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What are Government Agencies?

By M. K. McDonald
Updated May 23, 2024
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Government agencies are administrative units of government that are tasked with specific responsibilities. These agencies can be established by national, regional or local governments. These agencies are entities distinct from government departments or ministries, but they often work closely with and report to one or more departments or ministries. Others operate independently, especially those with oversight or regulatory responsibilities.

Any given government is likely to have hundreds of agencies with a variety of objectives and roles. A majority of government agencies are responsible for carrying out the policies of the establishing government. The agencies sometimes carry out the policies directly, and other times they do it indirectly through a process known as proxy administration. Through such things as contracting, loan guarantees and government-sponsored enterprises, agencies can deliver public goods and services or implement specific policies.

There is an important distinction between government-sponsored enterprises and government corporations. Government-sponsored enterprises, or government-sponsored entities, are shareholder-owned companies that are chartered by a government to implement or promote policies. By contrast, government corporations, or government-owned corporations, are created directly by governments to engage in activity that is particularly commercial.

In the United States, the most well-known government corporation is the U.S. Postal Service. Government-sponsored enterprises generally are considered to be government agencies, but government corporations are not. Government corporations sometimes are referred to as "quasi-government agencies."

Regulatory agencies are one of the most common types of agencies. They set standards for private sector activity and then enforce those standards. Many government agencies operate under the executive branch of the national government, but regulatory agencies do not. They are established by legislatures, and the regulations they devise carry the force of law. As a result, regulator agencies are legislative in nature.

One critical concern with government agencies involves a concept known as agency capture. A "captured agency" is one that adopts rules, regulations or policies that are favorable to the interest group that it is responsible for regulating or administering. Interest groups can "capture" agencies by applying political pressure on government officials who in turn apply pressure on the targeted agency.

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Discussion Comments

By topcop3730 — On Jul 15, 2014

How much more education would I need to become a licensed social worker if I already have an MA in Criminal Justice?

By anon157191 — On Mar 01, 2011

I have been put in the middle of a conflict between two departments I work with. My boss and his boss are always fighting and I end up in the middle. They argue all the time and when they do not want to say stuff to each other, they put me in the middle. one calls and asks for the other, yelling and saying bad words then he wants me to tell the other. Sometimes I do not say anything but then I feel I am not doing my job, but most of the time it is pure bad words and I do not like to use that language at work. No one should use it.

But I do not know who can help me with a hostile environment and then my boss likes me. He is nice to me but he does not do anything to stop his boss from being mean and rude to me. I am getting very tired and I need someone to help me figure out something to make him stop. i called different agencies but they say that if he is not discriminating they can't help me. Does anyone know what to do?

By ronburg44 — On Oct 11, 2010

There are government agencies of all types and one of the most critical are the health agencies that exist in local areas and governments. People sometimes just think about the massive federal government organizations that we have but every police department and fire department across the country can be considered a government agency.

Can you imagine not having a police department. It's simple, we need government agencies to take care of the things that they do.

By IceCarver — On Oct 11, 2010

While there are some advantages to operating under a broader administration, specifically there is the cost savings that less administrators brings to the table. This also can slow down critical operations though.

Not having a specific focus or mission can often create confusion on the part of the workers in a group. I think that many reasons exist to have specific government agencies for specific tasks.

By sammyG — On Oct 11, 2010

@spreadsheet, I can understand your fear of the over-bureaucratization of our American system but I urge you to consider the specific functions that most of these government agencies perform.

Sure there may be some legitimate concern in how they operate and what motivations they have to continue business but all those issues are up to good management and if that is the case then we just need new managers.

Other agencies perform some of the most critical tasks that we ask of our government. Intelligence is one of these ares that we rely on trained professionals to perform critical jobs. Without these groups we would be helpless and I think it is necessary that they operate as a specific task oriented agency.

By spreadsheet — On Oct 11, 2010

I think there is too much latitude in the use of government agencies. Specifically, when we create these new agencies out of thin air and expect the tax payer to pull more money our of our pockets just so we can have a new fancy name to address the new problem

A good example of this is the Drug Enforcement Agency. While I do think that some kind of oversight is obviously needed, there is a monstrous duty called the war on drugs that has been created to help this beast grow and grow.

Asses forfeiture laws have enabled these organizations to seize goods and assets that may or may not be involved with illegal behavior and sell them to operate on the profits.

This has now created a system in which this organization can execute it's function but sustain itself. So what motivation does it have to ever finish the job if that means that it will suffer the ultimate demise?

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