The single point of contact: your first port of call for questions and concerns

The FDFA has expanded its services for the Swiss Abroad and now has a central information office. This “single point of contact” enables Swiss citizens as well as institutions and companies abroad to obtain information and advice quickly and competently.

The canton of Neuchâtel pioneered this type of service. For the past 11 years, it has successfully operated a single point of contact, or Guichet Unique, which is greatly appreciated by the general public because it helps people meet their administrative obligations. The canton’s idea of offering its services in a completely paperless form appealed to the majority of its inhabitants, even though the use of the central point of contact is not obligatory. It is therefore hoped that the FDFA’s single point of contact will be equally popular with the Swiss Abroad, even though their different needs mean that the service has a completely different structure as well as additional aims to those of Neuchâtel. That is to say, the focus is not only on offering paperless services but also on facilitating access to information.

Because of rapidly increasing mobility and the growing complexity of various issues, the Federal Government has realised that the various administrative bodies need to work together more closely. That’s why the FDFA created the Consular Directorate (CD) in 2011. This body unites key agencies that provide services exclusively to the Swiss Abroad and their institutions. The CD thus brings together the consular services that the FDFA has tailored specifically to its target audience’s needs to provide the best possible public service. It runs a hotline that is operational 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. It has also taken over responsibility for welfare issues for the Swiss Abroad from the Federal Office of Justice and the emigration advice service from the State Secretariat for Migration.

Through the combination of foreign representations, the helpline and the Consular Directorate, the FDFA has created a platform that provides Swiss citizens at home and abroad as well as authorities at the local, cantonal and federal level with expert advice on various issues relating to the Swiss Abroad. These also include topics that are not part of the CD’s remit. After all, our compatriots abroad have to deal with a broad range of issues that have a direct link to their home country Switzerland – from AHV to education and training, military service, tax and voting to their marital status. Often enough, only specialists can answer these questions properly. However, it is hard to access these specialists from abroad, often simply because of the time difference. What’s more, it is not always obviously immediately who is responsible for what.

This is where the single point of contact can help. The Swiss Abroad can direct their concerns to either the Swiss representation responsible for their place of residence or the FDFA helpline. And they can do so either by telephone or in writing by post or email. Most questions are answered directly by staff at the representation or helpline. More complex questions are transferred to specialist agencies. The single point of contact thus acts as the central first port of call.

The single point of contact plays an important role in ensuring that we have a coherent and comprehensive policy for the Swiss Abroad, and provides services that meet the needs of this group of people. It makes it easier for Swiss citizens as well as companies and institutions abroad to contact Swiss authorities on all issues. By setting up this central first port of call, the Federal Government is taking account of increasing mobility and reacting to the special needs of Swiss citizens living abroad.

Although they put the Federal Government in a good position to meet current demands, the new instruments will have to be consolidated and expanded in the coming years. The introduction of an online counter, which we reported on in our April issue, takes the Federal Government a step closer to providing a paperless consulate. Through the single point of contact and the online counter, the FDFA offers modern tools that enable Swiss citizens to get access to information and services more easily. Even so, this doesn’t mean that interpersonal contact will be scrapped entirely. Our staff abroad will still be pleased to meet and assist you at your embassy or consulate general.

Peter Zimmerli is responsible for relations with the Swiss abroad

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