• Opinion
  • January 9, 2019
  • 7 minutes
  • 1

Open Government in Switzerland: challenges, risks and opportunities

Opinion: Rethinking government structures has become a priority in the digital age

This opinion piece was written by Rosalyne Marie Reber, open government strategist and consultant at @OGP_Switzerland. She’s also a master candidate in public management and policy at the University of Bern. For more like this, see our government innovation newsfeed.


To understand what open government means in Switzerland, it’s essential to keep in mind the country’s unique direct democracy and federalist structure.

The Swiss political system already promotes open conversations between government and citizens. Several times a year the population votes on public reforms, impacting the future policies of their country.

Federalism also has its advantages. Small movements and civic labs bring new ideas, and these are usually gradually developed from municipalities to cantons with the help of the respective public sector leaders at the top.

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Given that Swiss citizens already have more opportunities to speak with government than almost any other citizens in the world, what can still be improved in terms of civic engagement and participation?

Statistics show that even though the number of citizen polls is increasing, voter participation remains low. Swiss people often have the opportunity to shape public policies, but the numbers show that they rarely do.

What is the benefit of democratic decision-making if people don’t make use of it?

One could assume that this low voter turnout expresses that voters are satisfied with the status quo and trust the government state. But what is the benefit of democratic decision-making if people don’t make use of it? Involving more people in decision-making will require them developing new motivations to do so.

One way to involve more voices could be developing enthusiasm to engage in politics, especially in younger people at school and universities. Education systems could play a critical role in teaching, from a young age, the importance brought to society of each and every one of us voting for positive change.

By combining this with the potential of open government initiatives and digital technologies, new perspectives to shape public sector innovation would arise.

New mindset and cultural change

Rethinking government structures has become a priority in the age of emerging digitisation. Information and communication technologies have changed the way people interact with their social, economic and political environments.

Online platforms, social media, smartphones and crowdsourcing have opened new ways to communicate

Online platforms, social media, smartphones and crowdsourcing have opened new ways to communicate on different levels with multiple stakeholders. Those channels have high potential to be extended for the development of new reforms and projects in the public sector, especially in an innovative country like Switzerland.

But this change also requires enabling a new way of thinking which promotes open communication between citizen and government. With more transparency, it is possible to strengthen trust and increase the population’s democratic participation. Enhanced cooperation with both civil society and citizens will allow innovative ideas to spread, adding value for the public sector.

It’s essential to include creative minds from areas like start-ups, entrepreneurship, digital and innovation labs to bring new perspectives to the outdated bureaucratic world of yesterday. Promoting more creativity, emotional intelligence, leadership skills and marketing strategies will help bring the public sector change that’s needed to make government fit for the 21st century.

In Switzerland, the goal should be a more human-centred approach, using design thinking throughout the policy cycle, to bring together complex institutional and social dynamics for a common social purpose.

However, one has to admit that it is not easy for traditional civil servants and administrative institutions to integrate these new way of thinking in everyday workplace situations. But investing in — and practicing — an entrepreneurial mindset will be essential for true innovation in the public sector.

Skills of the future

What competencies and skills are needed for modern day innovation in the public sector? This question represents a significant challenge.

Digital skills, literacy and computing will be critical. New technologies and platforms — including the internet and social media — provide transparency and have enormous potential to motivate citizens to participate more in co-creation processes.

Finding long-lasting solutions for more collaboration should be the focus. Open government allows new boundaries to be set between citizens, politicians and bureaucrats. The more cohesiveness, the more added value is created for the public — and the better designed our public services are.

When ideas are co-created and co-produced, the respective needs of all parts of society can be taken into account

When ideas are co-created and co-produced, the respective needs of all parts of society can be taken into account. This allows public administrations to meet the expectations of citizens on a higher level.

The development of new skills and strategies linked to digital marketing, creativity, reputation management and branding must also be prioritised. It’s all about how you communicate the importance and value of open government with powerful storytelling.

In a world where digital technologies play an ever more crucial role, it is essential to have open communication about what government can do. This openness could build new bridges to strengthen legitimacy and accountability in creating a new era of digital diplomacy and modern democracy. — Rosalyne Marie Reber

(Picture credit: Yves Merckx)

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