Switzerland: think tanks and vested interests in Swiss policy making.

VerfasserSteffen, Isabelle


In 1999 fourteen Swiss enterprises founded "Avenir Suisse", a think tank disposing of a budget of more than seven million Swiss francs per year, which is involved in promoting the social and economic development in Switzerland. While in the Anglo-Saxon countries such privately financed, non-profit research institutes have been widespread since the middle of the 20th century (Thunert, 2003: p.30; Weaver, 1989) in Switzerland this was a new phenomenon. And still today, think tanks following the classical US-model are rare. However, similar to other countries a considerable number of smaller research institutes have evolved during the last 20 years, often focusing on more specific issues. Different to the classical Anglo-Saxon think tanks they are typically doing mission oriented research and/or are financed through a university affiliation.

While in the USA political consulting by external experts is seen as an important factor of influence on how "government think" (Weiss, 1999), in other countries like for instance Germany the weight of think tanks in the political process is judged more skeptically (Thunert, 2003). The common argument in this controversy is that the position and the influence of think tanks are a function of country-specific institutional and cultural characteristics (Thunert, 1999: pp. 35f.; Weaver, 1999: pp. 285f.; Weiss, 1999: pp. 292ff.; Gellner, 1995: pp.46-61).

This is the starting point of this article, which analyzes the question of how and to what extent think tanks can influence Swiss policy making. Until now, think tanks in Switzerland have been a largely unexplored field. This article must therefore be seen as a first step in an area, in which further research still needs to be done.

Against this background we start with an outline of the existing think tanks in Switzerland. Following Thunert (1999: pp. 10) we define think tanks as "privately or publicly financed, application-oriented research institutes, whose main function is it to provide scientifically founded, often inter-disciplinary analyses and comments on a broad field of relevant political issues and propositions". Thereby we distinguish "advocacy tanks", "academic think tanks" and "mission oriented research institutes" (see Thunert, 1999; Weaver, 1999; Gellner, 1995). In the Swiss context a fourth category can be referred to: For a long time vested interests like employers' and employees' organization have been providing their know-how and ideas to the political process and thus influenced policy making. In this sense unions and employers' associations have also fulfilled and still fulfill some functions of a think tank. In the following, they will be called socio-economic think tanks (Karlhofer 2006).

One approach to go into the matter of think tanks and their influence on policy making in Switzerland is to take interest groups and their role in Swiss policy making as a starting point (Linder, 2005; Mach, 2004; Kriesi, 1998: pp. 265-277).(1) Organized interests play an important role in the political process in Switzerland, last but not least due to direct democracy, which gives them a veto right in legislation. The possibility to block parliamentary decisions with a referendum led to the development of an extensive preparliamentary process, in which all important political actors are integrated in order to find a for all acceptable compromise. We hypothesize that these well structured relations between the state and para-state respectively private actors offer good possibilities also for the "new" think tanks to bring their scientific know-how and ideas into the political process.

The article unfolds as follows. First, an overview of the existing think tanks in Switzerland and their characteristics will be given. Afterwards the influence of think tanks in Switzerland will be discussed from a theoretical point of view. Starting from the international debate on corporatism, we will thereby focus on vested interests in the Swiss political system. Then, the illustrative example of the reform of the right to sue of the environmental protection organizations is followed by an in-depth discussion of the political process and the possibilities for think tanks to influence its results. The article completes with concluding remarks.

Think Tanks in Switzerland -development and structure

Describing the development and the structure of Swiss think tanks, we follow the typology prevalent in the literature, strongly influenced by the Anglo-saxon developments. As already mentioned, we distinguish "advocacy tanks", affiliated to specific ideological ideas, "mission oriented research institutes" and "academic think tanks", also called "universities without students" and typically affiliated to university institutes (Thunert, 2003; Weaver, 1999; Gellner, 1995). Following the policy-focus of this paper we restrict the comments on policy-oriented think tanks in Switzerland. (2) As a fourth category we describe socio-economic think tanks, which are economic interest groups like trade unions, and employers' associations. They are traditional suppliers of political research and consulting in Swiss politics, and are therefore called the "old" Swiss think tanks compared to the "new" think tanks in the Anglo-Saxon sense.

