32 The Bureaucracy: Structure and Function

Learning Objectives

  • Understand the basic structure of the executive branch and the bureaucracy.
  • Examine the various groups that assist the president in implementing laws, rules and regulations.
  • Know the difference between the various types of bureaucratic agencies.

Turning a spoils system bureaucracy into a merit-based civil service, while desirable, comes with a number of different consequences. The patronage system tied the livelihoods of civil service workers to their party loyalty and discipline. Severing these ties, as has occurred in the United States over the last century and a half, has transformed the way bureaucracies operate. Without the patronage network, bureaucracies form their own motivations. These motivations, sociologists have discovered, are designed to benefit and perpetuate the bureaucracies themselves.

Bureaucracies are complex institutions designed to accomplish specific tasks. This complexity, and the fact that they are organizations composed of human beings, can make it challenging for us to understand how bureaucracies work.

Bureaucracies are naturally competitive and power-hungry. This means bureaucrats, especially at the highest levels, recognize that limited resources are available to feed bureaucracies, so they will work to enhance the status of their own bureaucracy to the detriment of others.

This effort can sometimes take the form of merely emphasizing to Congress the value of their bureaucratic task, but it also means the bureaucracy will attempt to maximize its budget by depleting all its allotted resources each year. This ploy makes it more difficult for legislators to cut the bureaucracy’s future budget, a strategy that succeeds at the expense of thrift. In this way, the bureaucracy will eventually grow far beyond what is necessary and create bureaucratic waste that would otherwise be spent more efficiently among the other bureaucracies.

Other theorists have come to the conclusion that the extent to which bureaucracies compete for scarce resources is not what provides the greatest insight into how a bureaucracy functions. Rather, it is the absence of competition.

Similarities exist between a bureaucracy like the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) and a private monopoly like a regional power company or internet service provider that has no competitors. Such organizations are frequently criticized for waste, poor service, and a low level of client responsiveness. Consider, for example, the Bureau of Consular Affairs (BCA), the federal bureaucracy charged with issuing passports to citizens. There is no other organization from which a U.S. citizen can legitimately request and receive a passport, a process that normally takes several weeks. Thus there is no reason for the BCA to become more efficient or more responsive or to issue passports any faster.

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.[1] 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.[2] 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.

Members of the Cabinet
Department Year Created Purpose
State 1789 Oversees matters related to foreign policy and international issues relevant to the country
Treasury 1789 Oversees the printing of U.S. currency, collects taxes, and manages government debt
Justice 1870 Oversees the enforcement of U.S. laws, matters related to public safety, and crime prevention
Interior 1849 Oversees the conservation and management of U.S. lands, water, wildlife, and energy resources
Agriculture 1862 Oversees the U.S. farming industry, provides agricultural subsidies, and conducts food inspections
Commerce 1903 Oversees the promotion of economic growth, job creation, and the issuing of patents
Labor 1913 Oversees issues related to wages, unemployment insurance, and occupational safety
Defense 1947 Oversees the many elements of the U.S. armed forces, including the Army, Navy, Marine Corps, and Air Force
Health and Human Services 1953 Oversees promotion of public health by providing essential human services and enforcing food and drug laws
Housing and Urban Development 1965 Oversees matters related to U.S. housing needs, works to increase homeownership, and increases access to affordable housing
Transportation 1966 Oversees the country’s many networks of national transportation
Energy 1977 Oversees matters related to the country’s energy needs, including energy security and technological innovation
Education 1980 Oversees public education, education policy, and relevant education research
Veterans Affairs 1989 Oversees the services provided to U.S. veterans, including health care services and benefits programs
Homeland Security 2002 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.[3]

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 learningCreated 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–providing information or services. Some prominent independent agencies are the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), which collects and manages intelligence vital to national interests and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), charged with developing technological innovation for the purposes of space exploration.

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)

The independent regulatory agency emerged in the late nineteenth century as a product of the 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. 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. 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.[4]

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)

Bureaucrats must implement and administer a wide range of policies and programs as established by congressional acts or presidential orders. Depending upon the agency’s mission, a bureaucrat’s roles and responsibilities vary greatly, from regulating corporate business and protecting the environment to printing money and purchasing office supplies. Bureaucrats are government officials subject to legislative regulations and procedural guidelines. Because they play a vital role in modern society, they hold managerial and functional positions in government; they form the core of most administrative agencies. Although many top administrators are far removed from the masses, many interact with citizens on a regular basis.

Given the power bureaucrats have to adopt and enforce public policy, they must follow several legislative regulations and procedural guidelines. A regulation is a rule that permits government to restrict or prohibit certain behaviors among individuals and corporations. Bureaucratic rulemaking is a complex process that will be covered in more detail in the following section, but the rulemaking process typically creates procedural guidelines, or more formally, standard operating procedures. These are the rules that lower-level bureaucrats must abide by regardless of the situations they face.

Elected officials are regularly frustrated when bureaucrats seem not follow the path they intended. As a result, the bureaucratic process becomes inundated with red tape. This is the name for the procedures and rules that must be followed to get something done. Citizens frequently criticize the seemingly endless networks of red tape they must navigate in order to effectively utilize bureaucratic services, although these devices are really meant to ensure the bureaucracies function as intended.

Questions to Consider

  1. Why might the executive branch create a government corporation?
  2. What is the difference between an IEA and and IRA?

Terms to Remember

government corporation (GC)–a corporation that fulfills an important public interest and is therefore overseen by government authorities to a much larger degree than private businesses

independent executive agency (IEA)–bureaucratic agency providing information or service to the public

independent regulatory agency (IRA)–bureaucratic agency enforcing government regulations/rules

red tape–the mechanisms, procedures, and rules that must be followed to get something done

  1. Congressional Budget Office Report, https://www.cbo.gov/publication/44172 (June 6, 2016).
  2. A. L. A. Schechter Poultry Corp. v. United States, 295 U.S. 495 (1935).
  3. http://www.state.gov/r/pa/ei/rls/dos/436.htm (June 6, 2016).
  4. David C. Nice. 1998. Amtrak: the history and politics of a national railroad. Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner.


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