The Federal Council is concerned about the many indiscretions: tough measures should now stop the leaks
Federal administration employees constantly violate official secrecy. Two instruments should now ensure that this stops.
Before the state government discussed the report by Federal President Ignazio Cassis on Switzerland’s neutrality at the beginning of September, several media disseminated the content of the document. It was an indiscretion – one of many. Now the Federal Council wants to take precautions against the dissemination of confidential information.
They are prepared by the Federal Chancellery. The head of communications Ursula Eggenberger confirms this on request. “The Federal Chancellery is currently examining various measures to combat leaks,” she says.
What options are there? It is possible that access to documents will be restricted, for example in the co-reporting procedure. This is how it works: A department normally submits an application three weeks before a Federal Council meeting. The other departments can then write “co-reports”, i.e. suggest changes to the content. The Federal Chancellery writes a summary. The whole procedure is confidential. However, it happens again and again that applications and proposed changes are made public before or after the Federal Council meeting.
Accurate control over who read a paper
Restricting the group of recipients is one variant. The other: Measures are taken “that make it easier to understand who has taken note of such documents,” as Ursula Eggenberger explains. Fewer people see sensitive papers and more control over them – that’s the approach the Federal Chancellery is now taking.
However, there are disadvantages to be expected: What if an application affects many different federal offices? Should the accessibility of the papers be severely restricted, although this prevents an expert from giving his opinion? “It is important to find a balance between the protection of sensitive information and efficient business transactions,” says Eggenberger from the Federal Chancellery.
Especially many indiscretions in the Corona period
The state government is in the process of changing its line. In March 2021, Councilor of States Benedikt Würth submitted a motion: “Measures against the system of indiscretions,” he called for. At that time, the Federal Council recommended the push for rejection.
Würth was surprised that the government’s decisions on corona policy had been pushed through to individual media titles several times prematurely. The St.Gallen Council of States pointed out that this should influence the formation of opinion. Mutual trust within the government is deteriorating. This also weakens trust in the government as a collegial authority.
During the consultation in the Council of States, Chancellor Walter Thurnherr said that leaks were not only “criminal” – they “also showed a weakness of character”. And they made cooperation more difficult in the preparation of Federal Council business.
In its statement on the motion, however, the Federal Council pointed out that access to documents classified as secret had already been restricted. Additional control mechanisms further complicate the cooperation that is necessary for the political process. The Council of States accepted Würth’s motion; the National Council rejected it.
It is doubtful whether stricter rules will achieve anything
The rigorous approach of a special investigator to leaks in connection with a report on the crypto affair made headlines – and also because of the disclosure of information about the Federal Council’s corona policy. Criminal proceedings were initiated against three senior federal officials; one of them spent a few days in custody. All three are presumed innocent.
An experienced federal employee doubts whether new measures against indiscretions will achieve their goal. An improvement can only be expected if the federal councilors make it clear to the employees of their departments: “Indiscretions will not be tolerated here.”
But that is not the case. Some federal councilors wanted to use indiscretions to put pressure on other members of the government, to put themselves in a good light – and opponents in a bad light. It is strange that the Federal Council wants to combat a grievance that it has brought about itself.
Former Federal Council spokesman Oswald Sigg is also skeptical. The measures against leaks, which are now being examined, have weakened mutual trust, he says.