Structure of the United States Federal Government
One of the most important thing for modern citizens to understand is the structure of the society of which we're a part.
Because we spend our days trying to drink information out of a metaphorical firehose, we're swimming in jargon, factoids, and semantics—unseen actors, distant organizations, and nebulous, often unarticulated relationships. "Today, the FDA approved of a new vaccine developed in part with funding from the NIH under the president's initiative approved by Congress, which the CDC recommends ... ." Who? How? What now? When you're up to your knees in water, what's the difference between one puddle and another?
For this reason, it’s easy to assume all governments, institutions, and structures are omnipotent, pervasive forces beyond the ordinary citizen’s control. To a normal person unfamiliar with the government's workings, there's no distinguishing from an FBI agent, a U.S. marshal, or a park ranger. For dudes who don't like being hassled, they all fall under the umbrella of "the man." But all ordinary citizens in the modern world—even the aspiring Lebowskis out there—need to know how to work with the man once in a while—and that requires an understanding of the government's structure.
Today, the United States federal government is probably the single largest, well-resourced, and complicated organization in human history.
Whether you want to report a runaway trophy wife as a missing person to the FBI, eat a bowling alley hot dog with assurances that it was non-toxic, or legalize it without the Supreme Court overturning it, understanding the structure of the government is fundamental for everyone.
The United States' Federal Republic Form of Government
While "the man" comes in many forms, shapes, and sizes, no one organization embodies the man more than the United States federal government.
What is the federal government? Well, since we're examining structure, we might as well start at the top. The world is more or less organized into a collection of nation-states. There are also international bodies like the United Nations and worldwide treaties like the Geneva Conventions that affect how the world runs while transcending borders. But national governments and their subdivisions perform most of society's vital functions.
For the most part, the countries of the world have divided their governments into nation-states consistent with geographical borders. Pick up any globe or look at any map (like the one below) to more or less see what these divisions are—just don't do too much thinking about who owns the South China Sea. The modern governments of these countries do lots of things, but most of them do things like provide for the common defense, ensure domestic tranquility, promote the general welfare, etc.
If you're reading this, you're likely familiar with a country called the United States of America. The U.S.A. takes up the chonky torso of a landmass called North America, plus an extra large protuberance called Alaska. It's visible in the upper left quadrant of the map above. The United States' current borders resulted from a few hundred years of possession, dissension, expansion, negotiation, compensation, and bad behavior.
Effective in 1789, the United States Constitution established the structure of the recently independent United States government as that of a federal republic: a federation in that it is group of partially self-governing entities (states) alongside a national "federal" government, and republican in that power theoretically rests in the people and their representatives. Adding complexity to what occurs inside the boundaries of the U.S. are independent, sovereign Native American tribal lands.
Under federalism, the national federal government and the states share power. Some powers are exclusive. Only the federal government can regulate interstate commerce, coin money, maintain an army, and declare war. Only the states can establish local governments. They also have concurrent powers that both the federal government and the states have. For example, both the federal government and state governments can levy taxes and enforce their respective laws.
The chart below shows the structure of the government in the United States. There is the federal government, with its three main branches established by the articles of the Constitution: the legislative, executive, and judicial branches. (We'll soon see it's much more complex than this.) Then there are the states, which are free to set their own structures within the bounds of the Constitution.
The states subdivide themselves and establish local governments. Many states like California divide themselves into counties and then further into cities. Louisiana calls its county equivalents "parishes." The chart above shows California as an example, but many of the other 49 states and U.S. territories do something similar. States almost always have legislative, executive, and judicial branches like their federal counterpart, which the chart omits out of convenience. For example, California has local courts and a statewide Supreme Court that interprets its own state constitution.
The U.S. Federal Government
So governing in the United States is the work of the national federal government in tandem with the states. This is similar to many of the countries in the world, with great variance in how strong the federal government or its equivalent is versus the autonomy given to states, provinces, or cities.
