Four facets of failure: lessons we might be able to learn from Switzerland’s pandemic crisis management

1. We’ve got this pandemic business — or so we thought

Heading into this pandemic, one could have thought that Switzerland should be able to nail this. And yet — judging by almost any metric — we did not nail this and we still are not nailing it.

2. First, some humility is in order

Before we proceed, I’d like to get a number of important caveats out of the way.

These bricks have seen it all

3. Six strengths of the Swiss political system

Before we turn to the hypotheses for why the Swiss political system failed to produce an effective response to the pandemic, I’d like to take a look at what it is good at. As we’ll see, those strengths may have also ended up hampering the response to the pandemic.

1) Producing legitimacy

The political system solves for legitimacy first. This is an invaluable asset. The ‘crisis of legitimacy’ which many other countries experience, isn’t a thing or at least it isn’t an issue in the same virulent way.

2) Moderating the extremes and forging long-term compromise

This is also generally A Good Thing. The Swiss political system has nifty mechanisms which will automatically sand off the edges of any piece of legislation or any policy. It also encourages repeated interactions, giving every player a strong incentive to take the long view and cooperate.

3) Being responsive to every conceivable interest group

You want to defend the interests of horned cows? Go right ahead, the Swiss political system has a way for you to submit your proposed legislation to a popular vote. This also, for better or worse, means high responsiveness to well-organised business lobbies and other interest groups.

4) Allowing maximum regional variance

Switzerland has 26 cantons, best understood as quasi-autonomous regions with vast decision-making powers. Their governments are, and this is important, elected directly by the voting population in those cantons.

5) Achieving perfection (while taking all the time in the world)

The so-called “Swiss finish” refers to the obsessive nature with which The Perfect Solution will be crafted, refined, improved, and then polished again before it’s seen as maybe good enough. Usually no expense in either time, effort or money will be spared. There is an almost religious dedication to the achievement of perfection. It’s something that’s easy to make fun of, but when it works it’s really quite something.

6) Non-action for the sake of avoidance of error

This is, I believe, the most poorly understood and most generally underestimated feature of the system. Implicitly, the Swiss system follows a logic of “first, do no harm”.

A happy list of lovely attributes

4. The four facets of failure

Understanding the finer details of why things fail is important, because we can’t copy “best practices” from elsewhere in the world if they don’t fit the context. Because, to loosely paraphrase Tolstoy, all the successful countries are alike, but every unsuccessful country is unsuccessful in its own way.

Four facets of failure summarised in one neat table

i) Usually the relationship between the federal level and the cantons is “loosely coupled”, now we are in desperate need of “tight coupling”.

Information and decisions flow both ways between cantons and the federal level, but it’s not a rigid system. Usually that’s a good thing. “Tightly coupled” complex systems are much more prone to catastrophic failure, ‘loosely coupled’ ones are more forgiving.

ii) The dirty secret of the so-called “laboratory of ideas” is that while there is some experimentation there is barely any learning.

It’s often said that the decentralised nature of decision-making between cantons allows for lots of experimentation and then cantons swiftly learn what works from each other.

iii) Compromise is the Holy Grail of Swiss politics and at the same time a broken heuristic.

The Swiss system is, as mentioned above, truly exceptionally good at forging compromise. There’s a generally useful and accepted heuristic which says that — everything else being equal — aiming for compromise is a good thing.

The graph is taken from @VitalikButerin’s blogpost on “Convex and Concave Dispositions”.

iv) We suffer from a “self-delusion of competence” in public administration.

We have dramatically underinvested in the digital transformation of our public admin. Before the pandemic too few believed this to be the case. Many efforts have begun, and they’re mostly led by excellent, committed, inspiring, and competent people.

The size of the problem vs. the current size of the effort to address it

5. A crisis of ambition and of imagination

These four facets of failure explain, I’d argue, at least in part why the Swiss political system hasn’t covered itself in glory in the fight against this pandemic.

Quote of an official in NZZ am Sonntag



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