Nothing Personal: The Parable of the Advocate and the Advisor

by Jack L. B. Gohn 

           The Advocate and the Advisor were both good guys.  For years they had run in the same professional circles, and they got along well.  But the Advocate wanted the world to change.  The Advisor thought the world was pretty good as it was.

            The Advocate wrote newspaper columns and lobbied the people in power for the changes he supported.  The Advisor put in his years in a government agency and absorbed the values of that agency.  He learned that there were reasons things were the way they were, and that there were hazards in disturbing them. 

            One day a new Official came to run the agency, and rewarded the Advisor for his years of service by turning to the Advisor for advice about the agency’s policies.  The Advisor said the policies were just great, and that the Official should do nothing to change them.

            One night shortly after the Official came to power, he was the guest of honor at a dinner.  The Advocate attended the dinner, and, in the general discussion, criticized the agency’s existing policies.  The Official said he was being advised by the Advisor, and doubted the need for change.  “Oh,” said the Advocate, “the Advisor has been doing his job too long.  You shouldn’t be listening to him.”

            The Official went on listening to the Advisor anyway.  And word of the Advocate’s remark came to the ears of the Advisor.  The Advisor was furious.  He sat on his grudge for some years, but one day, when the Advisor and the Advocate were dealing with each other on other business, the Advisor’s wrath bubbled over.

            “You told my brand-new boss to fire me!” the Advisor exclaimed.  “No,” said the Advocate, “I told him not to listen to you.  I’m sorry your feelings were hurt.”  And of course a great deal more was said.

            As always happens in such confrontations, the parties also had plenty of leisure to consider the matter afterwards.  History does not record what the Advisor thought, but these were the ruminations of the Advocate …

           “He was part-way right,” the Advocate thought.  “I wasn’t telling the Official to fire the Advisor, but I was begging the Official to take the Advisor out of the policy-advising loop just after he had got into it.  I was trying to spike the Advisor’s career.”  And what kind of person does that – especially to someone he respects? the Advocate asked himself.

            Someone who cares about the policies in play, the answer came back.  The Advisor had quite decidedly made himself the foe of the policy changes the Advocate was quite sure were needed.  He had identified himself with a status quo that needed changing.

            Hence the Advocate, to do his job thoroughly, had to propose that the Official ignore the Advisor, even if that were bad for the Advisor’s career.  This was sad, but it was inherent in the Advisor’s job – and the Advocate’s.

            You can’t make an omelet without breaking eggs, the Advocate thought.  To be a serious policy advocate will at times require opposing the career goals of certain public officials.  Major changes usually fail unless partisans of the old ways are pulled away from the controls. 

            And government employees who make policy are expected to know this going in, whether it’s written down or not.  They are accountable for their views, and the currency in which they render account may well be their careers.  That is a major reason why political appointees and policy-making officials are more apt to serve at someone’s pleasure, without civil service protections.

            This is not necessarily personal, the Advocate reflected, just the rules of the game.  The well-known friendship of Orrin Hatch and Ted Kennedy was deep, but each of them would have cheered had the other one’s Senate seat changed parties.  Each lent aid and comfort to his friend’s political foes.  Their opposition was as real as their friendship – and each was legitimate.

            Having elevated himself into the world of policy-making, the Advocate’s friend the Advisor had thus opened himself up to calls for his ouster, calls delivered by people like the Advocate who bore him no personal ill-will.

            Of course there had been more to the conversation.  “Who appointed you to sit in judgment over people and policies?” the Advisor had asked the Advocate.  “Lawmakers haven’t passed the laws you propose, and courts have rejected your views of the laws that exist.  Maybe they’re right and you’re wrong?”

            The Advocate certainly had to acknowledge that possibility.  And the Advocate knew that that possibility carried with it a great responsibility.  Before you yell “Off with their heads!” about the ancien régime, you had better be as sure as possible that you are right about the reasons why.  You had better weigh carefully the merits of the status quo.  And if you speak ill of anyone, you had better do it on good evidence, for serious reasons and carefully, not for sport. 

            To help the Advocate examine his conscience in this wise, the Advisor, an heir to the best traditions of public service in his agency, extolled how honorable, public spirited, and under-appreciated he and his colleagues were.  Could the Advocate say the same about himself?  Or was the Advocate just ego-tripping?

            In the end, the Advocate concluded, after trying to think it through, no one can fully answer such a question for himself.  Humans are not well-equipped to be reliable in introspection.  But if, along with Martin Luther, you feel that you can do no other, then you have to proceed.

            And sometimes that does mean calling for public servants to step aside.  And because this is not some abstract exercise, but one in which the things you say might lead to people getting hurt, you cannot be shocked or hurt in your turn when you occasion hurt feelings and hard feelings. 

            It’s nothing personal.  And it’s all personal.

            The Advocate and the Advisor were both good guys.   But there were limits to how good they could be to each other.  One was, after all, an Advisor.  And the other was an Advocate.

Copyright (c) Jack L. B. Gohn

One Comment

  1. S Ehrenkreutz says:

    And on top of that if your basic value framework is pragmatic, why would you do anything that might throw a spanner in the works? Even if the works are not working that well, wouldn’t you want to do anything and everything to protect the well-oiled functioning of your career, until retirement at least?
    If one adopts the pragmatic position, issues of right and wrong as such are irrelevant. Still, there might be some problems if the working system is really corrupt or ineffectual.

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