A government agency is a permanent or semi-permanent organization in the machinery of government that is responsible for the oversight and administration of specific functions, such as an intelligence agency. There is a notable variety of types of agency. Although usage differs, a government agency is normally distinct both from a Department or Ministry, and other types of public body established by government. The functions of an agency are normally executive in character since different types of organisation (such as commissions) are normally used for advisory functions, but this distinction is often blurred in practice.
A government agency may be established by either a national government or a state government within a federal system. (The term is not normally used for an organization created by the powers of a local government body.) Agencies can be established by legislation or by executive powers. The autonomy, independence and accountability of government agencies also vary widely.
From the 1980s, as part of New Public Management, several countries including Australia and the United Kingdom developed the use of agencies to improve efficiency in public services.
The term agency in India has several meanings. For example, the Cabinet Secretariat describes itself as a "nodal agency for coordination amongst the ministries of the Govt.of India". Most notably as an international feature, what appear to be independent agencies (or apex agencies) include some that have active roles for Ministers: such as, the National Security Council, the Indian Council of Agricultural Research, and the Planning Commission, which is chaired ex-officio by the Prime Minister.
Agencies in England usually answer to Westminster or the British Government. In Scotland they usually answer to the Scottish Executive or the Scottish Parliament and in Wales to the National Assembly for Wales.
Some have remits that cover the entire UK and these organisations are funded by and answer to the British Government.
Most federal agencies are created by Congress through statutes called "enabling statutes", that define the scope of an agency's authority. Because the Constitution does not expressly mention federal agencies (as it does the three branches), some commentators have called agencies the "headless fourth branch" of the federal government. However, most independent agencies are technically part of the executive branch, with a few located in the legislative branch of government. By enacting the Administrative Procedure Act (APA) in 1946, Congress established some means to oversee government agency action. The APA established uniform administrative law procedures for a federal agency's promulgation of rules, and adjudication of claims. The APA also sets forth the process for judicial review of agency action.
A broader definition of the term also encompasses: