Delegate for National Economic Supply since 2016, Head of Group Security and Business Continuity Management at Alpiq Ltd. until the end of 2020.
The organisation of national economic supply is run by a delegate appointed on a part-time basis. The law specifies that this person must be from the private sector. The delegate heads the entire organisation – the Federal Office for National Economic Supply and its external support organisation.
Interview with Werner Meier: Pandemic highlights importance of security of supply
Mr Meier, you have been involved with National Economic Supply (NES) in the private sector since 2003, and have been the NES delegate since 2016. The Federal Council has just confirmed you for another two years - beyond your retirement. What is your motivation?
Werner Meier: Ensuring there is a supply of essential goods and services for the public is a very meaningful and important task for me. To be able to put my many years of knowledge to good use and to shape further developments in this field is one of the most exciting tasks at the public-private interface that I can imagine.
What’s more, this work is very varied. I work with a huge range of different offices and people: with FONES employees and other staff from the Department of Economic Affairs, with other federal offices and then with managers from the private sector, the compulsory stocks organisations, the cantonal authorities and the army.
The current pandemic shows how important security of supply and advance planning are. Are we on the right track?
Probably for the first time since the Second World War, Switzerland is experiencing a widespread crisis. Many things have gone well, but there are some things that we as a state, economy and society have to improve and perhaps also rethink.
In Switzerland we always felt very safe, crises passed us by and we had a sense of security, perhaps a false one. Our organisation and how it emerged show this very clearly. As a landlocked country, Switzerland has always been dependent on its surroundings, and as a mountainous country with a not particularly favourable climate, it has also been dependent on its stocks. The idea of holding stocks can be traced back to the Middle Ages. In the past, when war was the main threat, stocks of salt and grain were held. Responsibility sometimes lay with the state, sometimes with the cantons. In the years after the Second World War, there was a change in thinking, and since then the private sector has been responsible for national economic supply. And this has proven to be a successful model.
In what way?
The NES organisation is one in which the private sector and the state work closely together. This benefits both sides and the result is pragmatic and realistic solutions. National economic supply is designed to avert shortages or provide a stopgap should they occur. If the state were solely responsible for this, it would have to set up and continuously operate a parallel structure for every conceivable shortage situation, and this would be unaffordable. By the way, shortages are always occurring, but thanks to the NES measures, fortunately people don’t usually notice them.
The best-known measure is compulsory stockpiling. Why does this inspire admiration in other countries?
Because it is cost-effective and stocks can be tapped when they are directly needed. Let's take the example of medicines classified as vital by the government. Unfortunately, there is always a shortage of some medicine or other. We usually manage to bridge this gap by releasing compulsory stocks, so that patients do not notice. These compulsory stocks are held by the companies concerned and not by the federal government, and the companies release any medicines in short supply onto the market when required to do so by the Confederation.
But this system is only one part of the story. Of course, we also need very committed employees in the Federal Administration and in the private sector. I remember a year or so there was a shortage of a drug that is used to induce labour and so save lives in problematic births. Just before Christmas 2019 it was in short supply in Switzerland and the surrounding countries. The NES organisation worked tirelessly to procure the drug, which is only distributed by one supplier. And it managed to do so before Christmas.
To give another example, this time one from the pandemic: we all remember the empty shelves in the spring of 2020. When suddenly everything was closed and people were working from home and also eating at home, this upset the logistics system. Suddenly an equal amount of food had to be distributed but via other places. The problem was not that there were not enough goods, but that the logistics required reorganisation. And this takes some time. So the NES organisation, in close cooperation with the Federal Roads Office FEDRO, ensured for example that retailers could drive at night and on Sundays. When the Federal Council tightened the measures again before Christmas 2020, we knew how to prevent the supermarket shelves from becoming empty and, after consulting with the retail trade and the cantons, took the precaution of putting the measures into effect over the holiday period.
Where do you see the strengths of the NES organisation?
For me, the strength of our organisation is the close cooperation between the private sector and the state and the fact that businesses are responsible for the supply and the state only intervenes in a supporting role. This means that the solutions are always very practical and can be applied directly. The private-public structure also has the advantage that bottlenecks that could lead to shortages can be detected very early on.
Nevertheless, there have been shortages – for example of face masks and ethanol, the basic ingredient for disinfectants.
Yes, the supply shortages of face masks and ethanol demonstrated how the issue of security of supply has received less and less attention in recent decades. Switzerland is a very well organised, prosperous country that has not had to experience a major crisis for a long time. This and also the general easing of tensions after the end of the Cold War meant that security of supply lost importance. Moreover, the national economic supply system did its job very well during minor crises. Bottlenecks, for example triggered by low water levels in the Rhine, could be solved without any problem. And perhaps NES also became a victim of its own success: the public barely notices when compulsory stocks have to be released. But the pandemic has now changed people’s attitudes. We have probably all experienced for the first time the fact that Switzerland is not immune to crises either. This highlights the importance of NES and the purpose of our work. In the case of ethanol, for example, we have ensured that stocks will now be built up in the near future.
Can lessons already be learned from the COVID-19 pandemic?
In a crisis, only what has been planned and rehearsed works. And crisis preparedness does not come for free. We have to get used to the fact that crisis prevention has its price. In the future, there will also be measures with financial consequences for the Confederation and the private sector. Information and communication technologies are a good example of this. They are essential to the economy and society. We already have precautionary measures in place to protect these technologies. Disruptions can spread so quickly in these networks that it is not possible to react in time. But taking precautions also means that costs have to be set against returns; we have to find a balance between optimised normal operation and crisis resistance. This means each and every one of us needs to understand that Switzerland is not immune to crises.
And what does this mean in concrete terms?
One lesson is that as a public-private partnership we must maintain our ability to improvise. We have to realise that our everyday life in a networked and globalised country is more dependent than ever before on a sensitive infrastructure. Imagine what happens when the internet suddenly fails or the power supply no longer works properly: an awful lot of things come to a standstill. A few years ago, for example, it was suddenly no longer possible to use a card to make purchases on 24 December. I was glad I still had some cash in my wallet. The next day things were up and running again, but by then it was too late. That's why it's good to plan ahead and be prepared for emergencies so we can stop any gaps in the system. This is exactly why we have been promoting the stockp for years.
And does the Delegate for National Economic Supply also have emergency supplies at home?
I certainly do. Because the idea of emergency supplies is to buy time in difficult situations so that the economy and the state can organise themselves and people still have enough to get by. Since my family and I are not among those who go shopping every day, we always have enough supplies at home.
Last modification 14.01.2021