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German Research Institute for Public Administration

Determinants and consequences of bureaucratic autonomy in international public administrations

Because most problems our society is facing today do not stop at the geographical borders of nation states, international organisations (IOs) are created to meet these challenges on an international or even global scale. Preventing the spread of infectious diseases (World Health Organisation), securing global financial stability (International Monetary Fund), or fighting poverty by providing development assistance (World Bank) are only some prominent examples of the core mandates of these organisations.

In order to understand and empirically study the policy-making activity of IOs, this subproject shares the common approach of the Research Unit to look into the "black box" of these institutions. While their specific tasks may vary, IOs commonly consist of at least three internal bodies: a legislative assembly, a political executive, and the international secretariat (IPA) with the Secretary-General as the organisation's top civil servant. Acknowledging that the strength of IOs as executive bodies depends to a considerable degree on the quality of their administrative resources-e.g., their organisational structures and multinational personnel-this subproject explores the structural autonomy of IPAs within the institutional context of the IO.

We use the concept of bureaucratic autonomy in a value neutral way in order to compare relevant properties of IPAs across a number of organisations. Bureaucratic autonomy is a necessary pre-condition for an international organisation to operate effectively and to fulfill its task efficiently. Empirically, bureaucratic autonomy describes the degree to which the secretariat of an IO is able to develop policy solutions as well as promote these solutions in the political process.

Taking this definition as its point of departure, the subproject investigates, first, whether and to what extent different international secretariats enjoy autonomy. The second question is how the observed autonomy varies across the Research Group's sample of IPAs, and how varying degrees of autonomy can be theoretically explained. In a third step, we investigate IPAs in different policy sectors in order to identify the conditions under which varying degrees of international bureaucracies' autonomy influence global policy-making.

Empirically, the project focuses on the comparison of administrative structures (administrative responsibilities, resources, and institutional design features). Thus, most of the information used to study bureaucratic autonomy as well as its potential determinants and consequences are collected from publicly available documents. This includes official budget reports, the organisation's constitution, the rules and procedures of different organisational bodies, staff manuals, and so forth. Because not all of this information is equally available for all organisations under study, we also rely on the cooperation of the organisations to support us with missing information. Naturally, the investigation of institutional structures can only provide an incomplete picture of an IPA's role during policy-making. Thus, we also conduct interviews with international staff members in order to complement our findings and to help us interpret our data.

The project will advance our understanding of the bureaucratic autonomy of international public administrations by establishing a systematic yardstick for empirically measuring variation in structural autonomy, and by investigating the consequences of variation in bureaucratic autonomy for policy-making across a number of carefully selected cases. Methodologically, the project follows a mixed-method approach that combines indicator-based comparison with in-depth case studies.

More information can be found on the website of the research group.

Principal Investigator

Prof. Dr. Michael W. Bauer

Prof. Dr. Michael W. Bauer



Jörn Ege

Jörn Ege



DFG Research Group “International Public Administration”