By today's standards, the federal government in 1789 did very little despite its important powers to do things like raise an army. But as the trend of governments tended toward consolidation, interconnectivity, complexity, and active economic development, the U.S. federal government took on greater and greater responsibility. Often, this increase in responsibility was a reaction to disruptive events like the American Civil War, the Industrial Revolution, and the Great Depression.
Today, the United States federal government is probably the single largest, well-resourced, and complicated organization in human history.
The U.S. federal government also performs a baffling number of activities, many of which are inarguably "good" for the world and many of which are not-so-good. Here are a few of tasks you may want to accomplish relying on the federal government, as well as one of the government entry-points for accomplishing it.
- If you support passage of a voting rights law or even something as serious as impeachment, vote for the congressperson who supports that law or action, or contact your representative to encourage him or her to vote a certain way.
- If you want to know if you should evacuate town due to the inbound hurricane, consult information from the National Weather Service (NWS, part of the Department of Commerce) before the National Guard (the reserves in the U.S. Army or Air Force, parts of the Department of Defense (DOD)) need to intervene.
- If you need help while traveling internationally or living abroad, contact the local U.S. embassy (part of the State Department).
- If you don’t want to get arrested, avoid the scrutiny of the FBI, NSA, or DEA (an increasingly impossible task).
- If you want to visit Yosemite and want to know about park accommodations or the cost of entry, visit the National Park Service’s website (part of the Department of the Interior).
- If you want to go from D.C. to Philadelphia, buy a ticket from Amtrak (a quasi-private corporation in whom the government owns stock via the Department of Transportation, DOT).
- If you want to affordably send a Christmas gift to your mom, consider USPS (the United States Postal Service, a semi-independent agency in the executive branch). If you want to timely send a Christmas gift to your mom, consider FedEx.
- If you want to know which precautions to take in light of the coronavirus or whether the vaccine is safe, consult the CDC (the Centers for Disease Control, part of the Department of Health and Human Services in the executive branch).
- If you want to patent your new super-strong and thin biomaterial to make a window screen that doesn't tear at the slightest human touch, file a patent at the USPTO (the United States Patent & Trademark Office, part of the Department of Commerce in the executive branch). Then file a trademark with the USPTO so that you can have a unique and exclusive brand for your startup company.
- If you want money to help your company scale up its production of a new biomaterial, submit a proposal to the National Institutes of Health (NIH, part of the Department of Health and Human Services, HHS) or the National Science Foundation (an independent agency) for a Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) award.
- If you want to go to college and also be in debt for the rest of your life, take a loan out from the Department of Education.
- If you want to make sure your grandmother is receiving the monthly allowance allotted to her after paying taxes her whole life, contact the Social Security Administration (a semi-independent agency).
- If you want to buy a house, seek a mortgage with a low interest rate made possible by Fannie Mae (a government-sponsored enterprise and publicly trade company), which allows banks to expand the mortgage market through investments based on mortgages.
- If you want to open a savings account, deposit money at a bank insured by the FDIC (the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, a semi-independent agency), which insures that your deposited money is safe if the bank gambles it away on fraudulent subprime mortgage derivatives.
- If you want the banker to go to jail for gambling away your money on fraudulent subprime mortgage derivatives, urge your congressperson to investigate so that the Department of Justice (a cabinet department in executive branch) will prosecute any crimes.
- If you want to make sure that nuclear waste doesn't end up in your local river, continue paying taxes to the Internal Revenue Service so that the Environmental Protection Agency (a semi-independent agency) can notify the DOE (the Department of Energy) of the risks so that it can mitigate the risk of contamination.
That's a lot.
Existing Organizational Charts Aren't Good Enough
As a result of its vast, pervasive and seemingly infinite nature as underscored by all its activities above, understanding the federal government's functions is important for Americans and people all over the world—its activities affect our day-to-day lives. Understanding the federal government's doings depends first and foremost on comprehending its structure, at least to the best of our abilities.
But search “organization chart u.s. federal government” in Google's web or image search, and you get a return of some usable but ultimately unsatisfactory results.
