The Department of State: Mission and Vision Examined

Speaking Out


The drafting and publication of an official mission statement has become standard practice for all sorts of organizations, including governmental ones. What it is and how to prepare it are now taught in business schools.

One fairly standard definition of a mission statement (this one taken from Wikipedia) is that it is a statement of the purpose of a company, organization or person; its reason for existing; a written declaration of its core purpose and focus.

A mission statement is different from a vision statement. While there are various ways to approach this, I would suggest that a mission statement defines and describes the organization, while the vision statement is the “road map” that tells us what it wishes to accomplish at any given point.

Applied to the Department of State, this tracks with the traditional distinction between diplomacy and foreign policy.

Using some fairly standard dictionary definitions, we find that diplomacy is “the art and practice of conducting negotiations between nations” in order to implement foreign policy, which in turn consists of the subjects, items and objectives of a given country at a given time.

In other words, diplomacy is the instrument and foreign policy is the program. A mission statement describes the instrument, while a vision statement describes the program.

Confusion at State

The Department of State appears to be somewhat confused about this distinction. Here is its mission statement presented in the Fiscal Year 2015 Financial Report and shown on the department’s website: “The [State] 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. This mission is shared with USAID, ensuring we have a common path forward in partnership as we invest in the shared security and prosperity that will ultimately better prepare us for the challenges of tomorrow.”

A very brief overview of American foreign policy objectives, this would appear to be more a vision statement than a mission statement.

In other instances, the Department of State seems to have a better grip on the distinction. The following is displayed on State’s career page on the Web: “The U.S. Department of State is the lead institution for the conduct of American diplomacy, and the Secretary of State is the President’s principal foreign policy advisor.”

This is more like a mission statement or organizational description, although it is curiously inadequate. For instance, it does not state the obvious—that State is a U.S. government department—even though stating “obvious” fundamental facts is the point of a mission statement. Calling the Department of State an “institution” is a curious bit of terminology that falls short of describing its official character.

Further, this statement does not describe the department’s very special organizational model: a headquarters located in Washington, D.C., with some 300 fairly small “branches” or offices (embassies and consulates) spread around the world.

This is the key organizational characteristic of the State Department and reflects its fundamental role—that of continuous interaction with other governments through formal liaison offices and accredited personnel in each other’s country, or the conduct of diplomacy.

In essence, the Department of State is about dealing with foreign governments, foreign countries, foreign conditions and foreign citizens—Dean Acheson’s “vast external realm.”

The Core Professional Staff

These fundamental characteristics are crucial for organizational matters such as budgets, management processes and, most important, personnel. The U.S. Congress recognized this in creating the professional Foreign Service in 1924 and reinforced that view in later versions of the basic legislation.

The latest, the Foreign Service Act of 1980, clearly states: “The scope and complexity of the foreign affairs of the Nation have heightened the need for a professional foreign service that will serve the foreign affairs interests of the United States in an integrated fashion and that can provide a resource of qualified personnel for the President, the Secretary of State and the agencies concerned with foreign affairs.”

The Foreign Service was obviously intended by Congress to provide the professional cadre for the conduct of diplomacy, analogous to the role of the uniformed military for the exercise of the military arm. It follows that the primary objective of the State Department’s personnel system is to provide an adequate and dependable stream of professional experts to work in diplomacy.

State now has two personnel systems, operating on different principles, undermining the congressional (and national) decision to create and operate a distinct professional diplomatic team.

The special character of diplomacy led Congress to define the characteristics of the personnel system required for the Department of State. The Foreign Service is to be a professional meritocracy: a corps recruited by competitive examination, promoted by competitive merit and available for worldwide service to meet the needs of the nation.

This cadre is subject to very specific employment requirements starting with the entry examination process and including tenure, language proficiency, fair-share service, competitive annual evaluation, up or out and mandatory retirement at age 65.

These are the same principles applied to employment in other specialized agencies of the U.S. government, such as the military services, the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Central Intelligence Agency. The Foreign Service, in other words, was intended to be the core professional staff of the Department of State.

