“We don’t just need a technology debate, but above all a socio-political debate”
The political structures in Switzerland can have a blocking effect on the topic of eGovernment. In an interview with Benedikt Würth, Finance Director of St. Gallen and President of the Conference of Cantonal Governments, we discussed what is important when it comes to institutional reforms. We have seen that the joint report of the Federal Department of Finance (FDF) and the Conference of Cantonal Governments (KdK) on the organisation of cooperation across federal levels has come out on the subject of eGovernment. Can you report on this? The key question today is how business processes are changing in the course of digitalisation and whether our structures are sufficiently geared to this change. This applies to private companies, but also to the state. In terms of Switzerland, horizontal, i.e. interdepartmental cooperation is required, but also vertical, cross-state cooperation. Our understanding of federalism has always been that we adapt new developments. This means that we have to find new forms of cooperation so that we can satisfy the demands of the economy and society in the area of digital services and digital government. Of course, one can take the position that the state is not in competition, so we continue as before. But that is a fallacy. Society and the economy expect us to provide these services digitally on the one hand and to try to be as efficient as possible on the other. If you draw an international comparison, you find that we, as a high-tech country, are not at the top. That is regrettable and probably also has to do with structural conditions. You mean federalism? Not only. As mentioned, not only vertical cooperation is required, but also horizontal cooperation. The pronounced distribution of responsibility is one of Switzerland’s great advantages. In the digital administration, there is actually a lot going on, perhaps too much, so that the wheels do not always mesh, but may even block each other. We must therefore network ourselves much better horizontally and vertically in the digital cross-cutting issues. This is the only way we can make use of the digital opportunities. You are actually talking about the use of synergies horizontally and vertically. However, the document also deals with commitment. Can you perhaps say something more about this? Is this necessary? In St. Gallen, the canton and the municipalities have a governance, a joint structure that is able to create liabilities. That is very important in this topic, because it is no use if we have 90 percent of the municipalities in one solution and the remaining 10 percent do it differently again. We will only have the right leverage effect when everyone is on board. At the national level, we want to build up commitment step by step. We want to raise the level of ambition step by step. There should always be a political discussion about whether we should deepen our cooperation next time. Personally, I hope that the Confederation and the cantons will eventually have a governance that can create obligations in the central issues, be it identification, basic services or master data management. These are all things that are actually the raw material for the development of further process-related applications in the individual areas. But you also want liabilities in regulation. How do you want to achieve that? Of course, it is ultimately the parliament and the people who create binding force through laws. But it is important to us that the federal government and the cantons have a structure in the future that can determine at an early stage what we need in terms of regulation in Switzerland in the entire area of digitalisation. A better and earlier vote might have helped us, for example, with the controversial e-ID law, to recognise resistance that is now manifesting itself in the referendum in good time and to develop answers to it once again. So do we need a national e-government law? It may be that at the highest level of ambition we even need a constitutional basis. I still hope that we will get relatively far within the framework of the current order. But one could also say: we have the digital transformation and the constitution must be aligned with that. For us, it is crucial that this topic is explored in depth together and that solutions are found that are supported by the Confederation and the cantons. How does the national level differ from the cantonal level? The degree of complexity is simply much greater. In our understanding of the constitution, the cantons are sovereign. They have original competence in this area. There is also a lot going on in terms of intercantonal cooperation. My canton, with its 77 communes, has just joined the www.iGov-Portal.ch association. This was founded by the cantons of Fribourg and Jura in 2017. Now the cantons of Solothurn and St. Gallen have also joined. This means that more than one million inhabitants will use the digital services offered via this portal. Federalism also has an advantage in this point because it has a certain laboratory character. People try things out, develop topics and learn from each other, which is exciting. At the national level, we have a high degree of complexity. In this context, Ueli Maurer always says: “We don’t have one federal administration, we have 80 federal offices.” This heterogeneous structure is a challenge. The federal administration is a big