Photos © City of Zurich

Zurich’s citizenship campaign says: ‘You are welcome here’

Various studies have shown that becoming a citizen of Switzerland though naturalisation offers many benefits. For example, those who undergo naturalisation are typically more likely to integrate socially and have greater earning potential. Further, naturalisation gives people the right to vote and stand for election.

Despite this, naturalisation rates are low. The City of Zurich wanted to understand the reasons behind this and encourage more eligible people to apply.

Adrian Orrego, an Officer in the City Chancellery, explained: “By inviting and encouraging people to naturalise and to participate on a political level, the City of Zurich wanted to contribute to a better mobilisation for elections and thus contribute to increased integration and the strengthening of local democracy in a diverse society.”

Zurich wanted to contribute to a better mobilisation for elections and increased integration.
— Adrian Orrego, an Officer in the City Chancellery

To achieve this, the city partnered with the ETH Zurich university on informational campaigns to raise awareness of naturalisation and the benefits of applying.

The approach they took has been recognised internationally and is shortlisted in the Eurocities Awards, which will be held during the Eurocities Annual Conference in Cluj-Napoca later this month.

Understanding barriers

In 2017, the City of Zurich sent information letters from the mayor to residents informing them that the laws around naturalisation were changing in January 2018. The city then worked with ETH Zurich to evaluate the campaign and build on it through a prospective study. This type of study follows trends over time to observe the effect of certain factors.

“We wanted to look at how to work together to co-design future information campaigns for citizens and iteratively and rigorously test and revise the contents,” said Dominik Hangartner, a Professor of Public Policy at ETH Zurich.

Although the team had some assumptions, there was limited academic literature on the obstacles to naturalisation.

The research combines qualitative large-scale surveys and focus groups with eligible immigrants – both those who apply for naturalisation and those that don’t – to understand their perspectives better.

The findings revealed perceptions of complexity about the process and the length of time it would take, as well as concerns about fees. In addition, people didn’t always feel like they were welcome as immigrants – often exacerbated by rhetoric from some parties at the federal government level.

“In Zurich, we are more open and invested in getting more people naturalised,” said Orrego.

The team approaches the testing of different interventions in the same scientific way as a vaccine or other drugs, Hangartner said.

It’s quite touching to see how such a simple message can be so meaningful to people.
— Dominik Hangartner, a Professor of Public Policy at ETH Zurich

Eligible individuals are identified by city data showing who meets naturalisation criteria, such as living in Switzerland for over 10 years and holding the necessary permits.

Through a staggered rollout, different versions of a letter are sent to eligible participants over a six-month period.

The initial campaign went to around 40,000 people and subsequent letters have since gone to around 10,000 people each time. The content has been gradually refined to incorporate feedback from recipients.

Every year, the city hosts a naturalisation party to celebrate those that have recently naturalised. © City of Zurich
Attendees at the March 2024 naturalisation event. © City of Zurich
Panel sessions at the naturalisation event enable people to share their experience of the process. © City of Zurich

Shaping the message

The first campaign in 2017/18 was “a resounding success in terms of the boost in naturalisation,” according to Hangartner. “But one thing that we saw was that it had the biggest positive effect for those immigrants who face the smallest hurdles anyway.”

Since then, the letters have incorporated more messaging to appeal to different personas among immigrants. The forthcoming campaign will also feature leaflets which include information such as links to a video by the city explaining the process clearly to address concerns about complexity. The flyers also contain sample questions from the naturalisation tests that need to be passed as well as links to resources to help people train for the exam. The goal is to help demystify the process for individuals considering naturalisation.

Overall, the project aims to offer a “more welcoming atmosphere for migrants in the city”, said Orrego, and evidence suggests it’s working.

Feedback revealed that the fact that the letter comes from the mayor and assures them they are welcome members of the community really resonates.

“This was something that came out in the qualitative interviews, in the focus groups and in the experimental results where we test different versions of the letter,” said Hangartner.

“It’s quite touching to see how such a simple message can be so meaningful to people.”

Orrego notes that the city also regularly receives responses addressed to the mayor. One resident from Italy wrote: “The information letter made me very happy and strengthened my motivation to try for naturalisation.”  Another from Germany said: “The information letter from the mayor was an appreciative sign that motivated me to submit an application for naturalisation.” One individual wrote that the letter “drew my attention to the possibility of naturalisation” and others called it the “final push” or the “decisive factor” in their decision to apply.

The information letter made me very happy and strengthened my motivation to try for naturalisation.
— A resident from Italy who received the letter

Despite an increasingly digital and social media-driven world, evidence such as this is why the city is sticking with the traditional letter format, while also providing access to more online resources.

Proactive policies

Each campaign costs between €8,000 and €10,000, financed through income from naturalisation fees, and the city believes this represents a good return on investment.

“We have seen that there are more applications for naturalisation now than there were before the campaign started,” said Orrego. The application process is in three stages – the local level, the canton level, then at the federal level.

“We have seen that the canton now struggles a little bit with all the applications that come from the City of Zurich,” he added. “And that’s definitely in part because of the information campaign.”

In addition, Hangartner said that analysis has shown that the best-performing letters lead to an almost 70% increase in applications for naturalisation, compared to those who have not yet received a letter.

The project has sparked interest from elsewhere in proactive policies that help residents access their entitlements. The city and ETH are creating a summary of best practices for other cities interested in doing something similar.

In addition, the Canton of Zurich is looking at using the approach to contact people who are eligible for help with health insurance costs but may not be claiming it.

“That was directly inspired and triggered by the canton’s interest in the naturalisation programme of the City of Zurich,” said Hangartner.

“There are deep and universal policy learnings across domains from this work because there are barriers in many areas of accessing your rights, whether it’s to citizenship, health premiums or other areas.”

Sarah Wray Eurocities writer