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

Not long ago I was invited to give a talk about some lessons we might be able to learn from Switzerland’s pandemic crisis management. The invitation provided a welcome opportunity to take a step back and reflect on what’s been happening since all of this started.

Much of this piece is also based on a Twitter thread, which turned out to resonate quite strongly with many and helped me think through the argument.

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.

Why could one have had some confidence that as a country, as a society, and as a political system we should be able to respond effectively to this pandemic?

We could make a long list here, but let’s just mention a few rather favourable initial conditions:

1) Switzerland has one of the world’s highest GDPs per capita. That should be useful, as combating a pandemic is expensive. If there’s one thing Switzerland has in abundance, it’s financial resources.

2) Government enjoys very high trust. Trust in government is the highest in Switzerland out of all OECD countries. Without trust, people won’t follow containment measures for any length of time. With high trust, they are more likely to do so.

3) The country has the highest total expenditure on health per capita (compared to other OECD countries). Expenditures are a highly imperfect proxy for health care system capacity. Running the most expensive healthcare system in the OECD should still give us some confidence with regards to its abilities.

4) The nation tops many science and innovation rankings. Switzerland for example ranks first in WIPO’s “Global Innovation Index”. So there should be plenty of capacity and ability to innovate and science ourselves out of this situation.

We could go on, but you get the idea.

So why did things not turn out so well, despite all these favourable initial conditions? That’s the question I’ll try to give some tentative answers to.

2. First, some humility is in order

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

First, there is a lot of nuance to this, which is difficult to express fully without rendering an essay clumsy and unreadable. I’ll try to hedge appropriately where necessary, but even without those explicit caveats: we should always remember that things are complicated. None of this is easy. Reality has a surprising amount of detail, as someone once said.

Second, it’s easy to criticise when you’re not in the hot seat. Anyone in a position of responsibility who has stuck their neck out and has been taking decisions deserves our respect, even if we might disagree with them.

Finally, “the owl of Minerva takes its flight only when the shades of night are gathering”. This is a pretentious way of saying that we might not truly know for a while who was right, who wasn’t, what worked, and what didn’t. So some humility is in order.

My own pandemic story begins in Rome. I spent all of February 2020 there, as part of an extended holiday between jobs. As everyone knows, things started to go a bit crazy in the north of Italy around that time. Towards the end of the month I decided that it was time to bail and move back to Switzerland.

These bricks have seen it all

Returning felt like entering an alternate reality. In Rome everyone was already suitably alarmed about the situation and gently freaking out. In Zurich, the pandemic had barely registered. This is particularly remarkable, given that Bergamo is geographically closer to Zurich compared to Rome.

So we waited and waited for what felt like an eternity, until on March 16th 2020 the Federal Council declared an “extraordinary situation” and introduced stringent measures.

Since then, the country’s response has been patchy at best and horrifically ineffective at worst.

Let’s explore some possible reasons why that’s the case.

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.

Some of the strengths of the Swiss political system include:

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.

As a consequence regional variance is politically legitimated and isn’t seen as a “postcode lottery”. Compare and contrast that with the UK, for example, where regional variance isn’t grounded in the same sort of local legitimacy and therefore is understood as a problem to be resolved.

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”.

That’s meaningful because governments are perfectly capable of inflicting horrific damage on their populations, even when they hold the best of intentions. It’s why following a maxim of “hang on, first, let’s make sure we don’t screw this up” is possibly not that misguided.

Many books have been written on the horrific errors that governments have committed. One of the classics of the genre is James C. Scott’sSeeing Like a State — How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed”, in which he chronicles the immense human cost of high-minded, utopian government projects.

Another more contemporary one is Anthony King’s and Ivor Crewe’s entertaining and yet depressing The Blunders of our Governmentswhich chronicles the phenomenal blunders of various UK governments.

Few if any such books have, so far and to the best of my knowledge, been written about Switzerland’s policy failures. And arguably that’s because the Swiss system is exceptionally good at avoiding errors of commission.

A happy list of lovely attributes

The Swiss political system has, in other words, plenty of qualities.

There’s just one problem.

In a fast-moving pandemic, the same mechanisms that produce all those lovely attributes, don’t serve us well.

Mike Ryan, head of the Health Emergencies Programme at WHO, put it this way back in March 2020:

“If you need to be right before you move, you will never win. Perfection is the enemy of the good. Speed trumps perfection. Everyone is afraid of the consequence of error. But the greatest error is not to move”.

And what are the two things that Switzerland absolutely doesn’t do?

Speed and imperfection.

Now, it would be a bit too easy to say “there you have it, Switzerland doesn’t do speed and imperfection, that’s why we’re doomed” and call it a day.

That’s why I’d like to examine four specific facets of this failure which I think are interesting.

