Participation in the Development of the City Charter of Biel/Bienne

Erika Schläppi and Kelly Bishop, Ximpulse GmbH

Relevance of the Practice

This practice is an example of a participatory process relating to the development of a new City Charter (municipal statute). The process shows the advantages and limitations of (new) informal participatory tools aimed at inclusiveness (e.g. including youth, socio-economic disadvantaged groups or non-citizens) in an urban setting and the close interaction with established formal elements of representative democracy in the municipality at stake. The practice also shows the interest in innovative forms of political participation and the anchoring of such practices in formal legal texts.

Description of the Practice

The City of Biel/Bienne located in the north-west of Switzerland is part of the Canton of Berne, which is a bilingual canton. Biel/Bienne is the largest bilingual City in Switzerland. 57 per cent of the population are German speakers and 43 per cent are French speaking. In total Biel/Bienne counts 54,456 habitants (31.12.2016[1]). 33.2 per cent are non-citizens, around 17 per cent are under 18 years old, both groups are without the formal right to participation in the political decision-making process. The City of Biel/Bienne launched the revision of the City Charter (Totalrevision der Stadtordnung also ‘City Charter’) in 2017. The aim of the exercise was to align the Charter to the revised cantonal legal framework, taking into account the evolving demographic situation of the city and adapt the vision of the city’s development.

The process was designed within the relevant federal, cantonal and municipal legal framework. Swiss municipalities have a constitutionally guaranteed right to autonomy, within the scope defined by cantonal and federal law. For Bernese municipalities, the canton determines the basics of the organization of the municipalities (Article 11 of the Cantonal Constitution). The total revision of the City Charter must be submitted to a mandatory referendum (popular vote) in the municipality (Article 116(1) of the Cantonal Constitution). The City Charter must include the principles of the organization, responsibilities and participation of the citizens (Article 51 of the Law on Municipalities), and it must be approved by the responsible cantonal authorities (Article 56 of the Law on Municipalities).

In addition, Article 12(1)(a) of the current City Charter of Biel/Bienne confirms that the total revision of the City Charter falls under the jurisdiction of the citizens of Biel/Bienne. The City Parliament however first approves the final version of the revised City Charter based on the draft submitted by the municipal council, the municipal executive before it is submitted to the citizens for their final say.

The municipal government (municipal council) saw the total revision of the City Charter as a project of big political importance. Before the start of the revision process a few fundamental questions were discussed and clarified by a core-group (Kernguppe) consisting of two members of the municipal council, the President of the Supervisory Commission of the City Parliament, the City Chancellor as well as four senior members of the public administration and a legal expert. The core-group developed 20 working hypotheses that the revision process should follow. One of the hypotheses stated that the participation of private persons and new forms of political participation should be considered to be included into the new City Charter. The City Parliament then discussed and decided on the proposed structure of the project, which foresaw five project phases. The extent to which the public should be involved in the revision process was not entirely undisputed. Some members of the City Parliament did find the suggested participatory process too complicated and experimental. They were worried about the influence it would have on the content of the new City Charter and how the raised expectations could negatively affect the political decision-making process at a later stage of the process. The City Parliament nonetheless approved the financing credit of CHF 340,000 for the anticipated project on 16 March 2017.

Phase 1 was aimed at creating a basis for the participative phase of the revision process. The 20 working hypotheses were used as guidelines to frame and outline 13 questions, which could be discussed within a wider participation process. In this first phase, a group of experts from the areas of law, political science and municipal fiscal law where commissioned to give their expert inputs. Factsheets were prepared for the municipal council which submitted them to the Special Commission of the City Parliament. The inputs of the special commission fed into the final version or the Factsheets on 20 December 2017, framing formally the participation of the public in the second phase of the revision process.

