Paramount are the tools that stretched public administrations could use to cope better in future. That was the focus of a special recent Avenir Suisse evening event devoted to discussing a larger role for the private sector in a future outbreak.
Drawing on experience from politics and business, two Avenir Suisse moderators concentrated discussion not so much on the mistakes made, such as an inadequate start, ineffective contact tracing and tardy inoculation, as on the lessons to be learned.
The limitations of the public sector
All four participants: Petra Gössi, chair of the liberal Free Democratic Party; Pierre Alain Schnegg, health director of the canton of Bern and a former entrepreneur; Philip Mosimann, a prominent industrialist; and Andrin Oswald, a former head of vaccines at pharmaceuticals group Novartis, were unanimous that tackling future pandemics would be eased by better public-private cooperation.
All noted the public sector’s proclivity to avoid risk and proceed deliberately, even when a national health crisis called for expeditious decisions and even an element of risk taking. “In a crisis, you can’t use the same processes as in normal times,” stressed Schnegg, a member of the conservative Swiss People’s Party whose relative success tackling Covid in his home canton has been widely noted.
That meant swift decision making and execution, as well as a readiness to acknowledge mistakes and change course rapidly if necessary. Such thinking, he suggested, was not endemic to the somewhat bureaucratic, perfectionist Swiss bureaucracy.
A need to deploy the best talent, either from within or outside the public administration, was another crucial element for the panelists. “The key fact is that it has to function,” observed Gössi, when asked about outsourcing. In a crisis, politics and ideology should take second place to speed and effectiveness, she reasoned.
Oswald, a medical doctor by training whose career has spanned the private sector and non-profit organizations such as the International Committee of the Red Cross, emphasized the need for mutual understanding. Like others, he noted how few Swiss bureaucrats or even politicians could look back on active experience within the private sector, having often made their careers through the public administration. That lack of interaction encouraged silo thinking and impeded the quest for broader solutions. Schnegg noted how he had turned to specialists as diverse as event organizers – whose expertise in quickly arranging and then dismantling functions proved highly valuable – to expedite his canton’s awareness and inoculation campaign.
Federalism as a barrier?
While panelists lauded Switzerland’s small size, relatively relaxed interpersonal culture and general accessibility of senior officials, they agreed the country’s often praised extreme federalism could prove an impediment in a national emergency.
“Our system is not up to dealing with crises,” said Mosimann, a self-confessed federalist. Stressing the need for civil servants to adapt, “they lack the preparation,” he added. Unnecessary duplication, with, for example, 26 cantons all taking separate approaches on contact tracing, wasted valuable time and resources.
All criticized Switzerland as a laggard in digitization, compared with many other advanced economies. The pandemic had exposed particular deficiencies in health care. Digital patient records had been a subject of discussion for years, but with little progress, bemoaned Gössi.
And while all acknowledged the importance of data protection and the defense of privacy, they agreed that such concerns could go too far and hinder progress. Mosimann noted the multiple forms he had been required to complete on a one-off business trip to the Netherlands – all of which might end up gathering dust in some distant office. “All that information could have been read electronically at a stroke from my frequent flyer card,” he mused.
It may be months, or even years, until Switzerland digests all the lessons of the pandemic. But if the crisis helps to broaden thinking and, especially, to accelerate digitization in the public sector, then some good may yet have flowed out of all the suffering.