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.

If we want to know what might be done in Switzerland, we need to understand the specific ways in which Switzerland is unsuccessful.

Four facets of failure summarised in one neat table

Here are four facets of failure which have contributed to the mess that we are in:

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.

The problem is that now we’re arguably in desperate need of some properly tight coupling. Vaccine deliveries need to be moved at the right time to the right place, decisions about restrictions need to be coordinated, and all of this needs to be done at pace. The system seems to struggle heavily with achieving that tight coupling.

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.

What’s not to like? In theory, it all sounds great. In actual fact, there seems to be some, rather limited experimentation, but next to no learning.

If “policy diffusion” happens at all, it seems to happen at a glacial pace. That’s maybe fine under normal circumstances, but it’s very costly in a crisis.

At the end of March the Canton of Bern decided to start a mass testing pilot with six schools. All fine and dandy because it makes sense to test the mechanics of this before you roll it out, doesn’t it?

Yes, except that the Canton of Grisons had been running such mass tests for months. It’s entirely unclear why Bern shouldn’t be able to learn almost anything they’d need to learn from an identical program that’s been running for months and at scale in a comparable canton.

I’m not familiar with the finer details of the school testing regime in Berne, so it’s possible that I am missing important detail here. The wider point however stands: no one currently gets the impression that cantonal governments are exceptionally quick to learn from others.

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.

Compromise is seen as good not just because compromising is nice and friendly, but because it’s supposed to improve the quality of outcomes.

This heuristic works in “concave” situations. Compromising between Option A (on the left) and Option B (on the right) will in fact lead to a superior outcome, relative to being on either end of the axis.

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

It, however, does not work in convex situations.

In a convex situation compromise leads to an inferior outcome. The properties of a fast-moving, exponentially growing pandemic are unfortunately such that we are in a convex situation.

Here’s an example: An effective lockdown that pushes R to zero leads to an exponential decline of infections and therefore quick eradication. A half-hearted lockdown that only gets R to just below 1 will get you months of pain with not much to show for.

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.

But we have only begun to grasp the sheer scale of the problem. And these people need vastly more resources (mostly: teams, budget authority, and power) than they are currently being given.

Here’s a highly scientific depiction of the problem:

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.

The facets are, of course, somewhat arbitrary. There are other aspects which are likely just as important. But ultimately all of these explanations fail to capture some larger truth about what is happening.

Ultimately this feels like a crisis of ambition and of imagination.

It feels like we have just given up. It’s this defeatist position which I find deeply unsettling and sad.

This should have been a moment for us to collectively shine, to deploy the vast resources and talent this place has in order to overcome a monumental challenge. Some of that did happen, just not nearly enough.

The biggest hurdle seems to be a prevailing “business as usual” mindset. It assumes that we can handle this crisis within established channels and with established mechanisms.

The countries that did comparatively well all shifted into an “all-out effort” mode. We have not.

Just before Easter 2021 an official from the Canton of Basel-Stadt said that the vaccination center would remain closed over the long weekend despite the fact that a vaccine shipment had arrived just before. Why? Because asking people to show up at short notice “wouldn’t go down well”.

Quote of an official in NZZ am Sonntag

I don’t wish to dunk on this one particular official, I’m trying to make a broader point: this attitude seems emblematic of the “business as usual” mindset and everything that is wrong about how we are handling this crisis.

Why we weren’t able to shift into an ‘all-out effort’ mode is a question for another day. It may be too late for this crisis but if one good thing could come from all of this, it’s that we’ve been given a brutal reality check and some of our collective delusions will have been taken away from us.

I’m hopeful that this can provide the ground for meaningful change and reform. There’s much work to be done and I’m encouraged by the many committed, capable, and creative teams and individuals having a go at changing the collective infrastructure we all rely on for our wellbeing, prosperity, and freedom.

This essay builds on many sources, including many conversations I’ve had with friends and my colleagues at staatslabor. I am also grateful to everyone on Twitter who pointed out flaws and mistakes in the original thread.

If you’d like to dive deeper into any of the ideas or concepts used in the text, in addition to the ones already mentioned in the text, I’d recommend having a look at the following books and essays:

Charles Perrow, “Normal Accidents: Living with High-Risk Technologies (1999), a detailed, book-length exploration of loose and tight coupling in the context of complex systems.

Donella Meadows, “Thinking in Systems: A Primer (2008), an accessible and yet substantial introduction to complex systems thinking.

Danny Buerkli, “How we know when decentralization works in government” (2019), an essay which still informs my thinking on experimentation and learning in federal/decentralised structures.

Georg Lakoff and Mark Johnson, “Metaphors we live by (1980), an explanation of the primordial importance of metaphors for how we understand the world around us.