Northern Ireland’s economic development agency is having a limited impact on the province’s productivity and needs wholesale reform if it is to be fit for purpose.
Those are the findings of a withering review of Invest Northern Ireland which recommended “profound change” at the organisation which receives funding of £160 million a year from the Executive in order to grow the local economy. However, despite the critique, it recommended retaining Invest NI as a so-called “arms-length” body as it has “key strengths to be built on”.
Carried out at the behest of former economy minister Gordon Lyons last year, the report said there is “considerable room” for improvement in leadership, structure, operation, control and public accountability at the agency.
It also flagged a breakdown of some relationships between board members and senior leadership, and within both groups.
“From our earliest engagements, it became clear to the Panel that relationships at senior levels within Invest NI are damaged and are harming the performance of the organisation,” the report said.
It referred to concerns relating to trust, openness and respective responsibilities from board members and senior managers within the organisation, as well as with other stakeholders.
“We were also made aware of concerns within DfE, amongst the business community and partners and, perhaps most worrying of all, amongst Invest NI’s wider staff body, that these divisions and profound tensions are affecting the performance of the agency and their confidence in it.”
As a result, the independent panel who carried out the review and consisting of Sir Michael Lyons, Dame Rotha Johnston DBE and Maureen O’Reilly, made a number of other recommendations.
They include: stronger governance and oversight is required from DfE and better strategic and policy direction needs to be provided; strengthening public understanding of Invest NI work and how it uses public monies is crucial; and that the agency needs to be a better partner, particularly in the sub-regional context.
In reply, a statement from the Invest NI Chair Rose Mary Stalker and the board said “we recognise the need to be a more outgoing and better partner with the wider NI public and private sector to deliver sustainable and inclusive economic growth throughout Northern Ireland”.