How Do Government Agencies Work?

How Do Government Agencies Work?“Administrative Law” is the all-inclusive term for regulations controlling agencies’ operations. These regulations typically include standards, procedures and information for applications, permits, licenses, hearings, appeals and so forth tailored to an agency’s specific functions.

For example, the Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) is an agency with a specific function (among others) of controlling drivers’ licenses; therefore, the DMV has tailored Administrative Laws that you must follow to get a driver’s license. Meanwhile, the Department of Alcohol Beverage Control (ABC) is an agency with a specific function (among others) of controlling liquor licenses; therefore, the ABC has tailored Administrative Laws that you must follow to get a liquor license. Both agencies have Administrative Laws but those laws are tailored according to each agency’s functions. You will usually find the appropriate Administrative Laws by going directly to the agency: for example, the DMV regularly publishes its procedures for obtaining a driver’s license, just as the ABC regularly publishes its procedures for obtaining a liquor license.

As you know from your own life, agencies are found at city, county, state and federal levels, and their work cuts across many areas of life, including Motor Vehicles, Environmental Protection, Health and Human Services, etc. In California, for example, more than 200 state agencies operate via Administrative Laws. Cutting across numerous areas of life necessarily means that Administrative Law does not exist in a vacuum; rather, it interacts, overlaps, and sometimes apparently conflicts with other areas of law. Agencies tend to develop their own regulations, though the regulations must comply with the federal Administrative Procedure Act and/or with a state’s own oversight agency/laws. For example, California’s Administrative Law is overseen by the Office of Administrative Law, accessed here: This state office oversees Administrative Law for more than 200 state agencies and, in order to ensure regulations that are “clear, necessary, legally valid, and available to the public,” California’s Office of Administrative Law (OAL): educates and otherwise assists state regulatory agencies to comply with the state’s Administrative Procedure Act; reviews proposed regulations; accepts petitions about improperly adopted regulations; and publishes and distributes regulations in print and on the internet. Clicking the link provided in this paragraph will take you to the OAL’s home page and further links to the California Code and to each of the 200+ agencies’ web sites. Other states’, counties’ or cities’ Administrative Laws are normally accessed by going to their web sites and clicking through links to administrative codes and agencies.

As mentioned above, agencies usually control specific areas. That control includes Administrative Laws governing disagreements between you and the agency. These Administrative Laws help you but also limit you. For example, if the DMV rules against you about something, the DMV will also tell you exactly how to fight it; however, you must fight within the DMV system and according to DMV rules before resorting to any court. You are not free to simply jump out of the system and sue the DMV for an unfavorable ruling. If you try to sue an agency for one of its decisions, you will probably run up against this requirement that you “must first exhaust your administrative remedies” by appealing the agency’s decision within that agency’s system and according to its own rules and procedures. If you follow all the agency’s internal rules and procedures and it still rules against you, then you can sue. There are a few exceptions to the requirement of exhausting your administrative remedies but those exceptions are best explored and explained by a lawyer who specializes in Administrative Law. Referring to a lawyer reminds me of perhaps the worst aspects of fighting an agency decision: due to the “exhaustion of administrative remedies” requirement, you are fighting the agency on its own “turf” and if you are like most people, you are a “babe in the woods” when using agency Administrative Laws. Consequently, if an agency rules against you, you should retain a lawyer with expertise in Administrative Law. He/she can help you navigate through the appropriate Administrative Law.


DON’T be intimidated by the people or the process.

DO check out The federal Administrative Procedure Act.

DO check out California’s Office of Administrative Law and find further links to the California Code and to each of the 200+ agencies’ web site.

DO go to a specific agency for information about its Administrative Laws.

DO ensure that you exhaust your administrative remedies before suing an agency for an unfavorable ruling.

DO hire a lawyer specializing in Administrative Law for difficulties with city, county, state or federal agencies.

By Kathy Catanzarite

[Note from This article is to be used as an educational guide only and should not be interpreted as a legal consultation. Readers of this article are advised to seek an attorney if a legal consultation is needed. Laws may vary by state and are subject to change, thus the accuracy of this information cannot be guaranteed. Readers act on this information solely at their own risk. Neither, or any of its affiliates, shall have any liability stemming from this article.]