What’s in a Name?

Published: September 26, 2019


Agencies within the federal government have historically progressed through a rich pastime of updating and changing their names. Many of the most recognizable offices have navigated their way from a name or acronym once suitable during a specific decade, to a newer, fresher take on their agency’s mission and purpose. Here, we’ll examine both the historical journey and reasoning behind several name alterations, as well as peek into this year’s recent name changes and what may very well be to come for offices in the future.

A Look Back

Departments and agencies have been updating and altering monikers for almost as long as their existence in the U.S. government. The first cabinet level department name change may likely be attributed to the Department of Foreign Affairs, which was updated to the Department of State through legislation only two months after this first department of the U.S. government was created. Typically, an agency is created, renamed, reorganized, or even removed through an act of Congress. However, on rare occasion, the presidential reorganization authority can be utilized to complete the same tasks with limited legislative oversight.

The Why Behind A Change

Many different factors may provide cause for the government to change an agency’s name. Three of the most prevalent include:

  1. The changing of duties or incorporating new capabilities
  2. An effort to keep language and meaning current
  3. As an avenue for altering public perception after government mishaps

The most common reason for an agency to experience a name change is its alteration of duties and capabilities. Technology and government needs are seemingly always evolving, catalyzing the need for agencies to adapt their capabilities quickly. These changes can be drastic and bring new priorities to light. In recent years, one of the drastic changes in capabilities that agencies incorporated was the emergence of digital media and the internet. Several agencies experienced name changes to include new modernization efforts, sometimes being able to keep their acronym by simply changing a single word. For example, the Government Publishing Office. However, an agency name may have to be altered in its entirety to include a number of growing capabilities. As of late, a prime example of this is the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), announcing its new name in August 2018, to the U.S. Agency for Global Media. According to a statement regarding the name change by CEO and Director John Lansing, the agency is a “…modern media organization, operating far beyond the traditional broadcast mediums of television and radio, to include digital and mobile platforms. The term ‘broadcasting’ does not accurately describe what we do.” He also noted, “The new name reflects our modernization and forward momentum.”

The government may also update a department or agency name in effort to remain relevant during current public or world events. This process begins when an agency name incorporates a task that is no longer needed in the public or a term that has become passé. A notable example of this is the renaming of the then 149-year-old Department of War to what it is known today as the Department of Defense. This took place after the conclusion of World War II to phase out the word “War” of the department’s name. The term “War” appeared to insinuate a more aggressive stance, while “Defense” connoted force only when needed. This, along with the inclusion of the Department of Navy moving under the DoD umbrella of agencies, also raised questions as to how different branches of the military could be referred to under one main department. It was settled that the Department of Defense was inclusive enough and has been the name ever since to conform to the ideals of the nation recovering from WWII.

A more nefarious justification for an agency’s name alteration is to reduce its attention from the public eye. From time to time, an agency may glean negative press or garner scrutiny from different mediums for a variety of reasons. Government officials have used the renaming process to discreetly “hide” an agency until such scrutiny can be relieved. One of the most recent examples of this process taking place was the renaming of Minerals Management Service. This agency was in the public eye after the Deepwater Horizon disaster in the gulf coast, and after a review of the agency, deeper troubles revealed it had been unable to achieve its goals due to individuals charged with violating regulations, receiving gifts from large oil companies. A name change of the agency to the “Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement” was made, and the further separation of duties created the “Bureau of Ocean Energy Management and the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement.” Following a reorganization of individuals, the US government now maintains two new agencies formed to help ease the public’s perception.

With an understanding of the varying reasons behind a changing agency name, we also see the evidence of updated language and technology behind the Department of Defense’s office name alterations within just this last year.

2019 Notable Names

In June 2019, the Chief of Naval Operations, Adm. John Richardson, announced the Department of the Navy’s Space and Naval Warfare Systems Command’s (SPAWAR) new agency name and acronym as the Naval Information Warfare Centers Atlantic and Naval Information Warfare Center (NAVWAR). According to the Department of the Navy’s press release:

“The intent of the name change is to recognize the power that information warfare brings to the fight. The change aligns the command name with the command mission to identify, develop, deliver and sustain information warfare capabilities and services that enable naval, joint, coalition and other national missions.”

Here, we see another example of keeping both the language and meaning of an agency’s purpose current, so as to align with updated capabilities and priorities.

The same concept is readily apparent in the Defense Security Service’s transition of name to the Defense Counterintelligence and Security Agency last April. The DSCA is charged with overseeing the National Background Investigation Service, which itself has developed and evolved overtime from its initial inception as part of the former DSS. According to its mission statement, DSCA “strengthens national security at home and abroad through security oversight and education operations. DSCA oversees the protection of U.S. and foreign classified information and technologies in the hands of cleared industry under the National Industrial Security Program by providing professional risk management services.” This expansion of oversight areas and capabilities shows both the importance of keeping up with and surpassing threat intelligence, as well as incorporating new capabilities into future ventures.

Be it through the advancement of technology, warfighting, language, or perception, it’s clear agency monikers have been, and will continue to be, inherently important to both the mission for, and connection to, the American public. What seems on the surface level to be so simple as to alter a name, nevertheless shows what great significance it may elicit in bringing renewed purpose to our government agencies.