Government Beaurocracy Nomenclature

In the various agencies of the Federal Government, is there a difference between things named Agencies, Bureaus, Services, Administrations, Commissions, and so forth? Or are the names completely arbitrary?

Departments are large, permanent, & answer directly to a Cabinet member.

After that, it gets muddled.

“Bureaus” are usually part of a larger entity. The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms, for example, is part of the Treasury Department. The Bureau of the Census is part of the Commerce Department.

Bosda’s essentially correct, though: when you get to the Agencies, Services, Administrations, and so on, it gets fairly muddled and, apparently, arbitrary.

Thanks Bosda and Early. I knew about the various executive Departments already. (They at least appear to be somewhat consistent. :slight_smile: )

Hopefully someone will chime in with a bit more concrete information regarding the other stuff.

Commissions (FCC, SEC, FTC, etc.) are independent agencies, whose members (“commissioners”) are appointed by the president and their powers are granted by Congress in the form of a statute that establishes the commission. However, the commissioners do not answer to any cabinet agency, cabinet secretary, or the president. They may be called to testify before a congressional committee, but they are, in theory, independent of control from the Congress or the executive.

Bureaus, administrations, agencies, boards, councils, and the like are always part of a department. A department is an agency that is headed by a cabinet secretary who is appointed by the president and approved by the Senate.

This is not entirely correct. Administrations (or agencies, which is the same thing, just a synonym) can be independent from a department. For example, the Social Security Administration is entirely independent from any other federal entity. It once was part of the Health & Human Services Administration (headed by the Secretary of the HHSA), but elected to become a self-regulating agency a few years ago (headed by a Commissioner). Health &Human Services is a cabinent position, and once was known as Health, Education, and Welfare.

“Bureaus” is a fading terminology, but still used; however, the trend is to get away from this term, as it indicates a “bureaucracy,” which it is part of, of course. :slight_smile:

The Social Security Administration, for example, refers to itself as the “Agency” sometimes, but at other times will use “Administration.” “Board” is part of an agency that reviews actions performed by the Agency. This, too, is becoming passe, with “office” replacing “board.” For example, the Board of Hearings & Appeals is now known as the Office of Hearings & Appeals (OHA). A council is a further step up the review procedure at the administrative level. If OHA, for example, renders an unfavorable decision for a claimant, the claimant can appeal to the Appeals Council. This is the last step in the administrative review.

As those who have studied law know, one cannot immediately appeal to the courts an unfavorable decision by an agency (or administration), whether it’s the IRA, SSA, NLRB, etc. One must (here it comes) “exhaust your administrative remedies.” After the Council makes a decision (or, in the case of the IRA, the Tax Court, IIRC), your administrative remedies are exhausted, and you can now file an action in the District Court (a Commissioner or Secretary is the defendant.)

Correction: replace “IRA” with “IRS.”

This is just dead wrong. There are many, many administrations, agencies, boards, and so on, that are not part of any department: NASA, General Services Administration, FEMA, DEA, Railroad Retirement Board, etc., etc. The list is quite long.


I should have said “answers directly to the Executive Branch”, not “Cabinet”.

Because State Governments have “Departments” & etc. too. My own Tennessee Dept. Of Transportation has a Commissioner to head it.