Types of Bureaucratic Organizations
A bureaucracy is a particular government unit established to accomplish a specific set of goals and objectives as authorized by a legislative body. In the United States, the federal bureaucracy enjoys a great degree of autonomy compared to those of other countries. This is in part due to the sheer size of the federal budget, approximately $3.5 trillion as of 2015. And because many of its agencies do not have clearly defined lines of authority—roles and responsibilities established by means of a chain of command—they also are able to operate with a high degree of autonomy. However, many agency actions are subject to judicial review. In Schechter Poultry Corp. v. United States (1935), the Supreme Court found that agency authority seemed limitless. Yet, not all bureaucracies are alike. In the U.S. government, there are four general types: cabinet departments, independent executive agencies, regulatory agencies, and government corporations.
There are currently fifteen cabinet departments in the federal government. Cabinet departments are major executive offices that are directly accountable to the president. They include the Departments of State, Defense, Education, Treasury, and several others. Occasionally, a department will be eliminated when government officials decide its tasks no longer need direct presidential and congressional oversight, such as happened to the Post Office Department in 1970.
Each cabinet department has a head called a secretary, appointed by the president and confirmed by the Senate. These secretaries report directly to the president, and they oversee a huge network of offices and agencies that make up the department. They also work in different capacities to achieve each department’s mission-oriented functions. Within these large bureaucratic networks are a number of undersecretaries, assistant secretaries, deputy secretaries, and many others. The Department of Justice is the one department that is structured somewhat differently. Rather than a secretary and undersecretaries, it has an attorney general, an associate attorney general, and a host of different bureau and division heads.
|Members of the Cabinet|
|Department||Year Created||Secretary as of 2016||Purpose|
|State||1789||John Kerry||Oversees matters related to foreign policy and international issues relevant to the country|
|Treasury||1789||Jack Lew||Oversees the printing of U.S. currency, collects taxes, and manages government debt|
|Oversees the enforcement of U.S. laws, matters related to public safety, and crime prevention|
|Interior||1849||Sally Jewell||Oversees the conservation and management of U.S. lands, water, wildlife, and energy resources|
|Agriculture||1862||Tom Vilsack||Oversees the U.S. farming industry, provides agricultural subsidies, and conducts food inspections|
|Commerce||1903||Penny Pritzker||Oversees the promotion of economic growth, job creation, and the issuing of patents|
|Labor||1913||Thomas Perez||Oversees issues related to wages, unemployment insurance, and occupational safety|
|Defense||1947||Ashton Carter||Oversees the many elements of the U.S. armed forces, including the Army, Navy, Marine Corps, and Air Force|
|Health and Human Services||1953||Sylvia Mathews Burwell||Oversees the promotion of public health by providing essential human services and enforcing food and drug laws|
|Housing and Urban Development||1965||Julián Castro||Oversees matters related to U.S. housing needs, works to increase homeownership, and increases access to affordable housing|
|Transportation||1966||Anthony Foxx||Oversees the country’s many networks of national transportation|
|Energy||1977||Ernest Moniz||Oversees matters related to the country’s energy needs, including energy security and technological innovation|
|Education||1980||John King||Oversees public education, education policy, and relevant education research|
|Veterans Affairs||1989||Robert McDonald||Oversees the services provided to U.S. veterans, including health care services and benefits programs|
|Homeland Security||2002||Jeh Johnson||Oversees agencies charged with protecting the territory of the United States from natural and human threats|
Individual cabinet departments are composed of numerous levels of bureaucracy. These levels descend from the department head in a mostly hierarchical pattern and consist of essential staff, smaller offices, and bureaus. Their tiered, hierarchical structure allows large bureaucracies to address many different issues by deploying dedicated and specialized officers. For example, below the secretary of state are a number of undersecretaries. These include undersecretaries for political affairs, for management, for economic growth, energy, and the environment, and many others. Each controls a number of bureaus and offices. Each bureau and office in turn oversees a more focused aspect of the undersecretary’s field of specialization. For example, below the undersecretary for public diplomacy and public affairs are three bureaus: educational and cultural affairs, public affairs, and international information programs. Frequently, these bureaus have even more specialized departments under them. Under the bureau of educational and cultural affairs are the spokesperson for the Department of State and his or her staff, the Office of the Historian, and the United States Diplomacy Center.
The multiple levels of the Department of State each work in a focused capacity to help the entire department fulfill its larger goals. (credit: modification of work by the U. S. Department of State)
Independent Executive Agencies and Regulatory Agencies
Like cabinet departments, independent executive agencies report directly to the president, with heads appointed by the president. Unlike the larger cabinet departments, however, independent agencies are assigned far more focused tasks. These agencies are considered independent because they are not subject to the regulatory authority of any specific department. They perform vital functions and are a major part of the bureaucratic landscape of the United States. Some prominent independent agencies are the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), which collects and manages intelligence vital to national interests, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), charged with developing technological innovation for the purposes of space exploration, and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), which enforces laws aimed at protecting environmental sustainability.
While the category “independent executive agency” may seem very ordinary, the actions of some of these agencies, like NASA, are anything but. (credit: NASA)
An important subset of the independent agency category is the regulatory agency. Regulatory agencies emerged in the late nineteenth century as a product of the progressive push to control the benefits and costs of industrialization. The first regulatory agency was the Interstate Commerce Commission (ICC), charged with regulating that most identifiable and prominent symbol of nineteenth-century industrialism, the railroad. Other regulatory agencies, such as the Commodity Futures Trading Commission, which regulates U.S. financial markets and the Federal Communications Commission, which regulates radio and television, have largely been created in the image of the ICC. These independent regulatory agencies cannot be influenced as readily by partisan politics as typical agencies and can therefore develop a good deal of power and authority. The Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) illustrates well the potential power of such agencies. The SEC’s mission has expanded significantly in the digital era beyond mere regulation of stock floor trading.
Agencies formed by the federal government to administer a quasi-business enterprise are called government corporations. They exist because the services they provide are partly subject to market forces and tend to generate enough profit to be self-sustaining, but they also fulfill a vital service the government has an interest in maintaining. Unlike a private corporation, a government corporation does not have stockholders. Instead, it has a board of directors and managers. This distinction is important because whereas a private corporation’s profits are distributed as dividends, a government corporation’s profits are dedicated to perpetuating the enterprise. Unlike private businesses, which pay taxes to the federal government on their profits, government corporations are exempt from taxes.
The most widely used government corporation is the U.S. Postal Service. Once a cabinet department, it was transformed into a government corporation in the early 1970s. Another widely used government corporation is the National Railroad Passenger Corporation, which uses the trade name Amtrak. Amtrak was the government’s response to the decline in passenger rail travel in the 1950s and 1960s as the automobile came to dominate. Recognizing the need to maintain a passenger rail service despite dwindling profits, the government consolidated the remaining lines and created Amtrak.
Had the U.S. government not created Amtrak in the 1970s, passenger rail service might have ceased to exist in the United States. (credit: the Library of Congress)