Crash course for new parliamentarians

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Twenty-one parliamentarians and two staff members from the Parliamentary Service
Twenty-one parliamentarians and two staff members from the Parliamentary Services took part in the two-day seminar organised by ETH Zurich. (Photograph: ETH Zurich)
Newly elected members of the Swiss National Council are often confronted with a bewildering array of complex issues. ETH Zurich organised a special two-day seminar to equip them with scientific expertise in key policy areas.

Social democrat and historian Nina Schläfli and SVP politician and farmer Hans Jörg Rüegsegger have very different political views. But on this particular February morning, both members of the National Council are here for one and the same reason: they want to learn from scientists’ expertise.

The mood is relaxed in the seminar room at Schloss Hünigen in the municipality of Konolfingen near Bern, with good-humoured attendees making lively conversation and cracking the odd joke. Rüegsegger and Schläfli are at an event organised by the Swiss School of Public Governance at ETH Zurich - and they are accompanied by numerous other parliamentarians who were elected to the Swiss National Council in October 2023. Over the next couple of days, they will attend presentations by leading scientists on topics and issues that are relevant to their parliamentary work.

This is the third time this event has been held, following its success in 2015 and 2020. "Based on the positive feedback we had received from parliamentary groups, it was already clear to us last spring that the newly elected parliamentarians would be keen to attend an introductory seminar. There’s a real enthusiasm for refreshing their knowledge on key policy areas and connecting with others beyond their party affiliation," says ETH Professor Robert Perich. As the Academic Director of the Swiss School of Public Governance, he was in charge of inviting renowned experts who teach and conduct research at six Swiss universities. They were asked to impart relevant expertise and equip attendees with the tools they need to fulfil their parliamentary responsibilities.

Representatives of almost every parliamentary group

The list of participants reflects last October’s election results: over three-quarters of attendees were parliamentarians from the Centre, the Swiss People’s Party (SVP) and the Social Democratic Party (SP). One of those who attended was Isabelle Chappuis, a recently elected representative of Switzerland’s Centre party who hails from the canton of Vaud. As a new member of the Security Policy Committee, she was particularly interested in a lecture by Andreas Wenger on the challenges of Swiss security policy.

Wenger is Director of the Center for Security Studies at ETH Zurich and a leading expert in this field. In his presentation, he explained how the security-policy landscape has changed since Russia’s attack on Ukraine, and what consequences this might have for Switzerland. For Chappuis, this was an opportunity to get more informed about ongoing debates: "It’s a great chance to gain a clearer understanding of key topics, such as organisational changes in the Federal Department of Defence and the budget for the Armed Forces," she says.

Clear division of roles between science and policy

Security policy was just one of the items on the agenda, which also featured ten further topics of major significance for the parliamentary commissions. These included migration and finance policy, energy and climate policy, future mobility and the structure of the Swiss economy. Rüegsegger, from the canton of Bern, was particularly impressed by the thematic breadth of the two-day seminar. "These lectures are a good way to get up to speed with key topics. They give me the information I need for potential parliamentary motions," he says. That view was shared by many of the other attendees.

The SVP parliamentarian also appreciates having direct contact with leading experts. Even in the coffee breaks, participants get the chance to chat frankly to the lecturers about current political issues. This helps establish trust: "Even once the seminar ends, I could see myself getting in touch with one of the experts if I have a question," Rüegsegger says. The Centre party’s Chappuis is equally impressed: "All the lecturers made a clear distinction between science and policy - and that makes them credible partners," she says.

Perich identifies this as one of the event’s main goals: "The idea is for scientists to support politicians in making decisions - not to make the decisions for them. That’s why we’re keen to start a dialogue between parliamentarians and researchers; the focus is very much on breaking down inhibitions, building mutual trust and ensuring a clear division of roles," he says.

Scientific answers to societal challenges

Judging by the praise they received after giving their presentations, the experts certainly seem to have done a good job. Schläfli, from the canton of Thurgau, is one of those who gave positive feedback. As a member of the Political Institution Committees, she deals with migration-policy issues - and she was particularly interested in the lecture by Dominik Hangartner.

In his talk, Hangartner - an ETH professor and faculty co-director of the Immigration Policy Lab - described a "refugee placement algorithm" that can help authorities send refugees to places where they have a better chance of finding work. "Right now, we’re very limited in what we can do to manage immigration, so I was pleased to see him focus on an evidence-based integration strategy. Debates on migration policy often get very emotional, so this approach might help," Schläfli says.

Opportunities to learn from experienced politicians

As well as channelling the knowledge gained from the seminar into their parliamentary groups, the participants were also able to build personal relationships across political lines in a relaxed environment. Over the course of the two days, there were plenty of frank and friendly discussions between the newly elected parliamentarians. SVP politician Rüegsegger says the benefits are clear: "Getting to know colleagues from other parties makes it easier for us to work together in parliament. We might not share the same political views, but we’ll still keep in touch."

The afternoon of the second day also offered participants an opportunity to spend time with former members of the Swiss Parliament and to benefit from their wealth of experience. "We invited six distinguished former politicians from across all the parliamentary groups. Together, they have over 100 years of parliamentary experience, which proved to be a good basis for frank and thought-provoking discussions," Perich says.
Christoph Elhardt