This role was clarified and emphasized by the Wriston reforms of the early 1950s that essentially eliminated the separation between foreign and home service by merging the international affairs professionals of the department’s Civil Service into the Foreign Service.

Losing Focus

Over the years, however, State’s personnel system has lost this focus as the department expanded and wandered away from its core mission. Other personnel systems have grown like Topsy. The extent of State’s divergence from legislative injunction is well described in the recent report, “American Diplomacy at Risk,” by the American Academy of Diplomacy.

This personnel shift was never promulgated as official policy by any president or Congress, but appears to have occurred through a gradual process of administrative creep. It has produced serious management problems with respect to the staffing of both the department and its overseas posts, by diminishing the resources and operational flexibility of the Foreign Service.

While this may not be as dangerous to the republic as using non-soldiers (i.e., civilians) to conduct war, it is not an ideal way to conduct the nation’s business.

The State Department has attempted to bridge over this growing gap by formulating the slogan “One Team, One Mission.” But that only fudges the issue. Which team? Congress decided in 1924 that the United States needed a professional diplomatic cadre, recruited and managed in accordance with the principles of meritocratic competition, group discipline and worldwide service at the discretion of the Department of State.

Congress reiterated that decision in the Foreign Service Acts of 1946 and 1980. In the early 1950s, Congress extended that personnel decision to the headquarters of the Department of State itself with the Wriston reforms, which pointed toward a single personnel system organized on Foreign Service lines and principles.

However, in the past several decades, State management has moved away from that system and expanded a General Schedule personnel system without formal congressional authority or mandate. State now has two personnel systems, operating on different principles, undermining the congressional (and national) decision to create and operate a distinct professional diplomatic team. (Actually there are now four such systems, if you count political appointees of various stripes, as well as contractors.)

In doing this, State appears to be returning to the pre-Wriston days when there was a gulf between headquarters and the field (the bane of all large and widespread organizations). This is the inevitable result of a bifurcation of personnel between those recruited, employed and professionally focused on the main characteristic of international diplomacy, on the one hand; and home-based personnel, recruited and employed on Civil Service standards who largely remain in domestic locations, divorced in practice from the essential “foreignness” of the department’s responsibilities, on the other.

A Clear Personnel Policy Required

What is required instead is a clear personnel policy, one that is in line with the injunction of the Foreign Service Act and with the mission statement of the Department of State. Given the existence of the FSA, new legislation will not be required; and because the reform will be budget neutral, a seventh floor–led internal reorganization should be sufficient.

The objective would be to staff the department and its field posts with a professional diplomatic service, recruited and promoted by competition, obligated to worldwide assignments for “the good of the Service” and focused on the international character of diplomacy.

The principles of the Wriston Act should be restated to produce a single personnel system for the department. A reasonable integration period for currently employed professional staff would be required, with the objective of rationalizing the department staff into a single personnel system in a reasonable time frame.

Specialized duties such as the legal office and, perhaps, departmental budgeting might require Civil Service incumbents, but they should be specifically identified and set aside as exceptions. What this system is called is irrelevant, but “foreign service” (diplomacy) is what it should be about.

No one would argue that military officers should be allowed to pursue a career exclusively in the Pentagon. Nor should the Department of State’s foreign affairs personnel be permitted to pursue diplomatic careers solely or largely in Washington.

This ongoing change in the quality and character of our diplomatic representation, and in the management of our foreign affairs, does not appear to be happening as the result of conscious national policy. But the trend should be of concern not just to Foreign Service members, but to our political leadership and the public in general.

Edward Marks spent 40 years in the U.S. Foreign Service, including an assignment as ambassador to Guinea-Bissau and Cape Verde. A senior mentor at various military institutions, Ambassador Marks serves as a member of the American Diplomacy board and as a Distinguished Senior Fellow at George Mason University. He was a retiree representative on the AFSA Governing Board from 2013 to 2015.