The part-time politician: how Switzerland has legitimised government

As governments rethink roles and their relationships with the public, the political experience in Switzerland provides some inspiration on how to build a more legitimate government

The picturesque village of Erlenbach lies about 10 kilometres south of Zürich, in northern Switzerland, on the shore of Lake Zürich. It is one of more than 2,200 municipalities, or ‘communes’ in Switzerland and each of these, like the country’s 26 cantons and the Swiss Federal Government itself, is run mostly by a team of part-time politicians.

Philipp Weckherlin, who has previously written for CPI about public management, is one of these people, devoting about 15% of his time to the management of Erlenbach as an elected member of the village’s Executive. 

The vast majority of our politicians work part-time. They are lawyers or farmers or teachers by trade who, for whatever but mostly altruistic reasons, are eager to be involved in the running of their communities. – Weckherlin

“It’s not a professional political system per se – these people are less dependent on whether they are elected or not. The system doesn’t create a guild of professional politicians. It makes sure you’re still actively participating in real life and that you bring your background with you so that you continue to develop.” 

Under the Swiss system – the Miliz system – Erlenbach’s 5,500 residents have the opportunity to elect their local political representatives every four years. In municipalities with a population greater than 10,000, such as the country’s larger cities, a parliament can be used instead of a municipal assembly, which performs these tasks instead of citizens.

The system is popular and transparent in Switzerland. 

“Swiss people see the system as legitimate because they can choose the kind of local government they want, and choose what their taxes are spent on,” Weckherlin said. “Do they want a bigger school? More police? Do they want a new sporting arena, or none at all? They choose themselves – but they have to pay for it. 

They decide on the budget for school, police, water and electricity supply, subsidies, whether we have own fire brigade, or whether we share with another village. It’s all in their hands.

Of course, similar systems of local government exist elsewhere in the world, albeit with different operational and organisational structures – and with different problems, too. In the UK, for example, citizens’ access to services and amenities can be determined by which side of the street they’re born on. A family living on one side of a street might be part of a different council or school district compared to a family living on the other side of the street and might, as a result, get access to different services.

The Swiss system of government overcomes the UK’s ‘postcode lottery’ issue; that is, where the quality of public services and amenities are determined purely by geographic lottery. 

“Villages that are relatively poor are supported by villages that are relatively rich,” he said. “In fact, 50% of Erlenbach’s revenues go to poorer villages. This is a core part of the cantonal system.

“A lot of the tasks of the Executive are allocated. Each of us is responsible by law for a specific number of tasks. You can also organise the funding of these tasks. But if you want to fund something, you have to ask the people. And if you screw something up, you are accountable and always visible to your community – even in the shops.

“People speak to me in the shops all the time. They ask questions, they comment, they judge – politicians are really exposed to constituents in Erlenbach. 

“Twice a year we have a general assembly where we meet in the town hall or the church. Many people choose to have high involvement – they can come, but they don’t need to come,” he said. 

“We present the budget, proposed projects, the investment plan, tax rates, and politicians have to stand in front of up to 500 people and explain why they are for or against a certain proposal. That has a real impact on your sense of accountability.” 

The key to the Swiss system working, says Weckherlin, is the three systems of government working collegially but independently. 

“We have a federal government that has a series of tasks, we have the cantonal system, and we have the villages. The funding of the village is not reliant on the other levels of government,” he said. 

“We decide on taxes and expenditures ourselves, and we work with other villages.

“In Erlenbach, for example, the Executive has bundled the electricity and water supply as well as the local hospital with neighbouring municipalities in a joint stock company.”  

Weckherlin concedes that despite its transparency and popularity, a few improvements could be made to the Swiss system of government. He cites the division of labor between the elected executive team and the permanent public administration as one area which needs improvement.

“The model of community governance in Switzerland must also improve in terms of good public governance. But with a high level of transparency, personal responsibility and accountability amongst politicians, especially with regard to tax and expenditure policies, the foundations have been laid.

“In an international context, the system is very well advanced – it builds on high legitimacy, transparency and accountability.”

The Miliz system of government might not be new, but other governments around the world could surely draw some inspiration from the Swiss experience. Context is key and many features of this system won’t easily transfer across to different places. It helps, however, to expand our imagination with regards to what’s possible.