The Realities of Bureaucracy

What do you think of bureaucracy? Try an experiment. Get out a piece of paper and pen or pencil and write as many adjectives you can think of that describe "bureaucracy."

Now, look over your list. Does anything stand out? Are the adjectives you wrote generally negative? Are they ALL negative? Or did you include some positive adjectives that describe bureaucracy? If you are like most Americans, your list is entirely or almost entirely negative. When forced to stop and think about positive adjectives, people can readily offer a few, but they do not generally think of them on their own without being prompted to do so.

Why are people so naturally negative about bureaucracy? No doubt, the negativism is, at least in part, due to bad experiences people have had with a bureaucratic agency or office. However, public opinion polls consistently suggest that  most people are satisfied with current governmental programs. Moreover, most people are generally satisfied with their encounters with bureaucrats and bureaucratic agencies. Overall satisfaction with government programs, and bureaucracy in particular, suggests that much of the hostility toward bureaucracy is the product of general and abstract antigovernment sentiments. There is no easy way to reconcile this apparent contradiction. Indeed, public opinion about the bureaucracy (and government in general) is often "varied, contradictory, ambiguous, [and] ephemeral."1

One of the most perplexing realities for bureaucracies, bureaucrats and their supporters, then, is that Americans consistently send mixed messages to the Congress about what they want out of the bureaucracy. The result is that Executive Branch agencies and their employees are often pulled, pushed and prodded by different forces in different directions. As will be discussed in the next section ("The Bureaucratic Dilemma"), this is one of the most serious obstacles to effective bureaucratic implementation of public policies and programs.

The Nature of Bureaucracy

When the national government establishes policies and creates programs, bureaucracy becomes necessary to see that those policies and programs become reality. For example, when the Congress passes clean air legislation, it must establish an agency to monitor and ensure compliance with the standards it sets. When it creates farmer assistance programs, a bureaucracy is required to oversee and administer the program.

Bureaucrats, the nature of the job they do, stand between the lawmakers who create public policy and public programs and the people. They are uniquely positioned, then, to see both sides of the picture, the political side in Washington and the practical side in Dubuque, Phoenix or any number of other localities. However, because they are often given specific and narrow guidelines for the implementation of the programs the Congress creates, bureaucrats often lead frustrating lives, unable to exercise the discretion they and the beneficiaries of government programs would like to. On the other hand, when bureaucrats are given too much discretion, the Congress and the public often complain that the bureaucracy has become a law unto itself. (Photo at Right: Home of the Federal Bureaucracy in Washington, D.C. Middle-Left Building: Department of Agriculture, Middle-Right Building (on the River): Bureau of Engraving and Printing).

Simply put, bureaucracy is the means toward a host of public and social policy ends. As such, many people believe the bureaucracy is a "necessary evil," an unfortunate requirement in the implementation of policies aimed at promoting the "general welfare" of the nation. Another perhaps more accurate view suggests that bureaucracy, in itself, is benign--the policies it implements are what should be judged as either "good" or "bad" by the people and their leaders. The bureaucracy has neither the power to create laws or to ignore them. It must simply enact what laws the Congress and President make.

America's Bureaucracy

In the United States of America, there are four different kinds of bureaucracies: departments, independent agencies, independent regulatory commissions and government corporations. While departments were originally intended to be the largest and most important of government bureaucracies, many independent agencies are larger, in terms of both staffs and budgets, than many departments (see the table below).


"Birthdates" of Executive Branch Departments 
State 1789
Treasury 1789
Defense (originally War & Navy) 1789
Interior 1849
Agriculture 1862
Justice (Attorney General est. 1789) 1870
Commerce 1903
Labor 1913
Health & Human Services 1953
Housing & Urban Development 1965
Transportation 1966
Energy 1977
Education 1979
Veterans Affairs 1989
Homeland Security 2002

There are fourteen Executive Branch departments, the heads of which are all members of the President's Cabinet (see "Presidential Leadership"). The largest departments are the Department of Defense and the Department of Veteran Affairs. Each so-called Cabinet-level department oversees a broad area of national policy and programs. The Department of Treasury, which includes the Internal Revenue Service, is charged with collecting, spending, and accounting for the government's money. The Justice Department, which includes the Federal Bureau of Investigation and is headed by the Attorney General, enforces national laws and prosecutes those who violate them. The newest department, the Department of Homeland Security, was established in 2002.

