02/06/2016

Uncritical Prejudices vs. Competence

In a recent article in a local Geneva newspaper – not the Tribune – the future president of the administrative council of the Geneva public transport system is taken to task for several items in her curriculum vitae. The author begins by asking who is Anne Hornung-Soukup, and then negatively goes point by point through her cv. Although Ms. Hornung-Soukup has not yet taken up her function, it is worthwhile to analyze the criticisms to better understand how ad hominem, prejudicial arguments can overwhelm factual evaluations of competence.


The criticisms are about the background of Anne Hornung-Soukop. First, and not to be ignored, is the comment that she is Swiss with American origins. Why mention the American origins? If she had come from France or Italy, would this have been mentioned? Is it necessary to have someone born in Switzerland be in charge of the public transportation? This type of nationalist prejudice would exclude many of the experts at the HUG, the EPFL in Lausanne or the Graduate Institute in Geneva. Place of origin should not be a factor, especially since she has lived in Switzerland for many years and has a Swiss passport (if that is necessary).
Second, the author takes her to task because she has no experience in transportation or the public sector. While Switzerland basks in the glory of the opening of the Gotthard Tunnel and heaps praise on Adolph Ogi for his vision and perseverance in its realization, one could use a similar negative argument about Ogi’s background. Would the author have criticized the election of Ogi as Federal Councilor when his background was from a small Swiss village and his primary professional experience was as a ski instructor? This is a man  revered in Switzerland, and who finished his professional career as Special Adviser to the Secretary-General of the UN on Sport for Development and Peace, very far from Kandersteg.
This type of argument would also exclude many competent people from holding higher offices. For example, the current Conseil d’Etat who hired Ms. Hornung-Soukop, Luc Barthassat, also has little experience in managing transportation, except perhaps running his motorcycle. The Swiss system of how members of the executive branch become heads of ministries or departments has little or nothing to do with individual backgrounds. Someone can be in charge of the military one day and then be responsible for the country’s finances the next.
Third, the author criticizes the fact that her background is in finance. Is this a problem? With difficulties in reducing the budget and debt of Geneva a priority, one would think that someone with her experience would be able to keep the expenses in line. But a major criticism follows this that Ms. Hornung-Soukoup appears as the director of two companies registered in Panama. Again, is this a problem? There is nothing illegal about what she did by herself or with her husband. A similar argument might be used to call for the resignation of national parliamentarians who are directors of numerous Panama companies or taking away the licenses of well-known Geneva lawyers. What does this have to do with her competence?
But finally, the major criticism seems to be that she is not familiar with local politics. In the article, someone is quoted as saying that she is a personality “who evidently does not have knowledge of the Geneva political context.” Given the blockage in the local parliament between the different political parties, it would seem advantageous to have someone not aligned with one group to direct the system. As Luc Barthassat said in defending his choice: “I wanted to professionalize the role in order to depoliticize the administrative council…It is essential to bring a new vision to the enterprise.”
One does not know in advance if Anne Hornung-Soukup will be successful in her new job. The Geneva public sector is not simple to manage. What is most disappointing about the article and criticisms is the number of ad hominem, prejudicial arguments that have little to do with competence or efficiency. The public sector is filled with patronage and favoritism. Why be so negative about someone who could bring new ideas? Anne Hornung-Soukup deserves a chance to prove her competence, the only criteria by which professionals should be judged.

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