Citizen’s Participation in Decision-making on Public Investment: Public Pool in Rural Area (Huttwil, Canton Berne)

Erika Schläppi and Kelly Bishop, Ximpulse GmbH

Relevance of the Practice

This practice is an example of a participatory process relating to a renovation project of a public pool in a rural town. The process shows the advantages of an informal participatory tool aimed at understanding the public’s interest in and create majority support for a renovation project of a public space. It underlines the linkage and interaction between formal and informal participation forms. The citizens’ formal competence to decide on the expenditure for the municipal investment (through the municipal assembly and even a possible voting by ballot) influenced the municipal government’s openness towards incorporating a variety of public interests at the very beginning and during the project development.

Description of the Practice

Huttwil is a municipality in the Canton of Berne with around 5000 inhabitants and an area of 17.24 km2. According to the Swiss statistics Huttwil is classified as intermediary, with urban as well as rural characteristics. 13.74 per cent of the people living in Huttwil are non-citizens. The public swimming pool of Huttwil was built in 1922 and renovated in the Eighties. The old public pool did not fulfill the legal safety requirements anymore and needed renovation. The municipality is the owner of the pool, the Swimming Pool Association its operator.

It was clear from the beginning that the renovation of the pool would be too costly to be decided by the municipal council (the executive organ) or even the municipal assembly (the legislative organ) only. The Organizational Ordinance of the Municipality of Huttwil foresees in Article 4 that the residents of Huttwil (the Swiss citizens domiciled in Huttwil) decide on financial expenditures over CHF 1.5 million by ballot voting (referendum). Article 6 provides that the municipal assembly (an assembly of all citizens, where all Swiss citizens domiciled in Huttwil are invited to participate) decides on expenditures that are over CHF 500,000 to 1.5 million. For expenditures between 100,000 and CHF 500,000 the municipal council’s decision is subject to a facultative referendum: If 5 per cent of Huttwil residents are requiring it by their signature, a public ballot is organized. According to Article 16, the municipal council can decide on expenditures that amount to less than CHF 100,000 independently.

In 2015, the municipal government conducted a public survey to find out what Huttwil citizens thought about the renovation needs of the public pool. The questions ranged from general on the state of the public pool, to more detailed ones on the opinion about specific necessary improvements. The public was asked to rate the importance of certain amenities of the pool, such as a diving tower, water slide or a kids’ pool. Each question had set answers listed which could be rated according to one’s importance. Every question included the possibility to add one’s own idea concerning the question. 586 answers were handed in and showed that there was a broad interest in maintaining and renovating the existing public pool. This confirmed and motivated the municipal council to prepare for the renovation project. Later, in early summer 2018, the idea of building a new public pool in another location of the town (‘CAMPUS’) together with a private partner was brought up by a local citizen’s group. However, the municipal council decided in November 2018 to continue to favor the renovation of the existing pool and proposed to the municipal assembly of Huttwil to approve two financial expenditure decisions, a first one for planning the renovation in detail and a second one on investments for the urgent and provisional reparation of the existing pool.

At the municipal assembly’s session on 30 January 2019, the participating citizens discussed the two options (renovation vs. new pool) in terms of size and quality of the infrastructure, the location, security issues and costs in detail. Various stakeholder groups took the floor and stated their opinion. Finally, the municipal assembly voted on the proposals and concluded that the municipal council would be allowed to spend a specific amount for planning the renovation, and another amount for the urgent reparation of the heating system of the existing pool. It was also decided that the private group that initiated the CAMPUS project would develop their own plan regarding the new pool and calculate the public expenditure that would be implied. Lastly, the assembly held that the municipality would decide which option they preferred, based on accurate information on the public expenditure implied, by public ballot on 9 February 2020.

During 2019, the two construction plans were developed, with cost estimations for the municipal budget. The municipal council informed the Huttwil citizens in detail about the possible two projects and the implied expenditures for the municipality at a public meeting on 14 January 2020. In addition, the municipal council published detailed information online in January 2020. The municipal council did not issue a recommendation or preference for either of the projects and respected the decision of the municipal assembly to let the citizens vote on the two options. The public ballot took place on 9 February 2020. The vote turned out in favor of the less expensive renovation option and against the privately initiated option which would have been more expensive and would even have led to a raise in municipal taxes. The overall cost of the renovation of the public pool will be CHF 5 million with additional yearly costs of CHF 350,000 (operating cost incl. depreciation and interest).

Assessment of the Practice

Looking at this practice, we can see that the initial public survey made Huttwil citizens participate in the needs’ assessment. This served as an indicator to the municipal government on how important the public pool was in the community. The ideas and concerns of the public could be taken up from the beginning of the project, making it responsive to the expressed needs.

In smaller, rural communities the municipal assembly is an important arena for political deliberations and offers possibilities to discuss and develop jointly options that are innovative, beyond the narrow space of formal political participation which is focusing on ‘yes’ or ‘no’. Particularly for more urban settings (mostly with municipal parliaments), consulted experts stressed, however, that the authorities must keep the responsibility and task to design concrete projects and doubted whether the design and planning of a concrete investment project should be left to a citizen’s group, taking to account the complexity of the legal and financial framework for such projects.

Moreover, we can see that through the formal rights of participation (in the municipal assembly, or by ballot voting), local authorities are forced to take citizen’s opinions seriously and – formally or informally – open up to new ideas coming from citizen’s groups.

The public debate around a common endeavor – even if the debate is controversial – strengthens the credibility of political processes and lastly the legitimacy and acceptance of municipal authorities. The effective use of participative instruments  helps increasing the citizen’s sense of belonging to the municipality.

Letting the resident citizens decide on the two options, being aware of the expenditure involved and the consequences on municipal taxes, helps the municipal government justify and confirm its decision and brings broad legitimacy and acceptance towards the public investment. If the participatory processes are perceived by citizens as appropriate and well done, the final decisions are broadly accepted and it can be expected that they will not be questioned any more during the implementation phase. Thus, investing time and resources in sound participatory processes may result in economies in the implementation phase.

References to Scientific and Non-Scientific Publications

Legal Documents:

Cantonal Law on Municipalities (Gemeindegesetz (GG)), BSG 170.11

Cantonal Regulation on Municipalities (Gemeindeverordnung (GV)), BSG 170.111

Organizational Ordinance (Organisationsreglement Einwohnergemeinde Huttwil) (2019) <>

Scientific and Non-Scientific Publications:

Municipal Government, ‘Information from the Municipal Government’ (2020)     <>

—— ‘Participation Survey on the public pool’ (undated)     <>