Governments have existed for nearly four thousand years, and while they vary in form, function and structure from one country to the next, they all share a common goal: to protect citizens and manage the affairs of their state, community or society. Governments control crime, provide health care and education, maintain roads and public buildings, and regulate industry to ensure safety and environmental sustainability. Governments also collect taxes to raise money and draft budgets, which determine how the funds raised will be spent. Governments are the sole entity capable of providing some goods and services that cannot be produced by the market, such as national defense and education.
A government may be democratic, parliamentary, presidential or authoritarian, although many countries combine elements of multiple types of governments. In a democracy, citizens directly make decisions through elected representatives. In an authoritarian government, power is concentrated in the hands of a few individuals or political parties and remains largely unchecked. Governments may be small, local or national, and they can be centralized, decentralized or federal.
In addition to legislative bodies, the executive branch of a government is responsible for putting policy into action. At the United States federal level, this takes place through Cabinet departments and independent agencies. These include Medicare, which provides health care for seniors; food stamps, which help families struggling to buy basic groceries; Social Security which helps retirees; the EPA which creates and enforces environmental regulations; and the Department of Transportation, which oversees air travel safety. These departments and their employees work together to accomplish a wide range of tasks.
Each Cabinet department has a head, called a secretary, who is appointed by the president and confirmed by the Senate. These executives oversee a huge network of offices and agencies that carry out the department’s mission-oriented functions. Each department also has an assistant secretary, a deputy secretary and a variety of other managers who work in different capacities to achieve the departments’ goals.
Independent agencies, which are not part of a cabinet department, have a similar hierarchy but with a more narrow focus. These agencies perform vital functions such as the Central Intelligence Agency, which collects information and intelligence to safeguard national security; the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, which develops technological innovation for the nation’s space exploration program; and the Environmental Protection Agency, which enforces laws aimed at protecting environmental sustainability. The people’s right to know the process of governmental decision-making and the documents and statistics leading to those determinations is fundamental to our society, which should not be obscured by shrouding these activities in secrecy. These agencies, however, are not immune from criticism and criticism, and some have a long history of mismanagement and abuse of power.