​Speech delivered to the Parliamentary Institute of Cambodia (PIC)
Phnom Penh, March 26th, 2015
By Philippe Schwab, Secretary General of the Swiss Federal Assembly [1]


"It is not the ship so much as the skilful sailing that assures the prosperous voyage."

George William Curtis (American social reformer, author and editor, 1824-1892)



Distinguished members of staff of the Parliamentary Institute of Cambodia

Ladies and Gentlemen


We are together here in this room today because we share the same profession: we all work for an institution called "parliament", which is the legislative branch of our countries' political systems. I like to visualise the Swiss parliament – or the Cambodian parliament, or any other parliament in the world – as a big ship. We, the staff of the Parliamentary Services of Switzerland, are the ship's crew: we plan the ship's route, we help to steer, we keep the engine running, we clean and tidy and, of course, we take care of the ship's passengers.

There are two kinds of passengers on board – two kinds, not two classes, because our passengers all have equal rights. The bigger part of the passengers belongs to the National Council, the smaller part to the Council of States, and together they form the Federal Assembly. As already explained, Switzerland has a bicameral parliament, and both chambers have the same legal status and identical powers.

The Federal Constitution defines the Swiss parliament as the "supreme authority of the Confederation"[2]. To be able to fulfil this function, parliament enjoys complete independence from the government. Thus, the principle of the separation of powers, also called checks and balances, is respected.

The Swiss parliament is a militia parliament. This characteristic of the Swiss system is rather unusual. It means that our members of parliament are not full-time politicians: the majority of them exercises a professional occupation alongside their parliamentary mandates. This has the advantage that deputies remain in direct touch with social realities as doctors, lawyers, farmers, businessmen and -women, teachers or union employees. This allows them to retain a foothold in the economy outside their political mandate. Depending on the individual and the chamber to which he or she belongs, parliamentary duties will take up between 50 and 70 per cent of a deputy's time.

The militia principle has a long tradition in Switzerland's system of direct democracy and proximity between the authorities and citizens. It can be observed at communal and provincial level as well as in the armed forces. The militia principle is also facilitated by Switzerland's small size, which allows the majority of deputies to dedicate part of their day to their profession in their home province and the rest to their political activities in the capital.

Still, it is understandable that most MPs find it difficult to juggle their professional and political careers. Moreover, they are confronted with the professionalism and durability of the government and the Federal Administration. This is where the Parliamentary Services come in: they help to even out this imbalance by providing the deputies with the resources, information and expertise they need, while ensuring that proper procedures are followed.

Briefly summarised, the staff of the Parliamentary Services support the part-time members of parliament in the following areas of activity:

  •  They plan and organise at least 52 days of session of both Chambers per year, as well as about 500 meetings of parliamentary committees.
  • They advise the MPs, in particular the presidents of the two chambers and of the committees, on matters of business and procedure.
  • They carry out administrative tasks and translations, and they record the minutes of the dealings of parliament and its committees. The keepers of the minutes write about 30 000 pages per year.
  • They inform the public about the Federal Assembly and its activities.
  • They support the Federal Assembly in its international relations.
  • They run the Parliamentary Library and provide the members of parliament with documentation and IT services.

Performing these tasks, the Parliamentary Services form the backbone of parliament and serve as its memory.

Now, let us take a quick look at the statutory framework: the Federal Constitution states that "the Federal Assembly has parliamentary services at its disposal."[3] This statement is specified in the law as follows: "The Parliamentary Services assist the Federal Assembly in the fulfilment of its duties."[4] The same law then defines the tasks of the Parliamentary Services and how they are to be managed.

The Parliamentary Services are headed by the Secretary General: I am the captain of this seaworthy ship named "The Federal Assembly", and it is my task to keep this ship going, both in calm and rough waters. In fact, I fulfil the double function of keeping the ship's crew motivated and the passengers happy.

In other words: the Secretary General's main role is to ensure that the activities of parliament and its bodies run smoothly. To this end, he heads the Management Board of the Parliamentary Services, which has seven members. The Secretary General is responsible to a political board called the Administration Delegation for the proper management of the Parliamentary Services.

