Structure of the Bureaucracy

  • Federal bureaucracy is divided into fifteen different executive departments and hundreds of agencies, bureaus, boards, authorities, and administrations
  • Bureaucracy also includes independent agencies and government corporations like the post office

Employees of the federal bureaucracy are often stereotyped as "faceless bureaucrats"—impersonal and interchangeable, caught up in their own petty rules, and too busy shuffling paper to be moved by any individual citizen's plight. Even if this were a fair characterization of the federal workforce (which it probably is not, although some government workers surely fit the bill), it fails to capture the different types of departments and agencies that employ America's bureaucrats.

At the top of the bureaucratic ladder are the executive departments. There are currently fifteen of these (the Departments of Agriculture, Commerce, Defense, Education, Energy, Health and Human Services, Justice, Homeland Security, Housing and Urban Development, Interior, Labor, State, Transportation, Treasury, and Veterans Affairs). The heads of these departments are labeled secretaries (except for the Attorney General, who heads the Department of Justice), and these officials all serve in the president's cabinet.

Far more numerous are the agencies, commissions, bureaus, boards, authorities, and administrations that fall under these fifteen departments. For example, the Department of Health and Human Services oversees the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality, the Food and Drug Administration, the National Institute of Health, and the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (among others).

In addition to these departments and agencies, the federal bureaucracy includes numerous independent agencies. These do not fall under the supervision of any of the executive departments. Some of these exercise a regulatory role and therefore are referred to as Independent Regulatory Agencies (aren't bureaucrats clever?). Other independent agencies advance some objective or represent some public interest defined by Congress—for example, the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Council on Disability.

Finally, the federal bureaucracy also includes several government corporations. These are government-owned enterprises that provide some service for a fee or engage in a commercial activity. One example is the United States Postal Service. Another is Amtrak, or the National Railroad Passenger Corporation, which is also a government corporation founded in 1971 to revive passenger rail travel.

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