Reading Between the Lines on Agency Mission Statements

Some veterans groups have pushed VA to change its mission statement to reflect the existence of female veterans. Some veterans groups have pushed VA to change its mission statement to reflect the existence of female veterans. Bill Perry/

Earlier this week, an executive at the Housing and Urban Development Department reportedly sent a memo to senior political staff announcing a change in the 53-year-old agency’s mission statement—one of a half-dozen agencies or offices to change, or consider changes, to their stated core values since the start of the Trump administration.

The memo from HUD public affairs assistant secretary Amy Thompson was leaked to the Huffington Post, which reported that the words promising inclusive communities “free from discrimination” in housing were being removed in favor of language promoting self-sufficiency.

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The changes represented “an effort to align HUD’s mission with the secretary’s priorities and that of the administration,” Thompson said in the memo, which sought staff feedback. “An organization’s mission is never static,” Thompson wrote. “A mission statement describes an organization’s purpose, what it intends to do, and whom it intends to serve. Most importantly, an organization’s activities must be embodied in its mission.”

The new mission statement, according to Huffington Post, was: “HUD’s mission is to ensure Americans have access to fair, affordable housing and opportunities to achieve self-sufficiency, thereby strengthening our communities and nation.”

But on Wednesday, HUD Secretary Ben Carson sent a staffwide email, which was provided to Government Executive: “By now, many of you may have read media accounts indicating that we’ve changed HUD’s mission statement and that these changes signal some sort of retreat from our legal and rightful role in protecting Americans from housing discrimination,” he wrote. “It’s not enough that I merely assert these news reports are patently false; it’s necessary that I personally address them and reassure you, the HUD family, that nothing could be further from the truth.”

Carson then quoted the existing mission statement and added, “A bit wordy perhaps but I agree with every word. The department’s mission statement has changed from time to time to capture the dynamic nature of our work. It changed in 2003 and again in 2010. Now, in 2018, we are considering another change to our mission statement and are seeking comments and ideas from our senior staff. But the notion that any new mission statement would reflect a lack of commitment to fair housing is nonsense.”

Efforts to align mission statements with a new administration’s policies are clearly important to the Trump administration. Changes have been made to mission statements at the National Security Agency, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, the State Department and at the Environmental Protection Agency’s Office of Science and Technology. They have been considered or debated at the Veterans Affairs and Interior departments.

Such changes may be done to modernize or reflect an altered policy, observers note, and must remain within the statutory definition of the agency’ purpose as enacted by Congress. They’re usually made after consultation with the workforce and outside stakeholders. And if they’re controversial, they often generate media attention agency planners hadn’t bargained for.

“There can be real value in going through the exercise of generating and refreshing the mission statement,” said Max Stier, president and CEO of the nonprofit Partnership for Public Service. “But in the best of circumstances, it isn’t just dropped upon the workforce. Input is solicited to generate and develop the statement.”

“It can be a powerful exercise,” he said.

New Priorities

Perhaps the clearest indication of a policy redirection came at U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. On Feb. 22, USCIS Director L. Francis Cissna announced to staff a new mission statement that removes a reference to “a nation of immigrants.” It now reads:

“U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services administers the nation’s lawful immigration system, safeguarding its integrity and promise by efficiently and fairly adjudicating requests for immigration benefits while protecting Americans, securing the homeland, and honoring our values.”

As a Voice of America reporter noted in a dispatch on the change for overseas audiences, “The phrase “nation of immigrants” has a long history in American political speeches. Most recent presidents from both political parties, including Barack Obama and George W. Bush, have used the phrase to describe America.”

At the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, where acting director Mick Mulvaney is implementing major policy changes while doubling as Trump’s budget director, the statement was reworked in January. As noted by the liberal advocacy group ThinkProgress, Mulvaney added the words “regularly identifying and addressing outdated, unnecessary, or unduly burdensome regulations” to the original mission statement for the controversial bureau established in 2010. The old one read:

“The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau is a 21st century agency that helps consumer finance markets work by making rules more effective, by consistently and fairly enforcing those rules, and by empowering consumers to take more control over their economic lives.”

At the National Security Agency, as first reported by The Intercept, an 2016 website version of the agency’s mission was altered Jan. 12 to remove “honesty” as its top priority. A new version of the priorities and core values of the top-secret agency redefines “transparency” less as a duty to the public than as a means for being “truthful to each other.”

Agency spokesman Thomas Groves told The Intercept: “It’s nothing more than a website update, that’s all it is.”

At the Environmental Protection Agency, Administrator Scott Pruitt has dramatically reinterpreted the agency’s mission to stress the protection of jobs, though he hasn’t touched the main mission statement. Advocacy groups, however, have noted a wording change in the description of EPA’s Office of Science and Technology. Before Jan. 30, The New Republic reported, the website said the office’s clean water standards were described as “science based.” Now, the description omits the word science and says its staff develops “economically and technologically achievable standards to address water pollution from industry.”

At the Interior Department, political appointees named by Trump last year began planning changes to the mission statement, as shown in emails released under the Freedom of Information Act in a whistleblower’s legal case involving a senior executive who was forced to take a new job for reasons he suspected were political. Assistant director of programs for science and technology policy Indur Goklany proposed changes, along with similar fixes to the strategic plan and website, to “exclude climate change.”

A June 9 email from Goklany released under the Freedom of Information Act recommended replacing “preservation” with “conservation” in a draft mission statement,  to explicitly note that “we conserve and manage our resources to enhance America’s economic, environmental and social well-being (but not as an end in itself as implied by the existing statement).”

The Veterans Affairs Department has been wrestling with internal dissension over the longstanding question of whether to update the mission statement that quotes President Lincoln—“To care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow, and his orphan”—with one that reflects the existence of female veterans.

As the Washington Post reported last month, some employees—under pressure from some veterans groups, had posted a revised strategic plan to the agency’s website. It defined the mission as “To fulfill President Lincoln’s promise to care for those ‘who shall have borne the battle’ and for their families.”

But a VA spokesman told the Post that the change was not official, and the proposed new statement was removed.

At the State Department, according to reporting last August by Post foreign affairs columnist Josh Rogin, Secretary Rex Tillerson’s team had been mulling a changed mission statement that would no longer mention promoting democracy. “The department’s mission is to shape and sustain a peaceful, prosperous, just, and democratic world and foster conditions for stability and progress for the benefit of the American people and people everywhere,” said a version released in 2016 strategic plan.

In December, Tillerson announced a new mission statement for State: “The U.S. Department of State advances the interests of the American people, their safety and economic prosperity, by leading America’s foreign policy through diplomacy, advocacy, and assistance.”

Image via Bill Perry/

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