The Administration Delegation is composed of the two presidents and the four vice presidents of the chambers. It is the supreme administrative body of the Parliamentary Services, exercising overall control and supervision. It determines the responsibilities and framework for the Parliamentary Services in the form of an internal regulation. The Administration Delegation is also responsible for managing the budget for parliament and its administration. The annual budget amounts to around 100 million Swiss francs or US dollars. The budget is presented to parliament for adoption.

You see that with the Administration Delegation as their supreme administrative body, the Parliamentary Services are subordinated to parliament: they are, in accordance with the principle of the separation of powers, independent of the Federal Council and the Federal Administration – in other words, they are independent of the executive branch.

As a sign of this independence, the Secretary General is appointed by a parliamentary body called the Coordination Conference. The National Council and the Council of States then confirm the nomination in a joint session. The Secretary General cannot be removed for the period of office, which lasts four years. He may step down at the end of this period but is otherwise reappointed automatically. The Secretary General has a deputy who helps him in his work and substitutes him in the event of his absence.

The autonomy of the Swiss Parliamentary Services is further underlined by the fact that they dispose of their own budget and recruit their own staff. While this autonomy is an important precondition for the appropriate fulfilment of our tasks, it does not mean that we live in an ivory tower – or, to stick to our analogy, in an ivory ship: we do communicate with other vessels that we encounter on our voyage.

With the Federal Administration, we maintain a pragmatic collaboration. For instance, translations into Italian and English are carried out by the Federal Council's staff office, which is called the Federal Chancellery. Other offices of the Federal Administration often provide the Parliamentary Services with legal advice or technical knowledge. Clear procedures guarantee that we can keep the necessary distance. Obviously, we do not want our ship to collide with other ships…

I would like to point out, though, that the Swiss Parliamentary Services have not always been the system of complete autonomy that they are today. In fact, they have only enjoyed autonomy from the executive branch since 1999, when their independence was enshrined in the revised Federal Constitution.

The Parliamentary Services were created in 1920. At first, they were attached to the Federal Council – that is, to the government – and to the staff office of the Federal Council. The secretary of the Federal Assembly was not appointed by parliament, but by the Federal Council. Parliament only had a small secretariat at its disposal. The Parliamentary Services then gradually emancipated themselves from the staff office of the Federal Council until they attained complete independence in 1999.

Also, the Parliamentary Services have been growing continually since their foundation: In 1970, they had a staff of around 30. At present, we have a staff of 311 – not including the large number of service providers active in the fields of security, IT, translation, logistics and catering. Because two thirds of the staff work part-time and only one third full time, the number of 311 employees corresponds to 213 full-time equivalents.

It can be said that the Swiss Parliamentary Services are a relatively small body compared to the parliamentary administrations of other countries. The German legislative power, called the Bundestag, for example, has a staff of about 2600.[4] In Canada,[5] 1700 employees work for just one of the two chambers (House of Commons). In Italy,[6] the administration of the Chamber of Deputies consists of 1300 employees. Of course, I admit that the parliamentary administrations of those countries have to keep bigger ships going than the Swiss Parliamentary Services.

In our neighbouring country Austria,[7] whose bicameral parliament is of about the same size as the Swiss one, the parliamentary administration has a staff of around 380. I am convinced that even with relatively little means and resources, the Swiss Parliamentary Services can give Switzerland's legislative power the support it needs to be able to perform its tasks.

In this context, I would like to mention the fact that the Parliamentary Services do not provide the members of parliament with personal collaborators. This has to do with the principle of political neutrality: the staff of the Swiss Parliamentary Services are expected to treat all members of parliament alike, no matter what political party they belong to. The staff will always try to provide the members of parliament with the best possible solutions, but they need to keep their distance: they must avoid becoming political instruments. Some members of parliament do have personal collaborators, but they have to hire and pay them themselves with their allowances.

Likewise, the staff of the parliamentary groups do not belong to the Parliamentary Services. Politically speaking, the Federal Assembly is not divided into parties, but into parliamentary groups. The groups comprise members of the same party or of parties with similar political agendas. Those groups also hire their own staff.

