Comparing the autonomy of international public administrations: An ideal‐type approach

Published date01 September 2017
AuthorJörn Ege
Date01 September 2017
Comparing the autonomy of international public
administrations: An ideal-type approach
Jörn Ege
German University of Administrative Sciences
Speyer, Germany
Jörn Ege, German University of Administrative
Sciences Speyer, Freiherr-vom-Stein-Str.
2, 67346 Speyer, Germany.
International Public Administrations (IPAs), that is, the secretariats
of international organizations, are important actors in global gov-
ernance. This article develops a new typology of IPAs that cap-
tures the potential influence of these bureaucratic bodies on
international policy-making. The main argument is that when con-
ceptualizing the varying roles and potential policy impact of IPAs,
it is useful to distinguish between their ability to develop autono-
mous preferences (autonomy of will) on the one hand, and their
capacity to transform these preferences into action (autonomy of
action) on the other. Based on this premise, the article introduces
four distinct ideal-types of international bureaucracies and sug-
gests indicators to locate a diverse sample of 20 administrations
within the four-fold typology. The results reveal the empirical
diversity of IPA autonomy and allow for a first empirical assess-
ment of the factors behind this pattern.
This article uses the concept of bureaucratic autonomy to introduce an empirically applicable typology of the secre-
tariats of international governmental organizations (IGOs). These secretariats hereafter referred to as International
Public Administrations(IPAs) constitute the international counterparts to administrative bodies at national and
subnational levels. The relevance of IPAs and the merits of studying their autonomy is tightly connected with the
rise of IGOs in global governance. IGOs and their administrative bodies are created to meet transnational govern-
ance challenges on an international or global scale. In recent years, IPAs have been increasingly studied as separate
units of analysis (see Weller and Xu 2010; Johnson 2014; Knill and Bauer 2016). While scholars have successfully
sought to unpack the black boxof IGOs (Trondal et al. 2010), there is still little systematic research that would
allow for a comparative assessment of IPAsinvolvement in and potential impact on public policy-making (Eckhard
and Ege 2016).
The article contributes to this debate by focusing on the concept of bureaucratic autonomy in order to make
differences in the policy involvement of IPAs systematically visible. The empirical focus is on structural autonomy in
the sense of formal executive characteristics, administrative resources, and statutory powers. Although IPAs also
DOI: 10.1111/padm.12326
Public Administration. 2017;95:555570. © 2017 John Wiley & Sons Ltd 555
possess more informal means of influence, a certain degree of structural autonomy is a minimum prerequisite for
autonomous bureaucratic behaviour and thus a natural starting point for comparative research.
The proposed conceptualization of bureaucratic autonomy draws on intra-administrative and relational aspects
of autonomy, both of which feature prominently in the autonomy literature. The article differentiates between an
IPAsautonomy of willand its autonomy of action. Depending on the presence or absence of each of the two
sub-concepts, four types of IPA are identified: (1) autonomous bureaucracies, (2) ideational bureaucracies, (3) politi-
cized bureaucracies and (4) managers of the status quo. The four types are operationalized and applied to 20 IPAs
by means of eight dichotomous indicators. To be sure, the translation of abstract concepts into dimensions and sys-
tematic measurement is always prone to oversimplifying complex realities. In the absence of existing data, however,
the article aims to develop conceptual and empirical terms to make future debates and research regarding interna-
tional bureaucratic autonomy more fruitful.
The proposed typology contributes to current research in three important ways: First, it is an innovative
attempt to capitalize on recent theoretical advances in IGO research by complementing the rise of bureaucracy-
centred perspectives on global governance with an empirically applicable conceptualization. The proposed approach
combines the rich conceptual scholarship in public administration (PA) research with a means to empirically classify
cases. Second, applying the autonomy concept to real-world IPAs allows us to study their role during policy-making
in a more systematic way. So far, a comparative assessment of the varying types of IPAs and their involvement in
global public policy remains difficult. The proposed typology highlights empirical differences in international bureau-
cratic autonomy and provides evidence that these patterns are associated with member state scrutiny and charac-
teristics of the IGOsmandates. While this endeavour falls short of providing a full-fledged explanatory framework,
it enables future research to make more sense of the causal logic behind these patterns.
Third, taking stock of IPAsinternal structure and theorizing its policy consequences takes the classic PA ques-
tion of how administrative bodies interact with their political environment to the international level. In so doing, the
article contributes to increasingly popular efforts to describe how processes of globalization affect public adminis-
trations within and beyond states. Flanked by debates about the emergence of global administrative law
(Kingsbury and Casini 2009) and calls for a global public administration(Gulrajani and Moloney 2012) as an integra-
tive discipline, the article may help to consolidate an emerging PA approach to global governance (Koppell 2010;
Trondal 2016). Previous efforts have tended to catalogue, rather than synthesize, different visions of what PA
research in the context of global governance could look like (see e.g. Kim et al. 2014). A more systematic engage-
ment with administrative structures and their consequences for policy-making within IGOs and the policy domain at
large has only recently emerged (Knill and Bauer 2016).
The article is structured as follows. After illustrating the role of IPAs in policy-making, the concept of bureau-
cratic autonomy is defined and specified. In the next section, this concept serves as a basis for distinguishing four
types of bureaucracies. Subsequently, the ideal-type classification is applied to 20 IPAs. Next, the results are pre-
sented, demonstrating that each ideal-typical configuration of autonomy can be associated with similar empirical
patterns. The last section summarizes the contributions of the article and provides an outlook on future research.
Moving beyond the conception of IGOs as state instruments and decisional arenas, scholars of international rela-
tions (IR) have been studying IGOs as autonomous actors in world politics for some time (Reinalda and Verbeek
1998; Barnett and Finnemore 1999). Meanwhile, the study of international affairs has increasingly become an analy-
sis of (global) public policy (see e.g. Stone and Ladi 2015). As the activities of IGOs increasingly encompass day-to-
day policy-making tasks, there is an urgent need to understand how these institutions are set up internally and who
within them actually collects information, analyses problems, designs solutions, prepares decisions, and supervises
implementation. From the perspective of PA, the question is how to systematically assess the political contribution
556 EGE

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