We start with academic institutions, which were the first to emerge and have been for a long time the most important actors in the Swiss arena of "new" think tanks. For decades, the IUHEI (Institut universitaire de hautes etudes internationales) in Geneva enjoyed an almost monopolistic position as academic partner and advisor for Swiss foreign policy and diplomacy. Some research units of the Federal Institute of Technology (ETH Zurich and Lausanne) have a longstanding cooperation with public administrations. Examples are the EAWAG (Swiss Federal Institute of Aquatic Science and Technology) or, until 2003 the Institute for Forestry, which led the scientific background for federal policies in the decades after World War II. The most prominent example was the Institut fur Orts-Regional-und Landesplanung (ORL, Institute for local, regional and national land use planning) in the 1970s. At that time, the Federal government aspired to a strong coordinating in the long term planning of land use, infrastructure and urbanization. For this purpose the ORL, mandated by the Federal Government, developed and published nine "Landesplanerische Leitbilder" (national concepts--sort of scenarios--for the future development). Moreover, a tenth scenario was elaborated, which reflected the preferences of the Conference of the Directors of the Federal Administration (Chefbeamtenkonferenz). This can be seen as an example of an "outsourcing" of the development of knowledge for an entire policy field. However, this was not successful for several political reasons. First, the position of the Federal government in national land use policy was challenged by the political right. This led to the defeat of a first national law in a popular referendum in 1976. Second, the 1970s were characterized by a rising critique against the "technocratic" approach on policies. The ORL-Institute, the "planners at the Limmat", and their national scenarios were a preferred target of this critique. Third, after the defeat of the law in 1976 the federation had to renounce on a strong steering policy on the national land use. The ORL-Institute lost a good part of its function. Its personnel, which counted for up to 100 persons, was considerably reduced and partly transferred to the federal administration.

Yet, the example is typical for two developments of the modern welfare state. First, in Switzerland like in other countries the state is characterized by a growing need of scientific knowledge and applied research. The knowledge is necessary for the development of successful policies as well as for legitimation purposes. In Switzerland this "expertise culture" is quite pronounced. Second, governmental agencies are the prime clients (and consumers!) of this knowledge, which in the Swiss context is called "Ressortforschung". It can be acquired internally (research intra muros)(3) or externally (research extra muros). The latter corresponds to the old Swiss tradition of outsourcing public functions, and it created a fast growing market for academic and mission oriented research institutes.

More recent examples of academic think tanks, which still form an important part of the think tank arena in Switzerland, are the "Institut de hautes etudes en administration publique" (IDHEAP) in Lausanne (founded in 1982) or the "Kompetenzzentrum fur Public Management" (KPM, founded in 2002) in Berne, which are both quite strongly linked to their corresponding universities. Furthermore, the institutes of political science at the universities of Geneva, Zurich and Berne are also active in applied research for the administration, international organizations etc..

The Swiss Peace foundation, Swisspeace, in Berne with the aim to promote independent peace research, is not directly affiliated to a university. The linkages to academia through personal connections are however quite substantial. Thus, Swisspeace is also best in line with an academic think tank.

A similar background has the Swiss Forum for Migrations Studies (SFM). Its Foundation in 1995 was initiated by the "Swiss Academy for Humanities and Social Sciences", which shows its clearly academic founding. The SFM is financed by various private and public institutions, the Foundation for Population, Migration and Environment (PME) and the University of Neuchatel among them. However, today the SFM is doing mainly contract research, the Swiss administration being its main client. In this sense the research institute is in a way both an academic think tank and a mission oriented research institute.

Academic think tanks earn part of their budget by their university, while another part comes from mandates of...

Um weiterzulesen


VLEX uses login cookies to provide you with a better browsing experience. If you click on 'Accept' or continue browsing this site we consider that you accept our cookie policy. ACCEPT