All staff of the Parliamentary Services are recruited from the labour market following open competitions. In contrast to other countries with a system of parliamentary staff with specific competitions, all Parliamentary Services staff are chosen to fulfil a specific function in which they will remain for as long as they continue to work in the administration. There is no statutory obligation to offer mobility, whether within or outside the Parliamentary Services. With the exception of a few senior managers, all staff are appointed by the Secretary General.

The staff of the Parliamentary Services receive a permanent contract of employment and are assigned to one of 38 salary classes according to their function. With each member of staff, annual evaluation conversations are conducted in order to set personal objectives and to see whether last year's objectives have been achieved. In addition, possibilities for further training are discussed with each member of staff.

I would like to tell you a little bit more about the qualities and competences of our staff: as I have already mentioned, they are bound by an obligation to be politically neutral. Since they are servants of parliament as an institution, they must refuse any instructions or tasks of a partisan nature. They are at the service of the parliamentary bodies and their members regardless of political orientation. Tensions with the political authorities are extremely rare, as they too seek to respect the Parliamentary Services' strict neutrality.

The credibility of our staff is based on their expertise and professionalism. In order to understand the members of parliament, they need to have a profound knowledge of the political world and its codes. But at the same time, they must know how to distance themselves from this world.

On a ship, the passengers' cabins are cleaned and tidied in the passengers' absence so that they do not notice much of this work. It is the same on our parliamentary ship: our staff work discreetly. They remain in the background, trying to be invisible. A committee's secretary, for instance, assists the committee's president with the preparation of a session – but during the session, the secretary will yield the floor to the president.

Within the dynamic world of parliamentary activities and changing majorities, the staff of the Parliamentary Services must be extremely flexible. As you all know, the weather can change rapidly and unexpectedly at sea, so our ship's crew must be able to anticipate, to react quickly and to develop innovative solutions.

The Parliamentary Services' staff identify strongly with the institution of parliament of which they are a part. There is therefore strong staff loyalty and a high degree of organisational stability, which is a strength in terms of knowledge and know-how. A reorganisation of the Parliamentary Services was put into effect in 2014, but the last major restructuring before that took place over twenty years ago.

Finally, I would like to mention that both parliament and the Parliamentary Services are multilingual institutions reflecting Switzerland's four national languages German, French, Italian and Rhaeto-Romanic. All our staff have to master at least two national languages.

Let us now take a closer look at the tasks of the Parliamentary Services. Schematically, there are four broad areas of activity:

  •  The Committees and Research Sector is responsible for all council activities and documentation related to the work of the 2 chambers and the 11 standing committees. The National Council and the Council of States each have 9 legislative and 2 supervisory committees. The main task of the legislative committees is to carry out preliminary examinations of issues allotted to them. The committees specialise in a certain subject area: there are, for example, the Committees for Social Security and Health, the Defence Committees or the Committees for Legal Affairs.

  • The supervisory committees of parliament are called the Finance Committees and the Control Committees. The Finance Committees are responsible for the overall financial supervision of the Federal Administration: they examine the budget, the supplementary credits and the invoice. The Control Committees are mandated by the Federal Assembly to exercise parliamentary oversight of the activities of the government and the Federal Administration, the Federal Courts and other organs entrusted with tasks of the Confederation.
    Both supervisory committees have their own secretariats with a staff of about 12 each, the keepers of the minutes not included. It is the secretariats' task to assist the committees in their controlling activities on a technical, organisational and administrative level.
    Scientific officers help the presidents of the committees with the preparation of the sessions and issues at hand. They write papers containing technical or legal recommendations and they draft reports for the committees. Also, they maintain contact with other parliamentary committees as well as with the offices of the Federal Administration.
    The Control Committees are additionally supported by a small competence centre in matters of evaluation called the Parliamentary Control of the Administration. This team of 6 carries out examinations and investigations on behalf of the Control Committees. The evaluations cover a wide range of issues: for example, the Parliamentary Control of the Administration has recently published a report on external employees in the Federal Administration, and it is currently evaluating Switzerland's international military cooperation or the maintaining of cultivable land for agriculture. The Parliamentary Control of the Administration also monitors, on behalf of the Control Committees, the implementation and effectiveness of measures taken by the federal authorities.
    The Parliamentary Library maintains a collection of publications on all areas of politics, but makes a special effort to obtain literature about the Swiss Federal Assembly and other parliaments. It subscribes to around 450 specialist periodicals that are analysed by its staff. Moreover, it has a press analysis centre that monitors the media, and a documentation service that helps the members of parliament and the staff of the Parliamentary Services with acquiring and evaluating documents. It makes expert analyses and provides information to international organizations and institutions upon request.


