Great importance of the militia principle in the communes

Interview with communal councillor Claude Dougoud, Wangen-Brüttisellen (ZH)

mw. The “Schweizerische Gemeindeverband”, SGV, (Association of Swiss Communes) has declared 2019 the “Year of militia work”: “The aim is to strengthen and further develop the militia system so that it remains fit for the future. Switzerland’s political system depends on the participation and commitment of its citizens.”
    Or in the impressive words of the former Federal Councillor Kaspar Villiger (see page 1): “The strengths of this system are obvious. For example, by promoting the important integration of civil society and the state. Those who spend too much time under parliamentary domes, for example, are drawn into a kind of bubble, which, over time, begins to distort their perception of reality outside the dome. Responsibility at work, contacts at work or participation in associations give politicians a grip on reality by constantly instilling life reality in them. Conversely, everyday dialogue in the professional environment also creates understanding for politics. Both promote trust, and trust is the basis of every successful state.”
    Claude Dougoud is a communal councillor in the Zurich commune of Wangen-Brüttisellen. He confirms the unique strength and closeness to citizens of the militia principle, which is still alive in medium-sized and small Swiss communes in the 21st century.

Current Concerns: Mr Dougoud, why did you become a communal councillor?

Claude Dougoud: A few years ago I was asked if I wanted to join the audit commitee, and then I was elected.
After four years in the commitee, I was asked if I wanted to run for the communal council. I accepted to do more for the good of the commune.

What are your responsibilities in the council?

My responsibilities are finance and social affairs. This is very convenient for me because I already had an insight into the finances of the commune in the audit commitee and have professional experience with the social welfare system.

In your commune, all the councillors are militia politicians, so they continue to practice their profession.

Yes, we are all militias. We are a commune with a communal assembly and almost 8,000 inhabitants. All members of the commitees as well as the school and social authorities are militia politicians.

How many percentage jobs do the communal councillors and the communal president have?

The presidium of the commune has 50 per cent, the school presidium 40 per cent and the other departments 30 per cent. In spring, we requested the communal assembly to increase the compensation.

About the compensation of the members of authorities decides the communal assembly

So the communal assembly even decides on the amount of compensation for the members of the authorities?

Yes, we have seen that the workload is very high, especially in the case of the presidencies, and we have therefore requested that the compensation be adjusted to the workload. Interestingly, the parties and the audit commitee were against the increases, but the citizens trusted us and accepted them with a large majority.

Many Swiss communal councillors are not members of a political party. What is it like in your commune?

With us, no one is without a political party. In our commune, however, there is a group that is more of an association than a party. Its name is “Forum” and it emerged from school politics, so its members were primarily interested in school issues. They are now quite strongly represented by the president of the commune, the president of the school commune and a third person.

Although they are not in a conventional party?

Yes, they have people with different views on political issues. It’s also a way of getting people to take over a militia function. I’ve never seen anyone say they want to be a councillor or a member of the school board. It is more common to be asked.

Then you also have a good chance of being elected?

On the occasion of the re-election of the communal council, there were more candidates than there were seats available. But if people don’t hear anything negative from you, you’re re-elected. Of course, it is also possible to be voted out of office, but it is not so tragic for the militia politician because the profession secures his existence.

Bringing together profession and office is not easy

As a part-time politician, you have to reconcile your profession with your position as a communal councillor. Isn’t that sometimes difficult?

Yes, it is a challenge. I have the advantage that I have a part-time job as a school secretary and the other part work as a psychotherapist in a psychiatric practice. There I can schedule my appointments myself so that I can also attend a session once in the afternoon. When I have a session in the morning, my employer gives me time off and I can compensate for the extra time. It is not so difficult for me. Those who work full time often have employers who give them relief, but that means extra work in the evening or on weekends. That is quite hard.

Are there communal councillors with 100 per cent jobs?

Yes, the president of the commune was a kindergarten teacher, but gave up her job and is very committed in her function. The school president works in another commune as a chief official and gets some hours off per week, two more are also employed full time. This is not easy. Often the communal council meetings are in the evenings or on Saturdays or begin already at 4 pm.

