The Basic Functions of Government Agencies
Agencies: What do they do?
Federal government agencies are administrative organizations funded by Congress that fall under the authority of the president to carry out tasks enumerated either in the Constitution or federal laws passed by Congress. This can be contrasted with state government agencies which are administrative organizations funded by a state legislature that fall under the authority of a state governor (or other elected officials) to carry out tasks enumerated either in the state constitution or state laws passed by a state legislature. In simple terms, this means that agencies are groups of people that carry out the business of government.
Chains of command
First, Congress passes a law that establishes an agency. In doing so, it also sets aside annual funding for that organization. Then, once the agency has been formally created, it goes about fulfilling the duties that Congress specifically set out in the statute that it passed. As the agency goes about fulfilling its duties, it also interprets the statutes that Congress passed in order to give the agency authority. In many respects, the agency adds flesh to the bare bones of the law that Congress enacted.
Usually, these interpretations help to develop specific positions (in order to carry out the duties envisioned in the legislation) or to create regulations that the agency then enforces. These positions and regulations must be within the cognizable vision or spirit of the act of Congress. As mentioned, the Executive Branch of government (a/k/a the president) carries out the development of new agencies, oversees the day-to-day functions of agencies, and acts as the overarching boss. Therefore, if you work for a federal agency, at the very top of your chain of leadership is the president of the United States. The same generally goes for state agencies, only in that case the governor oversees daily operations.
Agencies are organized around areas of work such as environmental (Environmental Protection Agency), agricultural (Department of Agriculture), energy (Department of Energy) or diplomatic (the State Department). Though it can sometimes be confusing, generally there are "Departments," within which agencies are located. For example, the Department of Defense (DOD) comprises security agencies such as the National Security Agency, the Missile Defense Agency and the Defense Commissary Agency, among many, many others. Each of these is based on some sort of Congressional or legislative hook that allowed the Department of Defense to create it.
In some special cases, agencies do not fall under a larger department. For example, the Environmental Protection Agency and the Central Intelligence Agency do not fall under larger departments. These are called independent agencies. Instead, the agency head reports directly to the president and generally to an executive committee, such as the Council on Environmental Quality in the case of the EPA or the National Security Council for the CIA.
Jobs at all levels
Duties in these agencies can range from the very basic functions of lower- level administration to very specific roles that require advanced degrees and years of experience. Some federal agencies, as in the State Department, the Office of Management and Budget or the Federal Bureau of Investigations, require specific examinations that must be taken before or during the application process. The training required for these examinations cannot always be learned in a classroom, but can require previous on-the-job experience to qualify.
Most of the time agencies hire middle-level personnel and managers from within the agency. Truly, the decision to join a government agency can lead to a life-long career if you should decide to continue employment. Unlike the worlds of finance, business, education or the law, where lateral mobility between employers can be easy, government agencies are large bureaucracies that are more likely to promote from within. Therefore, the key for a successful career in government employment is to get your foot in the door early and begin working your way up the seniority ladder.
However, this is not to say that seniority itself will garner advancement. Civil service exams, employee reviews and recommendations are often used by promotion boards to decide who will move up in the agency.
Matters of trust
While nearly all federal government agencies are headquartered in Washington, D.C., or nearby, most agencies have state offices often located in a state's largest cities to administer programs and carry out the duties of the federal agency throughout the country. Many positions, including entry-level ones, may require workers to receive a security clearance and may even oblige them to take an oath to protect the Constitution. While this sounds exciting, receiving a "confidential" security clearance is really just a background check on the candidate and should not be confused with the more intensive "top secret" security clearance, which requires a much higher degree of candidate scrutiny.