Municipal secretaries have a considerable scope of action 

04/10/2016

The image of a municipal secretary who prepares items of business, advises the government on legal questions, and keeps the minutes at meetings, is outdated. Today he is in fact the manager of the administration. KOLT asked Prof. Dr. Reto Steiner, expert in public management, how this development took place and whether it is a good one. 

KOLT: What are the reasons for the changing work profile of municipal secretaries?

Reto Steiner: The work done by municipal authorities has become much more complex, for example in the social realm or the construction sector. In towns such as Olten, this has led to an expansion of the administrative bodies. This in turn requires someone who facilitates communication among the individual departments and brings together the issues affecting several areas. This coordinating, cross-departmental function is taken on by the municipal secretary. Something that is particularly characteristic of Switzerland is that there are many small municipalities: In Switzerland, more than half of all municipalities have fewer than 1000 inhabitants; an average administrative office has 2.4 full-time positions. So there are numerous small companies in which the municipal secretary is often the only person with a full workload. If a professional administration has to interact with a volunteer government, his role becomes even more important.

What sorts of qualifications does a municipal secretary have to fulfil nowadays?

Expectations have risen for municipal secretaries, as can be seen in the fact that purely legal knowledge is no longer sufficient for the office; rather, management competence is also an essential requirement. In the last ten or fifteen years, most cantons have begun to establish a new model for education and professional development of municipal secretaries. Nowadays a secretary has to know how the planning process works within a municipality, and has to have a talent for organization, in order to determine or change procedures and manage the staff well. He also needs knowledge of controlling so he can recognize possible problems in time, intervene, communicate, and find solutions.

Markus Dietler has been municipal secretary of Olten for 15 years; before that he was a journalist. He believes his office allows him to "make things happen myself, not just report on what others are doing". How much power do municipal secretaries have?

Municipal secretaries have a considerable scope of action. They often boast very good if not the best knowledge of the dossier within the municipality, because they have insight into the different departments and how the administration works, and at the same time they understand the political decision-making process. By acting as a hinge between administration and government, they have a strong influence both on decision-making within the government, and on how the decisions are implemented by the administration.

How can we guarantee that strategic and operative levels remain separate?

Reto Steiner:It is the government's responsibility to ensure that decisions are implemented in the right spirit, but also to examine carefully what has been prepared by the administration and made available to them by the municipal secretary. This requires a strong relationship of trust, but also a healthy application of control time and again. How broadly or narrowly a secretary defines his role is up to him, so it depends on his personality. Incidentally, this is true at the canton and national levels as well. For example, while his predecessor Corina Casanova acted in a restrained manner, current Federal Chancellor Walter Thurnherr takes a more aggressive approach to his office.

What opportunities and risks are involved when a municipal secretary has so many tasks?

Reto Steiner:The opportunity of this kind of central staff function is that business can be well managed, departments and offices do not develop a life of their own, and the government can make its political decisions based on a well thought-out, cleanly structured foundation. The risk is the same as in other positions where power accumulates: that it might be abused. That is why we need regular supervision. A task which the government needs to take on with regard to its chief of staff, and the parliament's Control Committee with regard to the government. The canton determines the legal framework.

The Olten municipal parliament selects the secretary for a term of four years. Although civil servant status has been abolished in many places, it still applies to the municipal secretary in Olten. Why do you think it has been retained?

Reto Steiner: Civil servant status at the municipal level is totally obsolete and has been very unusual to come across in the last ten years. In my opinion it can no longer be justified and is not understood by the people anymore. Good employment conditions can be secured just as well by a public-law contract, with the difference that it can be dissolved, for example for substandard work.

How will the office of municipal secretary change in the future? What trends are emerging, what prognoses can be made?

Reto Steiner:In Switzerland the trend is strongly in the direction of a managing director model. That is: the municipal secretary takes on the organizational and personnel management, while the government manages the content. By relieving the government of day-to-day business, we make voluntary offices more attractive. In our monitoring project, half of the municipalities in Switzerland report having difficulty finding enough willing political officials. This could be ameliorated by delegating and limiting one's activities to basic political responsibilities. The municipal secretary is, so to speak, the interior minister of the municipality, whereas the members of the government and the mayor primarily act as foreign ministers and are therefore responsible for contact with citizens, the media, and the public. If the elected politicians understand how to represent the municipality to stakeholder groups and at the same time the municipal secretary knows and manages the internal processes well, then the municipality is well managed.