The focus of phase 2 was the broad and interactive participation of the public, with the aim of including groups that are not included in the formal decision-making process, largely due to their lack of citizenship. With the support of an external opinion research institute (GFS Bern) the participation process was structured into various steps. The factsheets formed the basis for a direct dialogue as well as an online input dialogue, both for gathering substantial qualitative inputs. The direct dialogue consisted of four (two German and two French) dialogue groups, which took place in February 2018, where members of the special commission presented the factsheets. The members of the dialogue groups were selected at random by lottery among the inhabitants of Biel/Bienne. 59 per cent of the selected persons did attend the group dialog sessions. The main inputs referred to the desired increase of participation rights on municipality level. In addition, the promotion of political participation of youth and non-citizens was raised. The dialogue groups also discussed solutions or new forms and instruments that would be beneficial in promoting substantive political participation. The aim of the indirect online dialogue was to reach inhabitants that prefer to give their opinion in an accessible and low threshold level form. Simultaneously an online-social-media-influencer campaign was launched. The aim of the process was to have as much participation and dialogue with people living in Biel/Bienne as possible, collect different views and opinions, as well as to increase inclusion of people without formal voting rights. The influencers were expected to motivate inhabitants in their networks to participate actively. The social media inputs were structured to get answers to specific questions as well as additional ideas and opinions of the participants. In April 2018 a structured questionnaire was sent out by mail to 4,000 people living in Biel/Bienne, which also were selected by random. 1,233 questionnaires were returned.

Based on the results from this phase, the municipal council defined benchmarks for the elaboration of the first draft of the new City Charter. Several of the identified public benchmarks that came from the public participatory processes related to political participation: Improving provision on public information, increasing political participation of non-citizens, anchoring bilingualism in participatory processes. The benchmarks stemming from the administration project groups and the parliament were not specifically aimed at political participation but included inputs to financial principles and questions of competences between legislative and executive organs.

In phase 3 a first draft of the City Charter was elaborated. Experts drafted a first version based on the benchmarks defined by the municipal council. In various workshops together with the municipal government and the special commission of the parliament the draft was written and incorporated into the drafting procedure that is legally foreseen for the revision of the City Charter, with various readings of the text in the City Parliament. The municipal council passed the draft on 30 January 2019 and issued a commentary of the draft.

Phase 4 consisted of the formal consultation process. On 5 February 2019 the municipal council’s draft and the commentary were presented to the public at a public information event. The two documents together with a questionnaire were sent to political parties in Biel/Bienne, civil society organizations and associations, economic and workers’ unions, district organizations as well as religious communities (Kirchgemeinden). Interested people got the documents directly at the information event and were able to access them online. The questionnaire also referred to political participation. One question asked whether the proposed new participation rights were deemed useful and effective and whether there were ideas for additional participation forms. The second one asked whether the administration should consult the public on certain issues and which proposed option they would prefer. Half of the consulted organizations as well as some citizens sent their comments on the first draft of the revised City Charter. The replies were made public online. The results of the formal consultation process confirmed, among other things, that there was an overwhelming agreement that new participation forms should be included in the City Charter. Private persons as well as organizations also had additional ideas of how other forms of participation rights could be included into the City Charter.

Based on the consultation inputs the draft was amended in two additional readings by the municipal council. After the first reading, the revised draft was handed over to the cantonal Office for Municipalities and Spatial Planning (Amt für Gemeinden und Raumordnung), for preliminary legality check, based on Article 56(1) of the cantonal law on municipalities. This preliminary approval tries to make sure that the draft that the citizens will vote on, will also be approved by the Office once it has been accepted by the citizens. On 13 September 2019 the cantonal Office concluded that there were no legal reservations towards the draft. Some minor comments were taken up into the draft in the second reading by the municipal council, the rest of the draft remained the same.

The municipal council submitted the draft of the new City Charter to the City Parliament in autumn 2019. Many amendments were proposed.[2] Due to the Covid-19 pandemic, the discussion was delayed. In light of the high number of amendments, the (newly elected) City Parliament decided in December 2020 to refer the draft back to the municipal council for examination and preparation of proposals. It is currently uncertain when the new City Charter will be put to the vote of the citizens of Biel/Bienne and when it will enter into force.

