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 (government). Bureaucracies implement federal laws made by Congress and create regulations that affect the daily lives of American citizens.
Federal Bureaucracy Examples in Everyday Life
Everyday Examples of Bureaucracies
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 non-polluted water
- Purchasing products made in other countries
Structure of the Federal Bureaucracy
In the United States government, the federal bureaucracy structure is organized within the executive branch of the government. Organizations within the United States federal bureaucracy have been appointed by Congress to move the business of government along. They are known as one corner of the Iron Triangle, which details the relationship between Congress, federal bureaucracies, and special interest groups.
Cabinet Departments and Executive Agencies
The federal bureaucracy includes 15 executive departments, which come together in the president’s cabinet. These departments are further organized into independent executive agencies, independent regulatory agencies, government corporations, and presidential commissions. These organizations include:
Federal Bureaucracy Agencies and Bureaus Included
Department of Agriculture (USDA)
Oversees American farming industry
- Food and Nutrition Service
- Rural Development
- Farm Service Agency
Department of Commerce (DOC)
Promotes economic growth
- International Trade Administration
- Economic Development Administration
- Minority Business Development Agency
Department of Defense (DOD)
Oversees the branches of the military to protect the U.S. abroad
- Defense Counterintelligence and Security Agency
- National Security Agency
- Joint Chiefs of Staff
Department of Education (ED)
Establishes policy and provide federal funding to public schools
- Education Publications Center
- Office of Elementary and Secondary Education
- Institute of Education Sciences
Department of Energy (DOE)
Advances national, economic, and energy security
- Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy
- Energy Information Administration
- National Nuclear Security Administration
Department of Health and Human Services (HHS)
Enhance the health and well-being of all Americans
- Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)
- Food and Drug Administration (FDA)
Department of Homeland Security (DHS)
Protects U.S. from domestic emergencies (e.g., terrorism)
- United States Citizenship and Immigration Services
- Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE)
Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD)
Addresses housing needs and enforces fair housing laws
- Federal Housing Administration
- Office of Fair Housing and Equal Opportunity
- Federal Housing Finance Agency
Department of the Interior (DOI)
Manages public lands
- National Park Service (NPS)
- U.S. Geological Survey
- Fish and Wildlife Service
Department of Justice (DOJ)
Enforce the law and ensure public safety
- Drug Enforcement Administration
- U.S. Marshals
- Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI)
Department of Labor (DOL)
Manages working conditions, employment, and worker wellbeing
- Benefits Review Board
- Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA)
Department of State (DOS)
Manages foreign affairs and diplomacy
- Bureau of Intelligence and Research
- Bureau of Public Affairs
- Bureau of Budget and Planning
Department of Transportation (DOT)
Plans and supports the U.S. transportation system
- Federal Highway Administration
- Federal Railroad Administration
- National Highway Traffic Safety Administration
Department of Treasury (TREAS)
Promotes economic prosperity and manages U.S. financial systems
- Internal Revenue Service (IRS)
- U.S. Mint
- The Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB)
Department of Veteran Affairs (VA)
Provides and oversees services to veterans of American wars
- Veterans Benefits Administration
- National Cemetery Administration
Federal agencies and boards report to the heads of these departments, who are labeled 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. mission 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.
Growth of the Federal Bureaucracy
The federal bureaucracy hasn’t always contained so many departments. What began as a small delegation of power for 13 colonies has grown into a large, complex organization. The addition of these departments reflects the needs of a developing country during the Civil War, the Great Depression, and the Cold War.
A short timeline illustrates that most current departments were formed in the 20th and 21st centuries.
Departments of State and Treasury
Department of the Interior
Department of Agriculture
Department of Justice
Department of Commerce
Department of Labor
Department of Veteran Affairs
Department of Defense
Department of Health and Human Services
Department of Housing and Urban Development
Department of Transportation
Department of Energy
Department of Education
Department of Homeland Security
Former departments include the Departments of War (formed in 1789), and the Army, the Air Force, and the Navy (formed in 1798), all of which became part of the Department of Defense after World War II. The Post Office was formed as its own department in 1792 before becoming part of the independent United States Postal Service.
Bureaucracy Benefits and Drawbacks
If you hear someone call an organization a “bureaucracy,” it’s not usually a compliment. While they are meant to be helpful machinations of Congressional power, large bureaucracies sometimes fall short of assisting citizens in their everyday lives.
Here are some pros and cons of having bureaucracies in your government.
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, Congress would be hopelessly gridlocked on minor issues. Bureaucracies free them to create legislation without worrying about implementing minor regulations.
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 a productive life. Some criticisms of bureaucracies 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.
- Bureaucracies are 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.
There are benefits and drawbacks to living in a democratic country with bureaucracies. Many current bureaucratic arguments surround the questions of universal healthcare, the role of ICE in criminal justice, and the student loan debt crisis.
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.