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Annual reports

Time passes, and sometimes proves right...

“Focus on onsite audits!” This mantra has guided the work programme of the Swiss Federal Audit Office (SFAO) for several years now. Searching for the facts, comparing hypotheses with the actual situation on the ground, checking the information submitted to Parliament or the general public: such is the daily work of the SFAO. We have to work without preconceptions and steer clear of dogma.

These past few years, this has led us to draw some uncomfortable conclusions. The tariff system for outpatient medical services needed to be revised. The financing of the Decommissioning Fund for Nuclear Facilities and Waste Disposal Fund for Nuclear Power Plants was potentially insufficient. More than half of the Federal Council’s dispatches did not reliably estimate the impact of the decisions proposed. The activities of Swiss free ports constituted a threat to Switzerland’s international image. The management of the Confederation’s departments will be effective only if robust cross-departmental controls are put in place, such as in the IT domain. Measures were taken and the situation has improved.

However, these cases serve as examples, as they show that the SFAO performs an oversight function. By addressing these cases before the crisis erupts, it is following another of its key strategies: “intervene as early as possible in order to identify problems in time”.

Federalism is always a very sensitive subject in Switzerland, and the SFAO’s audits are no exception in stirring up emotions on sensitive points. These audits take three forms.

The first type of audit verifies the correct application of federal law, e.g. checks on the calculation of the fiscal equalization between the cantons or the correct application of federal social security legislation. For instance, 18% of requests for supplementary benefits are rejected in generous cantons, compared with 44% in stricter cantons. Is this in line with the intentions of the legislator?

Subsidy audits make up the second group. They are used to verify the correct use of federal funding. Examples are motorways, COVID-19 hardship assistance, or the CHF 2.1 billion that the Confederation will pay for the work on the third Rhone correction (see section 5.A of this annual report).

Finally, we look at the way in which the federal offices manage their relations with the cantons. This is clearly the thorniest area. For the first time, the SFAO is proposing a study on how the Confederation organises the management of its relations with the cantons. To summarise: its relations with Mexico are better organised than those between its federal offices and the canton of Valais (section 8.A).

IT also falls into this third category. There is the challenge of telecommunication networks (section 6.C), but also the difficulty of defining and collecting IT data. After examining the data of the commercial register and the data for road traffic, the SFAO turned to the data of the debt enforcement and bankruptcy register (section 8.B). Throughout the audits, the findings are consistent and similar. In numerous areas, Switzerland finds it hard to consolidate the data collected in the cantons at federal level. This hinders any efforts to introduce the once-only principle, even though this was adopted by Switzerland on 6 October 2017 in Tallinn. But this unfortunate situation is also a hurdle for the Federal Administration, the users of the registers and the prosecution authorities.

There are various reasons for this. The cantonal administrations use different software, data is not defined in the same way across all cantons, data is of poor quality or is incomplete, the federal offices do not receive the data... In 2011, a legal opinion from the Federal Office of Justice showed that, in the area of IT, adopting a constitutional legal framework is the only reasonable path. But the dogma of federalism is alive and kicking. Nobody dares tackle this subject in a rational manner, or address this constitutional task.

In our 2015 annual report, the cartoonist Mix & Remix illustrated the difficulties facing the Federal Roads Office’s (FEDRO) “road licensing information system” IT project, which were partly federalist in nature. This prompted an official reaction from the Conference of Cantonal Governments; in June 2015, it complained to the Federal Council about the impertinence of the cartoon and the SFAO.

Six years passed, and then the pandemic forced its way into the conversation. The saga of the statistics on COVID-19 cases and on the numbers of intensive care patients only served to confirm the SFAO’s disturbing findings regarding the availability and quality of data. And finally, on 26 December 2021, Federal Councillor Guy Parmelin, at that time President of the Swiss Confederation, said to the SonntagsZeitung in an interview specifically dedicated to the pandemic: “We need to learn our lesson from the pandemic. Federalism may be one of the pillars of Switzerland, but it is sometimes cumbersome and complicated, especially in a crisis”. The SFAO shares this opinion.

And now, all that remains is for me to wish the SFAO every success for the future. I will be retiring at the end of August, after 34 years at the SFAO. Thank you to everyone who supports our activities!

Annual report 2021

Press release

Information:

Michel Huissoud, Director of the SFAO, tel. 058 463 11 11

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