  • The Information Sector manages the communication with the media and the public. It is also responsible for the electronic information platforms of parliament – one example is the website www.parliament.ch that contains all the important information about the Swiss parliament and the Parliamentary Services. The website reaches an average of 300 000 page views per day.
    Furthermore, the staff of the Information Sector write the minutes both of the committee sessions and of the debates in the National Council and Council of States. The verbatim reports of the debates in the two chambers are published on the Internet on the same day that the debate has taken place. The minutes of the committees' meetings, however, are not available to the public. Last but not least, the Information Sector organises guided tours of the Swiss Parliament Building. More than 100 000 people visit the building each year.


  • The International Affairs and Multilingualism Sector is responsible for the Federal Assembly's international and inter-parliamentary activities. Each year, about ten delegations of members of parliament from other countries visit Switzerland, and the same number of delegations from Switzerland travel abroad – to Cambodia, for instance. These visits need to be organised and prepared. Additionally, as Switzerland has four national languages, this sector offers translation and interpretation services.
    •Finally, the Infrastructure Sector manages human resources and finances, is responsible for the security of the Parliament Building and deals with project management. A team of about 10 ushers ensures the smooth flow of the sessions, while our IT specialists are here to help both members of parliament and staff to solve all kinds of hard- and software problems. The IT service also develops new applications. One of them is "e-parl", an extranet from which the members of parliament can download the documentation they need for the committees and the sessions. Soon, this system will enable us to do without the distribution of documents printed on paper.



In conclusion, I would like to repeat three principles that are, in my opinion and experience, fundamental to a good parliamentary administration:

  • The first of these principles is political neutrality and impartiality. The staff of a parliamentary administration serve parliament as an institution. Like a ship's crew, they must set their own interests aside and work together to keep the ship as a whole running.
  • The second important principle is autonomy: a parliamentary administration must be, like parliament itself, independent of the government. This corresponds to the principle of the separation of powers and guarantees that parliament can fulfil its tasks appropriately, especially its control function.
  • The third and last principle is continuity, or permanence: in an environment that is prone to instability and change, a parliamentary administration is the permanent element. It survives changing political majorities or public opinions. Thus, it forms the backbone of parliament and serves as its memory.


The Swiss Parliamentary Services try to accomplish their tasks in accordance with these principles. For example, following the principle of continuity, the Management Board has developed a strategy for the Parliamentary Services for the years 2012 to 2016. This strategy clearly defines where the Parliamentary Services stand and where they are headed – for the benefit of the members of parliament, but also for the benefit of its staff. It allows everybody to have the same view of the current situation as well as of the priorities and future developments. The strategy is both our ship's timetable and its navigation system.

The future, Ladies and Gentlemen, will be challenging – as much as this can be safely assumed. The Parliamentary Services will have to deal with a growing complexity of the legislative projects and with the rapid developments in the field of information technology. In addition, in view of the technical developments, the communication with the media and the public will become more and more complex. We have to find out how to deal with the new omnipresence of the Internet and with new channels of communication like Twitter or Facebook – the so-called social media.

Whatever the challenges may be, the Parliamentary Services of Switzerland will continue to do their best in order to keep the parliamentary vessel on its course. Also, I would like to emphasise that the Swiss Parliamentary Services will always gladly share their ideas, knowledge and know-how with parliamentary administrations all over the world.

The Parliamentary Institute of Cambodia is an important instrument in the process of strengthening the democratic system of Cambodia. Ladies and Gentlemen, I think you can be proud to be a part of this institute. I am happy to be here with you today, and it will make me even happier if our exchange can give you a few new impulses and ideas for your daily business.


Thank you for your attention.


[1] Art. 148 § 1 of the Federal Constitution
[2] Art. 148 § 1 of the Federal Constitution

[3] Article 155 of the Federal Constitution

[4] Article 64 of the Parliamentary Act




[8] http://www.parlament.gv.at/WWER/PDION/