Federal Bureaucracy Examples in Everyday Life

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.

Capitol Building at Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C. Capitol Building at Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C.
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Examples of Federal Bureaucracies

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.

Cabinet Department

Function

Year Established

Department of Agriculture (USDA)

Oversees American farming industry

1862

Department of Commerce (DOC)

Promotes economic growth; oversees U.S. Census and NOAA

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

1980

Department of Energy (DOE)

Advances energy and environmental security; promotes environmental science innovation

1977

Department of Health and Human Services (HHS)

Enhances the health and well-being of all Americans; oversees CDC and FDA

1953

Department of Homeland Security (DHS)

Protects U.S. from domestic emergencies and terrorism; oversees U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services

2002

Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD)

Addresses housing needs and enforces fair housing laws

1965

Department of the Interior (DOI)

Manages public lands; oversees USGS and BLM

1849

Department of Justice (DOJ)

Enforces the law and ensures public safety; oversees FBI

1870

Department of Labor (DOL)

Manages working conditions, employment and worker wellbeing

1913

Department of State (DOS)

Manages foreign affairs and diplomacy

1789

Department of Transportation (DOT)

Plans and supports the U.S. transportation system; oversees FAA

1966

Department of Treasury (TREAS)

Promotes economic prosperity and manages U.S. financial systems; oversees IRS

1789

Department of Veteran Affairs (VA)

Provides and oversees services to veterans of American wars

1930

Cabinet Members

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.

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Everyday Examples of Bureaucracy Services

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

Bureaucracy Benefits and Drawbacks

If you hear someone call an organization a “bureaucracy,” it’s not usually a compliment.

Pros of Bureaucracy

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.
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Cons of Bureaucracy

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.

Learn More About Government

No matter how you feel about bureaucracy, it’s important to know the system. If you’d like to know more about how different democracies use bureaucracies, check out a list of various democratic countries. You can also explore what life would be like under a non-democratic, totalitarian government.