The Association of Bernese Municipalities: Representing Municipalities in the Cantonal Decision-Making

Erika Schläppi, Ximpulse GmbH

Relevance of the Practice

The question whether and how the interests of municipalities are taken into account in political decision-making processes of the cantonal as well as at the Confederation level is of high relevance, for urban as well as rural municipalities. The cantonal level is key for defining the scope of action of the municipalities in Switzerland, the intergovernmental relations, the structures, tasks, standards for municipal services, the funding systems and equalization schemes. Thus, for municipalities, influencing the decision-making in the cantonal parliaments and governments, raising their voice in administrative processes as well as in the broader public is very important. The Association of Bernese Municipalities is an example of making urban and rural municipalities join forces to defend the municipalities’ common interests in relation to the cantonal authorities that are regulating and overseeing municipal activities.

Description of the Practice

The Association of Bernese Municipalities has been representing the interests of Bernese municipalities for almost 70 years. 98 per cent of the municipalities are members of the association which is fully funded by membership fees. It is important to mention that the association is regulated by private law and has no official public status per se. The association’s aims are to represent the interests of Bernese municipalities vis-à-vis the Canton of Berne. It strives for keeping municipal autonomy and is committed to an adequate distribution of tasks between the canton and the municipalities as well as to adequate funding systems. It also provides support services on behalf of its members.

At the annual meetings of the Association’s general assembly a board is elected that is carefully balanced in terms of political parties, regional representation, gender, urban and rural areas, and the two official languages of the canton. The board and the director take decisions based on principles that should ensure the legitimacy, credibility and capacity of the association to speak on behalf of Bernese municipalities. Among these principles, political neutrality is important. To ensure such neutrality, the Association’s board incorporates representatives of all parties but avoids being instrumentalized by political parties. It does not take any position in regional politics and is not engaged in political debates around specific tasks. It refrains from taking position in conflicts among municipalities, emphasizing that the political authorities (the cantonal parliament and the government) are better legitimized to take decisions and action on diverging interests. Instead of taking positions the association aspires to constructively balance different interests (between rich and poor, urban and rural, big and small municipalities, German speakers and French speakers), build on always existing common interests and denominators and find acceptable solutions for all municipalities. According to its principles the association engages for more scope of action of municipalities – and for less operational involvement and influence of cantonal authorities that blur accountability lines and demotivate local authorities. The association gets orientation and guidance from the constitutional principles that enshrines subsidiarity, fiscal equivalence, accountability and financial equalization and admits that a financial balance has to be established also between the canton and the municipalities.

Following these principles, the association engages in many activities related to political decision-making in the Canton of Berne. It seeks to convey clear messages and address conflictual issues while investing in partnership relations and confidence with cantonal authorities. It closely cooperates with the cantonal supervisory bodies to establish models of municipal laws and regulations that take the cantonal legal framework fully into account. It takes position on cantonal draft laws and regulations and policies that involve municipal interests, be it in formalized consultation procedures (that are very common in Switzerland) or in more informal settings. For example, in 2019, the association has taken part in about 40 consultation processes regarding draft of laws and policies in a variety of domains, from local security issues to childcare, from land zoning to biodiversity. The fact that the board members are active local politicians but also part of the cantonal political scene and often members of the cantonal parliament, makes the association even more effective in influencing cantonal politics.

Providing useful services to members helps the association anchoring itself in the municipal scene, keeping touch with municipal practice, and being ahead of problems. The association regularly organizes public information meetings and hearings, to inform municipalities about important reforms and plans and building opinions. It regularly makes surveys to find out about the positions of municipalities. Legal advice and support services are provided to members. Together with other associations and educational facilities, the association is engaged in professional education and training of municipal staff and capacity building of local politicians. It particularly invests in supporting the municipalities in their role as a public employer.

Assessment of the Practice

The Association of Bernese Municipalities is considered to be a successful lobbying organization representing  municipal interests in the cantonal political debate. Its deliberate policy of balancing interests, integrating all relevant political parties, conveying clear messages but investing in confidential relations with the powerful cantonal counterparts, has made the association a very influential player. This is also because of the high representation of mayors in the association as well as in the cantonal parliament – an important leverage for the association.

The focus on common interests of municipalities – instead of feeling squeezed between conflicting positions – has helped the association to raise a strong voice of all municipalities on issues of municipal concern. In this logic, the association must refrain from taking position either for urban or rural interests that might seriously hamper its credibility as a representative of Bernese municipalities at large. The converse example can be seen at national (Swiss) level: Two associations are representing municipal interests, on the one hand the Swiss Cities’ Association representing urban interests, on the other hand the Swiss Association of Municipalities, representing small and medium municipalities from peri-urban and rural areas. The two associations have different political orientations – the Swiss Cities’ Association tends to have a more left-wing and green orientation, while the Swiss Association of Municipalities tends to be more conservative. Thus, on many political topics at Swiss level, the municipal voice is divided, and the two associations are openly fighting each other wherever urban or rural interests are at stake.

References to Scientific and Non-Scientific Publications

Arn D and others, Kommentar zum Gemeindegesetz des Kantons Bern (Stämpfli Verlag Bern 1999)

—— and Strecker M, ‘Horizontale und vertikale Zusammenarbeit in der Agglomeration’ (Tripartite Agglomerationskonferenz 2005)

Geser H and others, ‘Die Schweizer Gemeinden im Kräftefeld des gesellschaftlichen und politisch-administrativen Wandels’ (Institute of Sociology Zurich 1996)

Horber-Papazian K, ‘L’intervention des communes dans les politiques publiques’ (Doctoral thesis, EPFL Lausanne 2004)

—— and Jacot-Descombes C, ‘Les Communes‘ in Peter Knöpfel, Yannis Papadopoulos, Pascal Sciarini, Adrian Vatter and Silja Häusermann (eds), Handbuch der Schweizer Politik (5th edn, NZZ libro 2014)

Ladner A and Mathys L, ‘Der Schweizer Föderalismus im Wandel‘ (issue no 305, IDHEAP 2018) <>

—— Soguel N, Emery Y, Weerts S and Nahrath S (eds), Swiss Public Administration: Making the State Work Successfully (Palgrave Macmillan 2019)

Micotti S and Bützer M, ‘La démocratie communale en Suisse : vue générale, institutions et expériences dans les villes 1990-2000‘ (C2D Working Papers Series R08, UZH Centre for Democracy Studies Aarau 2003)

Seiler H, ‘Gemeinden im schweizerischen Staatsrecht‘ in Daniel Thürer, Jean-François Aubert and Jörg P Müller (eds), Verfassungsrecht der Schweiz (Schulthess 2001)

Steiner R, ‘The causes, spread and effects of intermunicipal cooperation and municipal mergers in Switzerland‘ (2003) 5 Public Management Review 551

Website of the Bernese Association of Municipalities, <>

Website of the Swiss Association of Municipalities, <>

Website of the Swiss Association of Cities, <>