A brutal put-down of Invest NI

Sir Michael Lyons’ review of Invest NI is both brutal and excellent. This is an organisation, his report suggests, that has weak strategic leadership, poor internal and external relationships and fails to achieve the necessary influence on partner organisations.

“Profound changes are needed in the organisation that requires reform and repurposing….. there is considerable room for improvement in leadership, structure, operation, control and public accountability”, observes the report. Reviews of public bodies don’t get much more damning than that.

A picture emerges of an organisation that is bureaucratic, where it should be dynamic and agile. It has failed to promptly recognise a changing business environment – for example, the implications of the move to net zero – and then respond by adjusting its priorities and programmes.

Significantly, the review criticises Invest NI for being too narrowly concerned with job creation, without focusing sufficiently on the need to address NI’s serious shortfall in productivity. This requires greater attention, says the report, on those clusters that will generate that high productivity performance.

The review recognises that Invest NI is often criticised as too focused on Belfast, concluding that it needs to strengthen its operations in other parts of the North, while building more effective partnerships with councils and other local bodies.

Invest NI needs to be more influential, too, with government departments and agencies – for example, in seeking to align departments’ investment with achieving agreed economic objectives. A factor in Invest NI’s limited influence on government is its poor data management, using an inadequate IT system.

One of the most welcome proposals in the report is for a review of skills programmes. Skills shortages, after all, sit at the heart of NI’s economic performance and productivity weaknesses. There is a lack of cohesion and some overlap in skills training provision between various bodies, notes Sir Michael.

The report represents a searing indictment of the organisational leadership, consideration of which must be central to the recruitment process to fill the currently vacant permanent chief executive role. I would be surprised if the current board continue.

Nor is the Department for the Economy spared. Its 10X economic strategy was not subject to public consultation and Invest NI appears to have had limited influence over its composition. The 10X plan itself has lacked policy, delivery and implementation plans, observed the review.

Former economy minister Gordon Lyons deserves credit for initiating the review, despite the likelihood of embarrassing findings. And he selected probably the perfect chairman – Sir Michael Lyons (no relation) has operated at senior government and policy levels in Britain for many years.

The test now is the implementation of the pages of recommendations. Not that the report is wholly negative of Invest NI – it does conclude that NI requires an arms length economic development agency and that Invest NI should continue in operation.

However, if the report is implemented then what emerges under the name of Invest NI will look very different to that agency as it is today. Fundamental change is essential.

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