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Citizen letters Government keeps dialogue going with the people

A postman at the Swiss parliament in the lobby of the House of Representatives

The parliamentary services receive letters and emails from citizens almost every day. Answering them is part of an ongoing dialogue between the institutions of state and the people

(Keystone)

Praise and blame for the work of the Swiss government, but also personal problems and much else: the federal administration receives letters from citizens daily on all sorts of topics. It answers (almost) each one.

There are no statistics on the number of letters and e-mails from citizens which reach government ministries and agencies, or the workload they involve. But one thing is sure: they come in every day, from within Switzerland and from abroad.

One example of how this works is provided by the public relations department of the Federal Chancelleryexternal link, the staff organisation serving the Swiss government. The department replied to an average of 85 letters a month so far this year, swissinfo.ch was told by deputy head of communications René Lenzin.

This does not take into account letters responded to by other units of the chancellery. Oddly enough in this computer age, when citizens write to the federal administration “correspondence on paper is the most prevalent medium” as Lenzin notes.

The government’s practice is to answer them all – except the most grossly abusive and insulting ones, or open letters addressed to a large number of recipients.

There are other limits, if someone writes constantly.

“After three letters on the same topic containing no new relevant information, we tell the person in question we will no longer respond to their letters,” says Lenzin.

Paying attention to citizens

“[The federal administration] aims to take all citizens seriously. Often – in the case of personal or legal problems – we try to give them addresses of contacts which could provide advice and practical assistance,” he adds.

Lenzin agrees that this approach of paying attention to citizens’ concerns fits with the Swiss system of direct democracy. This involves ongoing dialogue between the institutions of state and the people.

Furthermore, “votes and elections certainly add to the requests and inquiries that citizens direct to the Federal Chancellery,” he points out.

Politics and religion

Politics is one of the main concerns for letter-writing citizens. Although there are occasional compliments.

“We mostly hear from people expressing disapproval of the policies of the government and the parliament,” Lenzin says.

More surprising is perhaps another topic often raised in these letters: religion.

“For example, with reference to the preamble of the Swiss constitution, we may hear criticism that Switzerland is no longer a truly Christian country,” he notes.

A bridge to the citizen

"Good communication is like building bridges. Create a bridge with your letter and meet the citizen half-way. He in turn will meet you half-way." This is the philosophy guiding Switzerland’s public administration in its correspondence with the people, as can be found in its guidelines for writing letters to private citizens.

Provided to all levels of the administration, these guidelines, which can be seen at the site of the Federal Chancellery, contain a series of rules, practical suggestions, concrete examples, detailed advice and information of all sorts, so that each letter sent out can satisfy three basic conditions: it should be "personal, relevant, and understandable".

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Translated from Italian by Terence MacNamee, swissinfo.ch

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