The Swiss minister of Justice, Simonetta Sommaruga, just gave us a beautiful example of responsive government. The story is a case of new legislation about parental rights for child care in case of divorce. Under current practice the right for child care is mostly adjudicated to the mother only. The father often feels discriminated, reduced to the role of financial provider. Men's organizations had submitted proposals for adjusting the law to give equal rights to both parents. The matter was pending for several years. When Simonetta Sommaruga took office early this year she announced that she intended to work on a broader review of divorce legislation, including also maintenance payments. However, such a broader review would have caused further delay in dealing with the burning issue of parental rights. Men's organizations came out in angry protests. They camped on the Bundesplatz, the public space in front of the federal parliament, and they launched a campaign inviting angry citizens to send protest stones to the minister. (see www.schickenstei.ch)
Simonetta responded. She came out to meet the protesters at the Bundesplatz and engaged in a dialogue. Her message was clear. I hear you, she said, we shall expedite the matter. That was in February. And protest stones kept being sent to her one by one, by ordinary postal mail. By November she had received more than 1700 stones. But now she sent out an invitation to the protesters. She wanted to meet them at a children's playground near Berne where she offered them two surprises. The first surprise was that the protest stones had been used to build a public square at the playground, dedicated to the concerned organizations. The second surprise was the minister's announcement that the new law was ready for parliament and that the demands of the campaign had been met. Responsive Government had a field day.
I think the story is good stuff for a mediator's blog. Three aspects deserve to be highlighted:
- the power of symbols: both the protesters and the minister communicated with strong symbols. the protest stones did not do any physical harm, but they carried a strong message, and the media were keen to use the pictures. The minister also used the stones as symbols, turning them into a public good;
- responsiveness: the response was given on the spot, through personal presence and open dialogue, taking the media along so that the communication was widely accessible;
- transformation: by using the protest symbols to build common ground the minister opened up a new creative dimension in the communication with the concerned "constituency".
So next time when protest stones are coming your way, don't be afraid. Think of a creative response.
Yours in mediation