More Than a Slogan

The right mission statement can move employees to take their task to heart.

In 1998, the Education Department's Federal Student Aid office, which oversees billions of dollars in loan and grant aid to American college students, got a new boss.

Greg Woods had been a private sector chief executive officer and one of Vice President Al Gore's aides on the reinventing government task force. His goal was to improve customer service, technology management and efficiency at the student aid office, which had been criticized for years on each of those fronts.

Morale was low. To energize employees, Woods decided to give the office a new mission statement, one that would help workers see that the daily grind of processing loan and grant applications mattered. He included the mission statement in his first speech to the agency: We help put America through school.

Around that time, he explained: "If the folks who work at [the student aid office] think their job is to make loans and grants, they take almost a mechanical approach to it, of moving paper from point A to point B. But if they're in touch with what it is they're really doing, they see they're helping people reach their dreams. Then they do a different job."

The mission statement was popular with employees, reminding them each day why they came to work. Since Congress passed the 1993 Government Performance and Results Act, and since mission statements had become something of a craze in the private sector, federal leaders spent a fair amount of time coming up with them in the 1990s. Many didn't last, because they were unclear, long or silly. But the purpose of a mission statement is to tell employees and outsiders why an organization exists. The student aid office mission statement did that, so it's not a surprise that it lasted until recently.

Woods died of pancreatic cancer in 2002. He is still remembered fondly by the employees at the student aid office, in part because of the motivational message he left behind.

Now the office has new leaders and a new mission statement: Start here, go further.

While the old statement described the mission of the employees at the student aid office, the new one describes what students can do when they use the office's services, sort of. (Do they start here, go further . . . into debt?)

The new statement is a slogan. It's a generic phrase. It de-emphasizes em-ployees' role in the organization, instead focusing on students. It's not necessarily bad to have a customer-focused slogan. Think Nike's Just do it.

But a mission statement is supposed to convey what an organization is about. It should also be unique, helping employees see why they are part of something special. Employees at the student aid office liked We put America through school, because it told them that they were part of something important, that their small part in the big machine of student aid mattered.

It was common in the late 1990s, when mission statements were all the rage, to quote the Cheshire Cat from Lewis Carroll's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland: "If you don't know where you're going, it doesn't matter which way you go." Mission statements tell the outside world what your organization does, but they also tell employees what they're supposed to do. Could the student aid office be sending an unintended message to its employees with its new mission statement?

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