The office: once were mission statements

Whatever became of mission statements? Back in the 90s, every business bigger than a corner dairy had one. Government agencies followed suit.

generatorBy Noel O'Hare

The mission statement in fancy graphics was framed and proudly displayed in reception areas. They all contained similar words and phrases: high performance, quality, commitment, passion, value, empowerment. They were nothing if not synergetic, and they always put people/customers/clients first.

Employees, seeing these mission statements every day of their working lives, internalised the values, were energised by the vision and stayed focused on organisational goals. That was the theory, anyway.

Mission statements were deemed so critical to an organisation’s success that days and even months were spent agonising, refining, debating and wordsmithing the definitive statement.

We found it difficult to comprehend a world without mission statements. How, one wondered, did the great enterprises in past civilisations flourish without mission statements? Was the fall of the Roman Empire caused by the lack of a mission statement?

Two factors led to the decline of mission statements. The statements became so aspirational and vague, “corporate Hallmark cards” as one journalist put it, that they became an easy target for satirists.

Dilbert invented an “Automatic Mission Statement Generator” that could crank out statements that were indistinguishable from the real thing: “It is our job to continually foster world-class infrastructures as well as to create principle-centred sources to meet our customers’ needs”.

The other factor that led to mission statement atrophy was the mismatch people began to notice between an organisation’s words and its action. Enron, perhaps the most corrupt and unethical corporation in modern history, had as its mission statement: “Respect, integrity, communication, and excellence”.

Lombard Finance, which was convicted of misleading New Zealand investors and left them out of pocket to the tune of $125 million, aimed: “To provide investment with attractive returns, whilst maintaining high standards of integrity and excellence in everything we do.”

So what about public sector organisations? Remember Inland Revenue’s mission statement “It’s our job to be fair”. Now it’s the more prosaic “We collect most of the revenue that government needs to fund its programmes.”

Perhaps someone realised that if you administer a tax system in which a property speculator can make more untaxed money in one deal than a teacher can earn in a lifetime then “fair” is not quite the right word.

Many government agencies no longer aim to be aspirational: they simply state what they do. The Ministry for Culture and Heritage, for example, might be forgiven a little literary flourish; instead it states baldly: “We provide advice on arts, culture, heritage and broadcasting issues in consultation with government ministers.”

Oddly, it is the business ministries that aspire. The Ministry for Primary Industries’ vision is to “grow and protect New Zealand” while the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment’s purpose is “to Grow New Zealand for All”.

Both statements, unfortunately, irritate anyone with half an ear for language. You can grow kiwifruit; you cannot grow a country. Blame Bill Clinton who first used the phrase “grow the economy” in a speech in 1992.

Perhaps the biggest losers of mission statement mania are schools. The Education Act 1989 requires every school to complete a charter and a copy of the annual charter update to be sent to the Ministry of Education each year. The charter has to include not only a mission statement but a values statement, a vision statement as well as a strategic statement.

How many different ways can you say “fostering lifelong learning”, “raising achievement”, “positive learning community” and all the other platitudes that deaden rather than inspire?


This article is from the September 2013 issue of the PSA Journal. You can read back issues of the Journal by clicking here.