Top 10 Obscure Government Agencies (And What They Do)

March 7, 2011
This year the Federal Government is expected to spend a staggering $3.82 trillion. That money is used to pay for many government services we take for granted such as education, homeland security, and defense. That money is also used to fund many government agencies most Americans have never even heard of, let alone know how to pronounce.

Photo: PNC/Brand X/Getty Images

10. Federal Citizen Information Center

The Federal Citizen Information Center (FCIC) is a department of the General Service Administration and is charged with providing answers about consumer problems and government services. This is the agency responsible for those fun PSAs touting the joys of finding government info on government websites. Oh, such joy!

The FCIC provides information on everything (some of it seemingly stupid and rudimentary) from how to file your taxes to great recipes for diabetics. The FCIC distributes this information in four different ways—by telephone, mail, printed material, and the Internet. It’s located in Pueblo, Colorado and receives so much mail that the United States Postal Service assigned it with its very own zip code. According to the FCIC the ZIP code, 81009, is “possibly” the second-most-well known ZIP code in the country behind Beverly Hills’ 90210.

9. Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB)

The Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau is such a mouthful that it’s more commonly referred to as the TTB, which itself sounds like some type of illness. The TTB is the newest bureau under the Department of Treasury. It was formally a part of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) before that agency was spilt into two different organizations by the Homeland Security Act of 2002.

The TTB’s mission is to “collect alcohol, tobacco, firearms, and ammunition excise taxes that are rightfully due; to protect the consumer of alcohol beverages through compliance programs that are based upon education and enforcement of the industry to ensure an effectively regulated marketplace; and to assist industry members to understand and comply with Federal tax, product, and marketing requirements associated with the commodities we regulate.”

So it’s all thanks to the TTB that we can drink a beer without getting poisoned. But that comes with a price. The TTB takes about 5 cents tax from every 12 oz. can of beer, 20 cent for a bottle of wine, $2 for a bottle of liquor, $1 for a pack of cigarettes, and 10 percent of the cost of a firearm.

8. US Merit Systems Protection Board (MSPB)

Created in 1883, the very wordy US Merit Systems Protection Board (MSPB) is an independent, quasi-judicial agency created to protect the rights of federal civil service employees. The MSPB is charged with adjudicating employee appeals of perceived wrongful terminations, suspensions, or demotions. They also work through employee complaints filed under the Whistleblower Protection Act.

To date the largest settlement disclosed by the Board was for $755,000 to former Securities and Exchange Commission lawyer Gary J. Aguirre for his wrongful termination in 2005. So if you work for the federal government and feel you’ve been treated unfairly, contact the MSPB.

7. Office of Thrift Supervision (OTS)

The Office of Thrift Supervision is a federal agency charged with regulating the Savings and Loan industry. It has a long and controversial history. The OTS, as we know it today, was born out of the savings and loan crisis of the ‘80s and ‘90s where 747 Savings and Loan associations failed. Back then it was called the Federal Home Loan Bank Board, however President George H. Bush changed its name and gave it a slap over the knuckles, saying, “Never again will America allow any insured institution operate without enough money.”

In its infancy the new OTS was considered a tough regulator. The problem for the OTS, and similar banking regulators, is it’s funded by the banks it regulates. Hold on, isn’t that like known criminals paying the police to, well, police? As revenues started to fall, the OTS started marketing itself as lax regulator. Fast forward to the Global Economic Crisis and again the OTS found itself in some hot water.

6. Pentagon Force Protection Agency (PFPA)

The PFPA is the chief body that protects the Pentagon and its immediate vicinity. The agency was created in the aftermath of September 11 and absorbed the former Defense Protective Service. The PFPA is made up of the United States Pentagon Police, civilian criminal investigators, anti-terrorism personnel and experts in chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear weapons. The agency is “charged with protecting and safeguarding the occupants, visitors, and infrastructure of the Pentagon, Navy Annex and other assigned Pentagon facilities.” Sounds like the perfect setting for a television show. Picture Rob Lowe running through the streets of Washington DC shouting, “Stop, P-F-P-A!”

5. Overseas Private Investment Company (OPIC)

The Overseas Private Investment Company is an independent agency of the United States Government that was created by President Nixon in 1971 to help foster U.S. private investment in emerging markets. OPIC’s three principal products are financing, political risk insurance, and support for private equity investment funds. It sounds suspiciously like an overseas version of Fannie Mae, though decidedly more profitable.

Since its inception the group has generated $74 billion in U.S. exports and helped create more than 274,000 U.S. jobs. The agency is self-sustaining and does not cost the US taxpayer one cent. Imagine that. Last year it actually contributed $352 million to the federal budget.

4. U.S. Board on Geographic Names (BNG)

Source: Jorg Greuel/The Image Bank/Getty Images

If you’ve ever wanted to suggest a name for a new street or unnamed mountain or are unsure whether you live on a street, boulevard, or way then you should contact the U.S. Board of Geographic Names. The BNG was created in 1890 and signed into law by President Benjamin Harris. It may be his greatest legacy.

The chief job of the BNG is to “maintain uniform geographic name usage throughout the Federal Government.” Sometimes if a local name is deemed “very offensive” the BNG will decide against adoption of the local name for federal use. With power like that, this is one agency you probably don’t want to mess with.

3. United States Institute of Peace

The United States Institute of Peace, or USIP for short, was created by the United States Congress and signed into law by President Ronald Regan in 1984. The non-partisan agency is a powerful symbol and it’s unfortunate that it has such a low profile. How many countries in the world can lay claim to having a government agency dedicated to peace?

USIP “provides the analysis, training and tools that help to prevent, manage and end violent international conflicts, promote stability and professionalize the field of peace building.” Currently the Institute is working with community leaders in Iraq to help rebuild war-torn neighborhoods, training Nigerian religious leaders to be peacemakers, and working with 75 nations to promote peace.

The Institute’s new home and first permanent headquarters will open in Washington, DC this September.

2. Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG)

The Broadcasting Board of Governors sounds like a fancy gentleman’s club where old-timers from television’s golden age (the black and white days) sit around swirling expensive scotch and talking about the good ol’ days. Sadly, the BBG is not that. Rather, it is a bipartisan, independent agency of the U.S. government charged with operating all non-military, international broadcasting sponsored by the U.S government. This might or might not consist of propaganda.

The BBG aims to serve as “an example of a free and professional press, reaching a worldwide audience with news, information, and relevant discussions.” Currently the BBG operates the Voice of America (VOA), Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL), Radio Free Asia (RFA), Radio and TV Martí, and the Middle East Broadcasting Networks (MBN)—Radio Sawa and Alhurra Television. Its content is distributed in 59 languages across radio, television, and the Internet and has an estimated weekly audience of over 165 million people.

1. National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency

No, this not an intergalactic version of the FBI, but rather a classified part of the Department of Defense. The NGA “develops imagery and map-based intelligence solutions for U. S. national defense, homeland security and safety of navigation.” That basically means they take a bunch of satellite images of the planet and study them for suspicious activity. This is probably why their slogan is “Know the Earth, Show the Way.” So, in a sense, the NGA is a really just a big and super secretive government version of Google Maps, but for the entire planet.