Independent Agencies

Most departments have several agencies and offices within them. There are, however, several Executive Branch agencies that are independent, unattached to any department. These agencies are generally smaller than departments, but many departments were agencies before they were elevated to department status. They are independent in that they are not attached to an Executive Branch department--they remain accountable to the Congress and the President. Examples of independent agencies include the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), the Social Security Administration and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). Some independent agencies, such as the Office of Personnel Management, the General Accounting Office and the Government Services Administration, exist solely to oversee the operations of the national government, its departments and other agencies.

Independent Regulatory Commissions

Several independent regulatory boards and commissions have been created by the Congress. They are purposely insulated from Presidential influence to keep them as free from political and partisan influences as possible. Their independence rests largely on the inability of the President or the Congress to remove their appointed heads unless they are guilty of gross inefficiency, neglecting their duties or violating the law. These boards and commissions include the Securities and Exchange Commission, which oversees the stock markets, the Federal Reserve Board, the Consumer Product Safety Commission, the Federal Communications Commission and the National Labor Relations Board.

Government Corporations

The most independent of bureaucracies are government corporations. These operate much more freely of federal government regulations and oversight, but remain limited in important ways because of their public nature. One of the most important differences between government corporations and other departments and agencies is that government corporations are encouraged, even expected, to earn money. These organizations include the U.S. Postal Service, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, AMTRAK and the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation.

How Big is the Bureaucracy?

National Government Employees
By Branch, Department & Agency
% changed from 1990-2005
2005 Numbers
Legislative Branch Total
Judicial Branch Total
Executive Branch Total
Executive Office of the President


Executive Department
State Department
Treasury Department
Defense Department
Justice Department
Interior Department
Agriculture Department
Commerce Department
Labor Department
Health & Human Services
Housing & Urban Development
Transportation Department
Energy Department
Education Department
Veterans Affairs Department
Homeland Security
Socal Security Administration
U.S. Postal Service
Board of Govenors Federal Reserve System
Fed. Emergency Management Agency
Environmental Protection Agency

The Executive Branch and the Office of the President have grown significantly since George Washington first took office in 1789. In fact, Washington had no White House staff to speak of. Instead of relying on intermediaries to carry his messages for him, he dealt personally with the Congress and the Courts. Thomas Jefferson employed a staff of two--a messenger and a secretary. By 1900, the White House staff had grown to a dozen. The explosion of activity in the White House during Franklin Roosevelt's administration made it necessary to hire additional staff and the number of people working for the President has steadily increased since that time. The Executive Office of the President now employs more than five hundred people.

The original presidential "Cabinet" consisted of the Secretaries of State, War and Treasury. Since that time, eleven additional cabinet-level departments have been created: the Departments of the Interior, Agriculture, Commerce, Justice, Labor, Health and Human Services, Housing and Urban Development, Transportation, Energy, Education and Veterans Affairs. Each of these departments has several sub-agencies and officers. These, together with dozens of other independent agencies and commissions, comprise the federal bureaucracy.

In 2005, the national government employed 2,7 million people. Nearly all of these were Executive Branch employees--only 64,000 of the nearly three million worked for the Legislative and Judicial Branches. By far the largest Executive Department is the Department of Defense with about 670,000 employees. The magnitude and importance of national defense is even further underscored by the fact that the next largest department is the Department of Veterans Affairs with nearly 236,000 employees. Indeed, beyond its three million civilian employees, the national government employs an additional 1.1 million active duty military personnel.

Besides national defense, the national government employs 114,000 in the Department of Treasury, 105,000 in the Department of Justice and 104,000 in the Department of Agriculture. There are also several independent agencies, not attached to an Executive Branch department, with sizable employment rolls. The largest of these is the U.S. Postal Service with more than 770,000 employees. The Social Security Administration employs 66,000 people, while NASA employs nearly 20,000 and the Environmental Protection Agency employs 18,000. See the table on the right for a breakdown of departments, agencies and the number of people employed by each.

In addition to the nearly four million people employed by the national government (including national defense), the more than 87,000 state, county, city and special district governments across this nation employ an additional 17 million people. More than half of these are employed in elementary, secondary and higher education. Other significant levels of employment at the state and local level are for police and fire protection (nearly 1.5 million), health care (more than 1.5 million), and justice and corrections (about one million). Other state and local employees provide a variety of services, such as libraries, parks and public utilities.

1. Larry Hill. "Taking Bureaucracy Seriously," in The State of Public Bureaucracy, Larry B. Hill, ed. (Armonk, N.Y.: M.E. Sharpe, 1992), 23.