A bureaucracy is an organization that is run by non-elected government workers who make official decisions. The word comes from the French word bureaucratie, which combines bureau (desk) and cratie (a kind of government). Bureaucracies implement federal laws made by Congress and create regulations that affect the daily lives of American citizens.
In the United States government, the federal bureaucracy structure is organized within the executive branch of the government. Organizations within the U.S. federal bureaucracy have been appointed by Congress to move the business of government along. The federal bureaucracy includes 15 executive departments that come together in the President’s Cabinet. These departments are further organized into independent executive agencies, independent regulatory agencies, government corporations, and presidential commissions.
Department of Agriculture (USDA)
Oversees American farming industry
Department of Commerce (DOC)
1903 (as the Department of Commerce and Labor; retitled Department of Commerce in 1913)
Department of Defense (DOD)
Oversees the branches of the military to protect the U.S. abroad
1947 (as the National Military Establishment; retitled Department of Defense in 1949)
Department of Education (ED)
Establishes policy and provides federal funding to public schools; oversees ERIC
Department of Energy (DOE)
Advances energy and environmental security; promotes environmental science innovation
Department of Health and Human Services (HHS)
Department of Homeland Security (DHS)
Protects U.S. from domestic emergencies and terrorism; oversees U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services
Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD)
Addresses housing needs and enforces fair housing laws
Department of the Interior (DOI)
Department of Justice (DOJ)
Enforces the law and ensures public safety; oversees FBI
Department of Labor (DOL)
Manages working conditions, employment and worker wellbeing
Department of State (DOS)
Manages foreign affairs and diplomacy
Department of Transportation (DOT)
Plans and supports the U.S. transportation system; oversees FAA
Department of Treasury (TREAS)
Promotes economic prosperity and manages U.S. financial systems; oversees IRS
Department of Veteran Affairs (VA)
Provides and oversees services to veterans of American wars
Federal agencies and boards report to the heads of these departments, who are called secretaries (except for the Attorney General who heads the Department of Justice). Cabinet secretaries report directly to the president as detailed in Article II, Section 2 of the Constitution. The Cabinet also includes these members:
- The vice president
- The White House chief of staff
- The administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)
- The director of the Office of Management and Budget
- The U.S. trade representative
- The U.S. ambassador to the United Nations (UN)
- The chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers
- The head of the Small Business Administration
Each of these cabinet members represents federal organizations with thousands of government workers. Their collaboration ensures that the government’s work gets done.
You encounter bureaucracy every day without knowing it. Even if you don’t enter a government building, bureaucratic regulations define your standard of living. There are two types of bureaucracies that impact citizens: federal bureaucracies and state bureaucracies.
Some examples of bureaucracy services include:
having mail delivered to your home
going to school
receiving Social Security benefits
paying income taxes
eating safe, non-toxic food
driving a car
breathing clean air
having police protection
working in a safe environment
drinking unpolluted water
purchasing products made in other countries
If you hear someone call an organization a “bureaucracy,” it’s not usually a compliment.
If you’ve ever received an important letter on time or received a refund on your taxes, you have a bureaucracy to thank. Implementing the ideals of Congressional law is the ultimate objective of any bureaucracy. Pros for having bureaucracies include:
- It improves the quality of life. Cleaner air, safe food and repaired roads are just a few of the ways that bureaucratic regulations make life better for its citizens.
- It prevents interest-driven privatization. When important agencies are privatized, they become geared toward profit, not governmental results. Unlike in a free market, privatization involves giving private firms government contracts, which could result in a conflict of interest.
- It allows Congress to delegate power. Without bureaucracies, members of Congress would be hopelessly gridlocked on minor issues. Bureaucracies free them to create legislation without worrying about implementing minor regulations.
Citizens who prefer a small government would rather have fewer bureaucratic regulations. They may perceive these regulations as infringing on their democratic rights or making it difficult for them to live productive lives. Some criticisms of a bureaucracy are:
- It’s too big. Bureaucracies can be notoriously slow-moving. Because agencies can have a complicated chain of command, getting a form approved may take a long time. This may not matter much to the system, but it could make a huge difference to the average citizen.
- Its scope goes beyond the executive branch. Due to the size of the federal bureaucracy, it often takes on responsibilities that are reserved for the legislative or judicial branches. These convergences prevent a proper system of checks and balances.
- It's inherently political. Bureaucrats (such as cabinet members and ambassadors) are appointed by politicians rather than being elected. Many people worry that they work for the current administration rather than for the people.