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Executive Branch Organizations

Last Updated: 2006

The executive branch is organized around the principal of delivering governmental services that have been assigned to the executive either by the federal or state Constitution or by subsequent law. Initially at the federal level, this organization was rather simple as the executive was not required to provide much more than mail services and road and canal construction, and conduct foreign policy. Yet, as the nation matured so did the responsibilities assigned to the executive. By the early part of the twentieth century it became apparent that the executive organizational structure lacked the ability to administer a modern state. Yet a simple tension has always existed between the legislature (Congress and state legislatures) and its lawmaking function and the executive (presidents and governors) and his or her implementing responsibilities. Considerable power is obtained in the administering of the law, and as the complexity of society increased so did the power of executive agencies. Thus, the executive administers and the legislature monitors the implementation to ensure that its intent has been maintained.

By the late 1930’s, it had become apparent that the apparatus for governing was inadequate for the demands placed upon the executive. In 1936, the President’s Committee on Administrative Management (commonly referred to as the Brownlow Committee after its chairman, Louis Brownlow) was established with the charge of examining the organization of the executive branch and making recommendations concerning reorganizations that would help the executive better govern. This was followed in 1946 by the Administrative Procedures Act, which seeks to standardize federal administrative practices across many agencies. Perhaps the most sweeping of the reform commissions was the Hoover Commissions I and II (1947–49 and 1953–55 respectively) chaired by former President Herbert Hoover. The first Hoover Commission sought to greatly expand the managerial capacities of the president by surrounding him with a highly professional staff, while the second commission sought to address governmental functions by recommending that federal activities that compete with private interests should be curtailed. These executive reorganization activities were also mirrored in the states and larger local governments during the same time frame.

Currently the federal executive branch is organized around four distinct organizational forms. First is the Executive Office of the President. Here can be found such entities as the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), National Security Council, and Council of Economic Advisors. Second are the departments. There are currently fifteen departments: agriculture, commerce, defense, education, energy, health and human services, homeland security, housing and urban development, interior, justice, labor, state, transportation, treasury, and veteran affairs. Each department is headed by a secretary who is approved by the Senate. After the departments come the independent establishments and government corporations. A sampling includes the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), General Services Administration (GSA), National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), Office of Personnel Management (OPM), Social Security Administration, and U.S. Postal Service. In all, there are fifty-four such entities. Finally, the executive branch has quasi-official agencies, which include the Legal Services Corporation, Smithsonian Institution, State Justice Institute, U.S. Institute of Peace, and several multilateral and bilateral organizations.

Many, if not all, of the executive branch agencies interact with state and local governments, and many have almost identical agencies at the state level. The existence of these similar if not identical state executive branch organizations is often not by accident. Indeed, it is often easy to trace the emergence of a state agency back to the creation of a similar federal entity. Once a federal executive branch agency has been created, it will often use grants to encourage the creation of similar state agencies not only for the purposes of administering the various programs but also for establishing allies at the state level for its continued existence and expansion. Martha Derthick has observed that the state agencies become “the formal recipient of federal funds, the formal channel for federal communication with the state, and a possessor of authority within state government,” thus establishing a powerful and highly influential alliance between the agencies that often challenges traditional legislative and executive control mechanisms. This role as the “formal” entry point of federal funds and communications provides the state agency with legitimacy and considerable power within state government structures and generally allies them with their federal counterpart, often at the exclusion of other state-level entities.

It is important to note that in many cases, each federal agency develops its own strategy for dealing with state and local entities based on the type of activity being conducted. Thus, some agencies adopt highly decentralized patterns of interaction and service delivery while others may choose a highly centralized structure. Executive branch agencies also find themselves often serving multiple masters. The final “head” of any executive branch agency is naturally the executive. However, almost all funding for these agencies originates in legislative committees, and with the rise of advocacy groups no executive agency can ignore their role. Typically this relationship has been described as an Iron Triangle, a metaphor describing the world in which policy decisions are made between executive agencies, legislative committees, and interest groups. However, of more recent origin is the term “policy networks,” which seems to capture better the nature of executive agencies and the “web” of interest under which they function. This network model also better captures the interaction between federal agencies and their state counterparts as well as the power often exerted by powerful local lobbies on a particular policy of interest.

Several million employees work within executive agencies across all levels of government; these employees are generally well-educated, reasonably well-paid individuals motivated by the policy area in which they are employed. They are people who want to work for the EPA or the CIA and oftentimes plan on continual employment through multiple presidents. This can create difficulties for the executive who has four and maybe eight years with which to deliver on campaign promises. Generally speaking, those who work in executive branch organizations fall under the civil service protection systems (instituted at the federal level with the Pendleton Act in 1883). In essence, this insulates employees from a change in the executive. For the executive this may prove to be problematic since personnel may not always be responsive to policy changes (bureaucratic resistance). As such, one of the biggest changes at the federal level (also at the state level in many instances as well) to come out of the reform movements discussed earlier is the creation of the Senior Executive Service (SES), which allows the president/governor to appoint a certain number of officials within each agency to establish his or her own control, independent of the civil service laws. Indeed this need for the executive to have greater control over agencies and their staff has led to a call for revamping the civil service process and allowing for greater hiring and firing control to be vested in the executive. The first agency to seriously test this new model is the Department of Homeland Security, where the president has the power to remove poor-performing employees and also pay more “market-based” salaries.

SEE ALSO: Intergovernmental ManagementIntergovernmental RelationsPublic AdministrationPublic Officials’ AssociationsState Government


Martha Derthick, “Ways of Achieving Federal Objectives,” in American Intergovernmental Relations: Foundations, Perspectives, and Issues, 3rd ed., ed. Laurence J. O’Toole Jr. (Washington, DC: CQ Press, 2000); Jay M. Shafritz, Albert C. Hyde, and Sandra J. Parkes, eds., The Classics of Public Administration, 5th ed. (Belmont, CA: Wadsworth/Thomson Learning, 2004); and U.S. Government Manual, 2003–4 ed. (Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 2003–4),