­lism to evolve,’ explains Florence Nater, state coun­cil­lor of the canton of Neuen­burg and chair of the board of trus­tees. It comple­ments the Confe­rence of Canto­nal Govern­ments (KdK) and the Direc­tors’ conferences.

The latter involve meetings of the canto­nal depart­mental direc­tors on a speci­fic subject. The KdK is the body for all canto­nal govern­ments. The foun­da­tion, by contrast, inter­venes less on ever­y­day issues. It does the ground­work. ‘The foun­da­tion wants to make Switzerland’s diver­sity visi­ble and to provide impul­ses that can be taken up and deve­lo­ped in poli­tics and society,’ Florence Nater states. 

Strength of federalism

‘Fede­ra­lism is first and fore­most a means of living in a diverse envi­ron­ment – with diffe­rent languages, cultures and vary­ing regio­nal reali­ties – while exis­ting as a single entity at the same time,’ explains Florence Nater. It allows commu­ni­ties to live toge­ther without giving up their regio­nal idio­syn­cra­sies. But it needs a common basis: soli­da­rity, a consen­sus-seeking mind­set and subsi­dia­rity. Switz­er­land is a single entity and highly successful not despite but because of its diffe­ren­ces. Fede­ral colla­bo­ra­tion, as prac­ti­sed and supported by the ch Foun­da­tion, is based on flexi­bi­lity and proxi­mity to the people. 

‘One of the great strengths of fede­ra­lism is that decis­i­ons are not made in some poli­ti­cal centre but at local level, where their direct impact can be felt and where people have the oppor­tu­nity to parti­ci­pate,’ Florence Nater explains. Poli­ti­cal geographer and direc­tor of the Sotomo rese­arch insti­tute Michael Hermann also belie­ves that the advan­tage of fede­ra­lism is that it enables solu­ti­ons to be imple­men­ted at local level.

It reco­g­ni­ses that needs differ from region to region – those of rural areas are not the same as those of urban centres, for exam­ple – and allows these diffe­ren­ces to be taken into account. Michael Hermann attri­bu­tes the strength of Swiss fede­ra­lism to a weak­ness in the concept. The borders of the cantons do not run along language lines, which means that some cantons are multi­l­in­gual. For Michael Hermann, this is prefera­ble to Belgian fede­ra­lism, for exam­ple, where the divi­sion along language lines rein­forces diffe­ren­ces. By contrast, Swiss fede­ra­lism contri­bu­tes towards a sense of cohe­sion by not simply divi­ding the popu­la­tion into German spea­k­ers and French spea­k­ers. Instead, Michael Hermann explains, it allows people to iden­tify with a parti­cu­lar place – as a citi­zen of Zurich, Appen­zell or Valais, for exam­ple. He also sees a second important advan­tage in the fede­ral system: a compe­ti­tion of ideas. Each canton is able to find its own solu­ti­ons. ‘At canto­nal level, the idea of compe­ti­tive lear­ning from the others’ solu­ti­ons is of crucial importance,’ he main­ta­ins. ‘It is only through dialo­gue that we see what others are doing, where they have encoun­te­red issues and where they have been successful.’ This is an advan­tage that Florence Nater also cites: ‘Switz­er­land is one big labo­ra­tory for ideas, but parti­cu­larly for concrete solu­ti­ons. Fede­ra­lism allows expe­ri­ments to be lived out in real time, in a diverse society with all of its diffe­ren­ces: between regi­ons, between popu­la­tion groups from diffe­rent back­grounds and between genders,’ Florence Nater states. ‘Each commu­nity and each canton has its own expe­ri­en­ces and, in an ideal world, discus­sing them allows the good solu­ti­ons to win through. Fede­ral diver­sity is a very defi­nite plus, not a minus.’ Howe­ver, the compe­ti­tion and the diffe­ren­ces are also chal­len­ging. If mobi­lity across canto­nal borders is to be encou­ra­ged, more harmo­ni­sa­tion is needed – for exam­ple in health­care and in the educa­tion system.

‘At canto­nal level, the idea of compe­ti­tive lear­ning from others’ solu­ti­ons is of crucial importance.’

Michael Hermann, Direc­tor of the Sotomo rese­arch institute

Fede­ra­lism and cohesion

This harmo­ni­sa­tion requi­res consen­sus and a common under­stan­ding – in the same way as a colla­bo­ra­tion. In fede­ral coope­ra­tion, there is less regu­la­tory acti­vity than at natio­nal level. Because it is not possi­ble simply to prono­unce a law, human and inter­per­so­nal compon­ents become more important. The system demands more discus­sions and human under­stan­ding. Colla­bo­ra­tion takes place on an equal footing. At the confe­ren­ces, the cantons act like part­ners that repre­sent all of the diffe­rent admi­nis­tra­tive cultures, systems and tradi­ti­ons. The diffe­ren­ces are not always directly unders­tood. ‘We need cultu­ral trans­la­tors and cultu­ral inter­pre­ters,’ explains Michael Hermann. Inter­ac­tion and compa­ri­sons are important, ensu­ring that infor­ma­tion flows, inclu­ding to the outside world. If this flow of infor­ma­tion is blocked, Michael Hermann warns there is a risk of a lack of trans­pa­rency. That mili­ta­tes against trust. This is a poten­tial weak­ness of fede­ra­lism, because trans­pa­rency needs to be actively nurtu­red. ‘Not conce­al­ing infor­ma­tion is not enough,’ he explains. Twenty-six diffe­rent canto­nal solu­ti­ons lack trans­pa­rency if they cannot be compared. Infor­ma­tion needs to be harmo­nised. A key part of fede­ra­lism is making an active effort to create trans­pa­rency through compa­ra­bi­lity and to build trust. Fede­ra­lism needs constant nurtu­ring, trans­pa­rency and regu­lar dialo­gue. It is not a rigid cons­truct. ‘Like the whole poli­ti­cal system, it needs to be cons­truc­tively and criti­cally ques­tio­ned on an ongo­ing basis and, where neces­sary, fine-tuned,’ explains Florence Nater. ‘To achieve this, we need to be open to future-orien­ted solu­ti­ons.’ This sounds like a lot of work but, above all, it is an approach that brings more opportunities. 

‘The ch Foun­da­tion is able to ignore poli­ti­cal rele­vance to a certain extent and take on longer-term tasks: main­tai­ning social cohe­sion and helping fede­ra­lism to evolve.’

Florence Nater, Chair of the Board of Trus­tees at the ch Foundation

In recent years, fede­ra­lism has been under pres­sure and we have seen a tendency towards centra­li­sed solu­ti­ons. ‘But fede­ra­lism has deep roots in Switz­er­land at insti­tu­tio­nal level,’ Florence Nater main­ta­ins. The ch Foun­da­tion runs conti­nuing educa­tion clas­ses on fede­ra­lism to help deve­lop, support and streng­then it. It also aims to spark debate about the oppor­tu­ni­ties and chal­lenges invol­ved in fede­ral solu­ti­ons through its ch blog. The posts focus on concrete issues that are rele­vant to fede­ra­lism such as digi­ta­li­sa­tion, media promo­tion and crisis manage­ment. Fede­ra­lism needs to be nurtu­red. That was the whole point of crea­ting the foun­da­tion and it is as rele­vant today as it was then. Florence Nater comm­ents, ‘From the cantons’ perspec­tive, this means that one focus in the near future will be on remin­ding the popu­la­tion of the tangi­ble bene­fits and advan­ta­ges of fede­ral solu­ti­ons, as a commit­ment to respect diver­sity and as a tool of natio­nal and social cohesion.’

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