How the Secretary of State Works

What does the secretary of state do?

The U.S. Secretary of State advises the president on foreign affairs, and spends a lot of time traveling around the world to meet with world leaders. Besides being a diplomat him- or herself, the secretary of state also heads the U.S. Department of State. The department includes deputy secretaries and bureaus that help enforce the foreign policy set forth by the current president and secretary of state.

While the duties of the U.S. Secretary of State might seem far away, state secretaries of state handle duties that much are closer to home. Even at the state level, the title means helping to preserve the state. However, the title of the office, the means of appointment or election and the specific duties all vary from state to state.


The following are some of the duties assigned to different secretaries of state, secretaries of the commonwealth, lieutenant governors and others across the country serving in a secretary-of-state role:

  • Administering elections
  • Appointing boards and commissions
  • Regulating businesses in the state
  • Leading selected social programs
  • Enforcing the financial disclosures of political committees
  • Taking a state census

The officials serving in the role of secretary of state often deal with interstate communication, especially in their roles regulating businesses. The National Association of Secretaries of State (NASS) helps to foster this interstate diplomacy, giving officials opportunities to exchange information and encouraging cooperation between state governments. Founded in 1904, the NASS is the "nation's oldest, non-partisan professional organization for state officials" [source: NASS]. NASS members include those serving in the secretary of state role from 50 states and five U.S. territories.

According to its roster updated in March 2010, NASS reports the following statistics about its members:

  • 11 were appointed, 41 were elected (including the three Lieutenant Governors) and three were selected by state legislature
  • 24 are Republicans, 30 are Democrats, and one is from Puerto Rico's New Progressive Party
  • 37 are male and 18 are female

For more on local government and related topics, take a look at the links below.

Related HowStuffWorks Articles


  • Information Please Almanac. "Cabinet Members Under Washington." (March 30, 2010)
  • Merriam-Webster's Online Dictionary. "Secretariat." (March 25, 2010)
  • Merriam-Webster's Online Dictionary. "State." (March 25, 2010)
  • Mihalkanin, Edward S., Editor. "American Statesmen: Secretaries of State from John Jay to Colin Powell." Greenwood Press. 2004.
  • National Association of Secretaries of State (NASS). "2009 Membership Roster." March 16, 2010. (March 25, 2010)
  • Sainty, J.C. "Office-holders in Modern Britain II, Official of the Secretaries of State: 1660-1782." The Athlone Press, University of London. 1973.
  • "The Cabinet." (March 25, 2010)
  • "Presidents: George Washington." (March 25, 2010)