So a lot of time required, but feasible?

Yes, the work of the communal councillor is time-consuming. There are also militiamen in the audit committee, there and in the school administration the time expenditure is somewhat less large, but still one must give much free-time to it.

Are there enough people who participate in commitees and other areas?

It’s not that easy, people don’t queue up, but you can still find them.

To give something back to the commune, to society

The president of another commune once told me: “Living together is even more important than finances.” Is this the reason for assuming such a position?

Yes, I think so: to give something back to the commune, to society, that is the main motive. It is certainly not the financial aspect that makes the difference, but the ability to play an active part and contribute to the common good. Everyone also agrees that the militia system and direct democracy are a unique opportunity, worldwide. Many people notice when they are in other countries, professionally or privately, what a wonderful system we have here.

The former Federal Councillor Kaspar Villiger comments: “The militia principle conveys a grip on reality.” Do you think so, too?

Yes, everyone has a profession. Funnily enough, one of my colleagues in the communal council has the same basic education as me, as a logistics manager (that was my first profession), someone works in the IT-sector, another one in electricity, a lawyer with a building insurance company, a kindergarten teacher, an architect, who works for another commune.  It all adds up to a lot.
What I also really appreciate is that we have a very good communal administration. As a politician, you are not an expert and you depend on a good administration. I am astonished how much knowledge is available. I work with three department heads, all three are highly qualified, technically and humanly. You can see that the people, the citizens, are pleased.
The administration is just as much a figurehead of the commune as politics, because that is what you have to deal with when you register or you need something, for example a building permit. So it is very important.

Does the communal council employ the officials?

The communal council only employs the communal secretary. He or she is the head of the administration and appoints the department heads. The politicians are consulted to think, but the decision is finally made by the communal secretary, also when hiring additional employees.

That makes sense. Then it is really paid attention to the expertise and not the party affiliation.

Exactly. Our commune also has many young employees, all very qualified. They also do advanced trainings. In the administrative area are many opportunities for further training, and their commitment is very impressive. In administration it is sometimes not so easy to find people, because the private sector sometimes pays higher wages, but we have a good reputation and find people.

At the village festival everyone helps, even the young people

Is the good reputation also related to good projects organised by your commune?

It is a real concern of the communal council to be there for everyone, for older citizens and for young people. For example, every two years, we organise an induction ceremony for young citizens and an event for the new incomers, whom we welcome with a meal and a guided commune tour. Every year we have a big funfair in Wangen and a festival in Brüttisellen, both organised by the local associations.
We have a cultural committee, an association, which organises cultural events for the commune. In return it receives subsidies, but has to recover the main costs. It has a good programme. Once a year there is a dancing event on the village square in Wangen, musical events and others. The programme is very diverse.
It is not always easy because Zurich and Winterthur are very close, with many offers. Nevertheless, it is appreciated by many citizens. At the village festival, for example, a large part of the population assist in the various associations.

Even the young people?

Yes, for a project like the funfair, where you can get involved for three or four days, or for an evening, young people participate, too. But in the associations, with the exception of football, everyone is struggling to get younger people interested in a regular commitment.

Which final thoughts would you like to leave us at the end of this interview?

Taking a political office in a commune is personally very enriching and a great pleasure. The positive aspects outweigh the negative. Sometimes you may be criticised, but overall it is something good. I can only recommend it to you.

Mr Dougoud, thank you very much for this very enriching conversation.    •

(Interview Marianne Wüthrich)

Position of the communal council in the legal structure of the commune

“The communal council is the executive branch of the commune. It carries out the tasks assigned to it by the Confederation and the canton and implements the resolutions passed by the communal assembly. The communal council represents the commune externally. The communal council makes its own decisions in administrative matters and within the scope of its powers. All members of the authorities perform their duties on a part-time basis.” (Homepage of the commune Wangen-Brüttisellen)