International Bureaucracies as ‘Runaway Agents’?

How Organizational Structure Affects Agency Slack

UN Headquarters in New York

Project Description

In this collaborative project, we study the phenomenon of “agency slack” among UN member organizations from a principal-agent perspective. Over the past decade, 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? (DFG Grant Agreement No. 370183851).


Heldt, Eugénia C., Patrick A. Mello, Anna Novoselova, and Omar Ramon Serrano Oswald (2019). The Nexus Between Organizational Structure and Agency Slack: A Fuzzy Set Ideal Type Analysis of UN Organizations, Paper presented at the ECPR Joint Sessions of Workshops, Mons, Belgium, April 2019.




Students from Dr. habil. Patrick A. Mello’s project group “The Politics of UN Sanctions” participated in a well attended academic panel at the General Conference of the European Consortium for Political Research (ECPR) on August 24th, 2020.

On September 26/27, 2019, Brandt School Visiting Scholar Dr. Patrick A. Mello co-organized a two-day workshop on “Methods of Foreign Policy Analysis”, together with Dr. Falk Ostermann of Justus-Liebig-Universität Gießen.