Thursday, October 19, 2006

Some Footnotes to "Extinction of Administrative Agencies"

Many thanks to those who have sent e-mail and blog comments on my recent post on the "extiction" rate of administrative agencies. Some readers pointed out that the chart accompanying the post does not include agencies that one might have expected to appear. Some explanation of the "methodology" is in order:

To have constructed a complete account of all federal agencies, boards, commissions, and so on since 1950 would have been a daunting task, so we decided to take one segment of the system as an example of the "sandpiles" effect of stable disequilibrium. For that purpose we decided to use the U.S. Government Manual's classification of independent agencies, as it has been consistently applied since 1950 and eliminated the need for us to make judgment calls. It is true, however, that this approach has its limitations:

  • Some agencies that are independent in the structural sense of the word do not appear on the list because they are organized within a Department, which means the Manual will not classify them under independent agencies. One particularly odd example that Kevin Washburn brought to my attention is the National Indian Gaming Commission, which in fact is an independent agency, but is organized within the Department of the Interior. It shows up absolutely nowhere in the 2000 edition of the Manual, however, and is not listed as an independent agency on the FirstGov site. Go figure. I expect there are a handful or more of such agencies, and that a more refined list of independent agencies--one involving some judgment calls based on structural criteria--could be assembled to take them into account.
  • My chart also does not account for the instances in which an independent agency is either moved to a Department agency and stripped of independent status, or is split into subparts with some moving into a Department and others reassembling as an independent agency (e.g., Atomic Energy). The reverse could happen too. USIA even went in both directions. I have also learned that some agencies on my chart have been reclassified in the Manual as "small boards," but have not investigated if that is merely a Manual reclassification or reflects some structural change to the entity. My chart thus tracks the "birth" and "extinction" of the discrete independent agencies listed in the Manual as such, and does not purport to track the origins or survival of any of their parts. Again, that would be interesting to do as well, and would probably reveal an even deeper and richer level of complex system behavior than my chart suggests.
A more complete acount of the "extinction" of administrative agencies would cover these and other details of the overall federal agency system, providing a picture of several sub-systems with flow between them and with stable disequilibrium exhibited and several scales. In other words, it would be more complex than what my study reveals about the narrow classification I used, but I expect it would exhibit the same general properties.

The interesting questions, to me at least, are questions like: Why is it that we have bounce daround between 45-60 independent agencies for 50 years--why not 5-10, or 40-400? What accounts for whatever the flow rate is between the sub-systems of Department, independent, and other classifications? What "bumps" the system at any scale into new behavioral properties, such as the shift in independent agencies (counted as we did) from mid-40s to mid-50s discussed in my original post. Etc.


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