With dedication, speed and precision. Urs Stauffer, President of the Swiss Central Association of Public Personnel on the ‘stress test’ of public services during the Covid19 pandemic

Public services are working exceptionally well. Our colleagues are ensuring that the federal state, cantons, cities and municipalities are performing all of their existing and new duties even under great strain. They do this quickly and with a high level of precision.

We think first and foremost of all employees working in public hospitals who have shown willingness to perform special assignments, rearrange their routines, work in protective clothing and (still) accept the risks. They are worthy of admiration, and this too is public service.

Equally in our thoughts are the law enforcement agencies and police officers working hard to keep us safe, ensuring that the Federal Government’s emergency decree is being observed and that border restrictions are being respected. They do this whilst accepting the additional personal risk and, as we see across the board, whilst deploying impeccable judgement. This too is public service.

We think of all the teachers who very quickly made the switch to web-based teaching to ensure that pupils wouldn’t miss out on their education; we also think of the teaching staff providing childcare services in the cantons during the spring school holidays, despite not being part of their job description, and also at some personal risk. This too is public service.

However, we also think of those working in the administration who quickly managed to conduct the necessary background research to prepare for executive decisions in the form of the emergency decree, instructions and recommendations in a situation that changed by the hour which meant adapting the rules accordingly (under unimaginable pressure): that too is public service.

We also think of all the employees who have rallied to offer financial support for companies (the number is very, very high); financial resources had to be discussed, grant procedures had to be fast-tracked and designed for efficiency (the numbers ran into the hundreds of thousands: incredible figures), and then managed here by the administration: that too is public service.

We need electricity, gas and water to keep our infrastructure running, to heat our homes and to keep our electric kitchen appliances running too, which have seen much greater usage in recent weeks. There has been no disruption to these services; water, electricity and gas are over 90% publicly-owned and the systems have operated flawlessly: that too is public service.

We think of all the employees who are still making sure that our wastewater is being processed and that waste is being properly disposed of, wherever it is created. At the onset of the crisis, some voices were suggesting that the health problems that caused the pandemic would be prognosticated as a scourge, but also, crucially, that it would lead to a breakdown in public order. That did not happen: this too is public service.

The list could go on and on: just because we could not name every public service here, it doesn’t mean they are not included: it applies to all.

A perusal of the reports on Switzerland’s response to the pandemic shows that the country has been praised for both the quality and the speed of its reaction. Of course, critical voices must still be heard domestically, on the issue of whether all measures are still fit for purpose, whether certain restrictions could start to be eased here and there; this is part and parcel of democracy and paves the way for finding well-balanced solutions. But the standard has been set.

It should not be forgotten that public services have been just as affected as to all other companies by the restrictions that were introduced as part of the state of emergency. We must continue to apply these norms. And yet it has been possible to keep public services running and make all the required changes in recent weeks swiftly and reliably. That suggests a robust public administration that is equipped with the necessary means and expertise and in particular the personal dedication of each employee to be able to act at any time, even under exceptional circumstances. If ever a test were needed to prove it: this is the result.

In the last few weeks, Öffentliches Personal Schweiz has received a large volume of enquiries about employment law; they have spanned issues such as working from home, being assigned to different jobs, overtime and flexitime credits, rearranging holidays, untaken leave, protective measures in the workplace, the obligation to work on-site for particularly vulnerable people, questions about the vulnerability of not especially high-risk people too, medical certificates, suspected illnesses, childcare duties, how to look after children whilst working from home and much more.

The basis for addressing these queries could and still can be found at the federal level, in the cantons and even in the municipalities; with information often being updated every few days. The basic tone of all enquiries was, however, the same: nobody wanted to complain, everyone was ready and willing, even if it meant violating laws and regulations, to continue offering their services without complaint. That is gratifying to witness in a situation like this: and that too is public service.

We are not forgetting that in many instances our private sector colleagues have been denied the opportunity to offer assistance because their company is no longer viable. And nor are we are forgetting all of those who, like those in public services, are getting on with their jobs with all the entailed risks so that our country can continue to receive essential provisions, especially where the supply of food is concerned.

COVID-19 is no good thing. It has placed significant limitations on our lives. But we also see that our State and its public services have passed this stress test; and not just passed it, but have gone about it with dedication, speed and precision. We cannot say for certain what the future will hold, but we may indeed be able to predict the more immediate future. We are hoping for a speedy recovery and we thank all of those who allow us to keep living largely normal lives in the meantime.

But there is one thing we would like to make clear. Any savings measures in conjunction with COVID-19 would be perceived as a blatant attack on public officials and we would oppose them with all of our might.

Urs Stauffer

President of the Swiss Central Association of Public Personnel

Zentralverband Öffentliches Personal Schweiz (ZV)