Probably the most prominent organization chart for the U.S. federal government is from the government itself via the GSA (the General Services Administration). A soul-deadening wasteland of bland gray boxes, it conjures images of fluorescent-lit, drop-ceilinged, taupe-walled cubicle wastelands. I've reproduced it below.
Overall, this is a usable chart. But that doesn't make it useful. There are other somewhat valiant attempts at organizational charts for the federal government here, here, here, and many more places on the web.
Many of these organizational charts meet the bare minimum for showing the structure of the federal government, but they are inadequate in one or all of the following ways. Some of these flaws are problems in their design and others are problems in their representation of the government's structure.
- The charts are bland and visually unappealing. While this may be fine for lawyers and civil servants who live their lives in Word .doc, 12-point Times New Roman font memorandum purgatory, this is not appropriate for communicating to the general public—who we want (or we should want) to understand what the government is and what it does.
- The charts are devoid of color, have very little color, or use overly saturated colors throughout. Color is important not only for aesthetic reasons, but design reasons as well. Color is very useful for communicating information, groupings, and relationships effectively, and if unused or used poorly, there is a lost opportunity to convey information.
- The charts show the branches themselves but little more. All of the visually appealing charts fall into this category. This is understandable, as sacrificing aesthetics is often a tradeoff for high informational density.
- The charts are not high resolution and hence, blurry. A .jpg or .png in which half the agencies are fuzzy spots when represented on a large, modern computer display is of little use to users. The Bureau of Fuzzy Blurcle Blob looks more like censored nudity than usable information.
- The charts are not immediately printable if needed.
- The charts omit some of the most important and well-known subdivisions in the federal government, and thus are not comprehensive or especially valuable. Where are the FBI, the CIA, the Navy, the Air Force, the oh-so-detestable IRS, the oh-so-lovable National Park Service, and the oh-so-necessary CDC—especially in the midst of the pandemic? The "most" official organization chart the federal government shares of itself neglects so many of its most vital agencies and thus functions.
- Many of the charts omit the constitutional authority for the branches, conflate the U.S. Constitution with the federal government itself, or do not show the federal government's relationship with the states.
- The charts don’t distinguish between independent agencies and government-owned or -supported enterprises—or omit them altogether. Amtrak is not exactly a government agency, it’s a corporation whose shares belong to the government through the Department of Transportation. It may seem like a minor difference, but it’s not. Furthermore, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, Freddie Mac, and the TVA are absent on many of the charts, despite being important entities that play roles in ordinary Americans’ lives.
As a result, all the existing organization charts for the federal government ultimately fall short of something that is simple, useful, navigable, and informative for an ordinary citizen—or even a citizen intimate with the government's internal workings. As someone who needs to understand and interact with these multivariate agencies frequently, the available charts don't fulfill my needs. How is this possible for what is arguably the most important organization in the entire world?
A New Organization Chart for the U.S. Federal Government
To solve the problem of ineffective organizational charts and improve understanding of the U.S. federal government, Simple Legal Guides has developed a new organizational chart of the United States federal government, reproduced as a slightly smaller version below.
Simple Legal Guides’ organizational map of the federal government solves many, if not all, of the problems discussed above. The new chart uses color strategically, lists most of the important omitted agencies omitted by other charts, differentiates between agencies and corporations (as best as can be done, anyway), shows the federal government's relationship to the states, includes the constitutional authority for each branch, and tries to reflect how the "independent" agencies are co-managed by the branches (such as by having officials appointed by the executive branch, receiving expenditures from the legislative branch, and having the constitutionality of their actions checked by the judicial branch).
There is a high-resolution image (in .png) available for download, as well as a .pdf printable on standard 8.5" x 11" computer paper, and a larger searchable .pdf. Together, they greatly expand the utility of such organizational charts. All are available for free under the Creative Commons CC-BY-NC-SA license.
Is the new chart perfect? By no means—it does not include every agency or its hierarchy, it will still be difficult to read if you print it on one sheet of paper, and it could be more interactive and better adapted to mobile use. Consider these future projects. But it's probable that no perfect chart of the most complex organization in the world exists.