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State’s business ombudsman puts philosophy into action for employers

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February 24, 2017

By Christine Collins

Talk for 30 minutes with Maryland Business Ombudsman Randall Nixon and you’ll hear at least four quotes from famous leaders and authors: Winston Churchill, Czar Nicolas I, Sun Tzu. But Nixon is not a man for talk without action.

The lawyer, farmer and business owner has been in his position for about a month. Already, he’s reshaping the office to focus on helping government work better for business owners, particularly owners of small businesses who can’t hire people to navigate bureaucracy for them.

“Bureaucrats and entrepreneurs speak different languages,” Nixon explained. “Entrepreneurs are wired differently, so when things don’t happen on their timetable, it can be frustrating. What the ombudsman is supposed to do is basically mediate between these two sometimes warring tribes.”

The ombudsman, Nixon said, serves as a resource for business fairness and responsiveness practices. It engages state agencies to facilitate the relationship between employers and government. There’s only been one person in the office before Nixon, so the slate is relatively clean, but Nixon wants to focus on getting at the root of an issue rather than fixing it after the fact.

His goal is to turn business owners’ challenges with government into data for agencies to see where they can consider operational or regulatory changes. He also wants to create liaisons in every agency to multiply resources and increase responsiveness. 

“If you’re a small business, you’re dealing with three different layers of government all the time: the county or city government, the state government and the federal government,” Nixon said. “Each of these says to you, ‘We only bother you once a month,’ or ‘twice a year,’ or ‘once a quarter.’ 

“And you say to them, ‘Look, I’m dealing with 12 to 15 of you all the time. Every minute I spend with you engaged in compliance is a minute that I don’t spend with customers or employees or vendors.’”

If the tribes are occasionally warring, it doesn’t mean Nixon inherently takes up arms. His background in law means he understands the government perspective, and tells business owners that skirting laws and regulations is not an option. 

But he also recalls telling Gov. Larry Hogan that, as the owner of Nixon’s Farm in Howard County, he didn’t have vendors on his speed dial. Instead, the spaces were filled with government officials. He noted the irony with a quote from Czar Nicolas I.

“He said, ‘I do not rule Russia. Ten thousand clerks do.’”

In the month since he assumed the business ombudsman role, Nixon said what he’s heard most is about procurement—particularly subcontractors who haven’t been paid, and business owners who can’t pay the subcontractors because of cash flow or change order holdups. He gets calls from entrepreneurs who say the government hasn’t kept a promise and is now causing them headaches. Permitting issues for construction businesses are another common theme. 

All of them factor into his vision to make government more responsive.

“I always say that making a payroll for any period of your life really changes you,” Nixon said. “You realize how hard-fought the process is of trying to create a vision that is of sufficient value that people want to come and pay you for it. Even the most mundane business that pays its taxes and pays its employees and makes widgets is an amazing thing.

“It’s a creation of someone’s mind, and that’s never to be discounted.”

But if his own words weren’t quite enough, he leaned on British statesman Winston Churchill for support.

“Winston Churchill said, ‘Some regard private enterprise as if it were a predatory tiger to be shot. Others look upon it as a cow they can milk. Not enough see it for what it really is: the strong horse that pulls the whole cart.’”

You can reach Nixon, and learn more about his office, at the office’s website.