Assessment of the Practice

Looking at this practice in the context of an urban municipality, we can see that participation was a means for collecting inputs from citizens to make the process more responsive to their needs. Informal and formal participative instruments provided substantial ideas into law-making and political decision-making. Informal and formal participation can be combined successfully and lead to substantive results, if the overall working processes are clearly structured and framed, fitting into the overall system of decision-making.

Informal instruments work out fine, if the formal processes of law-making provide the space needed, if they are duly respected and if the political stakeholders are open for such inputs. The benchmarks of the broad participatory process of the first phase were taken up into the formal law-making process by the city’s legislative and executive authorities, without legal obligation to do so. However, due to a variety of reasons, the city charter could not be adopted in one legislature as it was planned. The newly elected parliament does not feel as committed to the procedure as the previous parliament, and the momentum could be lost. ‘Informal’ does not mean ‘unstructured’ – to the contrary: Informal processes should be prepared and structured carefully. The contribution of a variety of external experts in framing the process and facilitating dialogue between citizens and the authorities was crucial in this case, able to coordinate, facilitate and sequence the various participative instruments according to their specific purposes and limits. Informal and formal participative processes are time and resource intensive but if well sequenced, transparently structured, well designed and managed, they can lead to innovative results and increase credibility, responsiveness and legitimacy of city authorities.

Different participation tools and instruments (such as information hearings, dialogue meetings, on-line discussions, public surveys, social media campaigns etc.) have different aims. It is important to be clear about the purpose, the target groups, the use of the expected results from the beginning, and balance the various tools and instruments accordingly in the working process.

Moreover, we can see that approaching specific groups and stakeholders can be challenging: How to get their views? Who is representing and speaking for them? Who can bring innovative ideas? A thorough analysis of the power dynamics at play is important to ensure inclusivity. A combination of different formats and channels are useful to get the views of different groups.

Framing and managing expectations of people involved in the participatory process is vital to avoid frustration, since political participation does not mean ‘my opinion is the only that will count’. The space for local decision-making is often not as broad as citizens may expect. In addition, the final decision on the formal adaptation of the new City Charter is left to the democratically elected City Parliament/municipal council as well as the municipal vote (open to all citizens but not all of the people that where involved in the participation process of the development stage in phase 2).

The informal participation brought new ideas on (formalized) political participation to the political system and materialized in a legal change of formal participatory practices in the City of Biel/Bienne.

Finally, we can see that digital channels can be helpful to tap into new groups that traditionally would not participate in the process. Consulted experts emphasized that on-line instruments and social media are often used by interest groups to quickly build up political pressure, while many authorities are not yet experienced with these phenomena.

References to Scientific and Non-Scientific Publications

Legal Documents:

Charter of the Canton of Berne (Verfassung des Kantons Bern (KV)), BSG 101.1

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

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

City Charter (Stadtordnung vom 9. Juni 1996), SGR 101.1

Scientific and Non-Scientific Publications:

City of Biel/Bienne, ‘Totalrevision der Stadtordnung’ (City of Biel/Bienne, 2019) <>

—— ‘Traktanden’ (City of Biel/Bienne, undated)      <>

City Council of Biel/Bienne, ‘Spezialkommissionen’ (City of Biel/Bienne) <>

Fehr E and Labbé B, ‘Bericht des Gemeinderates an den Stadtrat betreffend Totalrevision der Stadtordnung’ (City of Biel/Bienne, 18 September 2019)                                                              <>

Golder L and others, ‘Schlussbericht Prioritäten der Bieler Bevölkerung zur neuen Bieler Stadtordnung, Studie im Auftrag der Stadt Biel’ (Gfs.bern 2018) < >

[1] Barbara Brechbühl and others, ‘Statistik der Schweizer Städte 2018. Statistiques des villes suisses 2018‘ (Schweizerischer Städteverband/Union des villes suisses 2018) <> accessed 6 April 2020.

[2] ‘Auszug aus den Verhandlungen des Stadtrates‘ (Secretariat of the Municipal Council) <> accessed 26 March 2020.