Understanding Bureaucracies and their Types


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.Congressional Budget Office Report, https://www.cbo.gov/publication/44172 (June 6, 2016). 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.A. L. A. Schechter Poultry Corp. v. United States, 295 U.S. 495 (1935). 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.

Cabinet Departments

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 (Table).

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
Justice 1870 Loretta Lynch
(attorney general)
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
This table outlines all the current cabinet departments, along with the year they were created, their current top administrator, and other special details related to their purpose and functions.

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 (Figure). 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.http://www.state.gov/r/pa/ei/rls/dos/436.htm (June 6, 2016).

A flow chart showing the multiple levels of the Department of State. Under Secretary of State are seven direct reports. There are also six undersecretaries, and each have several direct reports.
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)
Link to learning graphic

Created in 1939 by President Franklin D. Roosevelt to help manage the growing responsibilities of the White House, the Executive Office of the President still works today to “provide the President with the support that he or she needs to govern effectively.”

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 (Figure), and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), which enforces laws aimed at protecting environmental sustainability.

A photo of an astronaut on the moon standing next to the American flag.
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.

Government Corporations

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 (Figure). 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.David C. Nice. 1998. Amtrak: the history and politics of a national railroad. Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner.

A photo of Amtrak staff standing on a train platform as a train passes behind them.
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)