Academic journal article German Policy Studies

Switzerland: Think Tanks and Vested Interests in Swiss Policy Making

Academic journal article German Policy Studies

Switzerland: Think Tanks and Vested Interests in Swiss Policy Making

Article excerpt


In 1999 fourteen Swiss enterprises founded "Avenir Suisse", a think tank disposing of a budget of more than seven million Swiss francs per year, which is involved in promoting the social and economic development in Switzerland. While in the Anglo-Saxon countries such privately financed, non-profit research institutes have been widespread since the middle of the [] century (Thunert,2003: p.30; Weaver, 1989) in Switzerland this was a new phenomenon. And still today, think tanks following the classical US-model are rare. However, similar to other countries a considerable number of smaller research institutes have evolved during the last 20 years, often focusing on more specific issues. Different to the classical Anglo-Saxon think tanks they are typically doing mission oriented research and/or are financed through a university affiliation.

While in the USA political consulting by external experts is seen as an important factor of influence on how "government think" (Weiss, 1999), in other countries like for instance Germany the weight of think tanks in the political process is judged more skeptically (Thunert, 2003). The common argument in this controversy is that the position and the influence of think tanks are a function of country-specific institutional and cultural characteristics (Thunert, 1999: pp. 35f.; Weaver, 1999: pp. 285f.; Weiss, 1999: pp. 292ff.; Gellner, 1995: pp.46-61).

This is the starting point of this article, which analyzes the question of how and to what extent think tanks can influence Swiss policy making. Until now, think tanks in Switzerland have been a largely unexplored field. This article must therefore be seen as a first step in an area, in which further research still needs to be done.

Against this background we start with an outline of the existing think tanks in Switzerland. Following Thunert (1999: pp. 10) we define think tanks as "privately or publicly financed, application-oriented research institutes, whose main function is it to provide scientifically founded, often inter-disciplinary analyses and comments on a broad field of relevant political issues and propositions". Thereby we distinguish "advocacy tanks", "academic think tanks" and "mission oriented research institutes" (see Thunert, 1999; Weaver, 1999; Gellner, 1995). In the Swiss context a fourth category can be referred to: For a long time vested interests like employers' and employees' organization have been providing their know-how and ideas to the political process and thus influenced policy making. In this sense unions and employers' associations have also fulfilled and still fulfill some functions of a think tank. In the following, they will be called socio-economic think tanks (Karlhofer 2006).

One approach to go into the matter of think tanks and their influence on policy making in Switzerland is to take interest groups and their role in Swiss policy making as a starting point (Linder, 2005; Mach, 2004; Kriesi, 1998: pp. 265-277).(1) Organized interests play an important role in the political process in Switzerland, last but not least due to direct democracy, which gives them a veto right in legislation. The possibility to block parliamentary decisions with a referendum led to the development of an extensive pre-parliamentary process, in which all important political actors are integrated in order to find a for all acceptable compromise. We hypothesize that these well structured relations between the state and para-state respectively private actors offer good possibilities also for the "new" think tanks to bring their scientific know-how and ideas into the political process.

The article unfolds as follows. First, an overview of the existing think tanks in Switzerland and their characteristics will be given. Afterwards the influence of think tanks in Switzerland will be discussed from a theoretical point of view. Starting from the international debate on corporatism, we will thereby focus on vested interests in the Swiss political system. …

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