colossus, departments and individual offices develop their strategies. The cross-cutting offices (IT, personnel, etc.) generally have a relatively weak position. When people talk about binding governance, they immediately react with certain reflexes – they can’t or shouldn’t do something any more. But it is not about centralising IT. We want to create a foundation that makes it possible to develop applications more efficiently, that are oriented towards processes and that are as free of media discontinuities as possible. The cultural challenge will be to move away from the traditional structural and hierarchical thinking that is inherent in the administration to a process thinking that is not necessarily only oriented towards departmental or office boundaries. You are referring to the regulatory framework. At the same time, you also mention a necessary cultural change. Is there a need for both? Yes. For the cultural change, we need not only the linear way of thinking, but also the more process-oriented and networked way. It’s a push and pull: on the one hand, we are pulled because of the development, which is technologically driven, but on the other hand, we also need the appropriate regulatory framework for implementation. An example: I am the Minister of Finance. Today, more than 50 percent of our tax assessments are submitted electronically, in some municipalities up to 70 percent. But the process is still not fully electronic until we have the electronic signature. That is very unsatisfactory, because technologically the prerequisites would have been in place long ago. Let’s move on to the issue of trust and data protection. The Federal Parliament will soon be debating the Data Protection Act. The bill is weaker than, for example, the European DPA. But if you want to win the trust of the people, wouldn’t that be the bone of contention? It’s important that we have regulations that protect my data, but at the same time you realise that people themselves are quite relaxed about their own data. That is a certain contradiction. I think we are still in a certain transitional phase. Transparency is important in this topic. In my canton’s e-government law, we have defined when and under what conditions data exchange agreements must be created. These agreements are all transparent and can be called up. Conversely, it is not acceptable that in the end so many hurdles are created within the administration because of data protection that all the advantages that we could actually have with digital solutions are cancelled out. Another important topic is data policy. Would that perhaps be a way to create trust, to have this discourse in public? We have to have this discourse, it is already underway. France is currently in a big debate with biometric facial recognition. The government wants to develop a third channel for public services (besides analogue and online access). This is a highly political discussion. I am not euphoric about digitalisation, but pragmatic. I see the opportunities, but logically also the dangers. You can see this well in the current discussion in France. In Switzerland, with its direct democracy and federalism, new solutions are only possible if there is a broad political debate and discourse. That’s why we need not only a technology debate, but above all a socio-political debate about how far we want to go. That was Michel Huissoud’s idea. He said a few weeks ago at a networking event in a panel in connection with sharing data in inter-agency cooperation, we can talk about it for a long time, but what would be important is to think about how the administration of the basic registers is redesigned That is an important core. But for that you need a structure, a governance that is able to set liabilities and standards on how to deal with data protection and data sharing. It always needs a political discussion if you want to go a step further. The joint FDF/CDC report aims at the highest level of ambition for a joint authority that is able to set standards. I think it is strategically important for the cantons to enter into this discussion now. We have to manage the digital transformation together. We don’t want the Confederation to steer unilaterally. What does digital administration ideally look like for you in 2030? It will have far more possibilities for direct and media-free interactions between citizens and the state that are possible around the clock. In my canton, we already have an office that works with chatbots. This will expand in the areas where we have large mass transactions. In specialised areas, however, many things remain analogue. Think of a complex tax assessment. We will have e-portal solutions that deserve the name and not umpteen portals side by side. A uniform electronic identity is a matter of course. For someone who is concerned with the great digital upheavals – e.g. artificial intelligence – these steps may not be great. But I am realistic. When I look at the pace of the last ten years, we have to gain momentum and that is not only through new technologies, but also through new institutional approaches.
About the person
Benedikt Würth (CVP) has been a cantonal government councillor in the canton of St. Gallen since 2010 and will retire from this office in May 2020. He heads the Department of Finance and has been President of the Conference of Cantonal Governments since 2017. Benedikt Würth has been a member of the Council of States since June 2019.