Agency Slack

International Bureaucracies as “Runaway Agents”? How Organizational Structure Affects Agency Slack

Over the past decades states have delegated extensive decision-making authority to the administrative bodies of international organizations. These international bureaucracies are setting agendas, participate in decision-making processes, implement policy programs, represent states in international organizations, create new regulatory agencies, and even settle disputes among states. Their gradual process of empowerment has been accompanied by an increase in oversight mechanisms, as member states, in some cases, considered that international bureaucracies had undertaken actions contrary to their intentions and overstepped their mandates (agency slack). Accordingly, international bureaucracies are sometimes portrayed as “runaway agents” that escaped the control of their principals (member states). This prompts a key question for research on international bureaucracies in global governance: under what conditions do secretariats of international organizations engage in agency slack – deviating from their mandate and acting in a way unintended by their principals?


To address this question, this project takes a Multi-Method Research approach that is suited to test and further develop principal-agent theory. We employ fuzzy-set Qualitative Comparative Analysis and fuzzy-set ideal type analysis for a systematic cross-case comparison and, subsequently, process-tracing for an in-depth study of selected international bureaucracies, each of which are analyzed for specific policies. We test our theoretical expectations on 27 international bureaucracies, where we gather data on four organizational characteristics: fragmentation, staffing rules, buffering, and permeability. The chosen approach will allow us to investigate necessary and sufficient conditions for the occurrence of agency slack, to identify underlying causal mechanisms, and to assess the plausibility of alternative explanations. The insights gained from the project will enable us to map different patterns of agency slack and explain under which organizational structures international bureaucracies act against their principals’ preferences. Showing how organizational structure matters by comparing different international bureaucracies will enrich principal-agent theory and help us bridge the gap between theoretical considerations and empirical work in the field.

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Delegation and Empowerment of International Organizations over Time

In recent decades, there has been a steady increase in the number of international Organizations (IOs). At varying levels states have transferred some authority to IOs, giving them different levels of power. While there has been a steady extension of competences of the EU, IMF, and World Bank, in the GATT/WTO, UNESCO, and WHO the level of delegated authority has remained constant. We argue that IO empowerment (IOE) is a function of temporal dynamics, the degree of cohesion among principals, and the design of the delegation contract. On the theoretical side, the aim of this interdisciplinary project is to develop a theory of IOE that integrates a temporal dimension into the principal-agent approach. We do this by resorting to four different disciplines: political science, economics, law, and organizational sociology. On the empirical side, the main novelty of the project consists in adopting a comparative research design and a longitudinal perspective.


We analyze the empowerment of six IOs (EC/EU, GATT/WTO, IMF, UNESCO, WHO, and World Bank) over a period of 65 years (1950-2015). Given the aim and scope of this research, the project is to be regarded as theory-building and hypothesis-testing research. It is based on extensive qualitative work conducted in the archives of these six IOs as well as on elite interviews with national and international officials. With this project, we gain new insights into the following fields: consequences of power delegation to IOs; the temporal dimension of the interaction between states and IOs; the preference formation of states; the comparison of different types of IOs. This allows us to answer the broader and more general question of the conditions under which IOs can operate as independent actors in world politics and to advance theoretical insights and empirical research in International Relations.

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