'Urgent action needed to repair damaged relations' at Invest Northern Ireland

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Profound change and reform are required within Stormont's business support agency Invest Northern Ireland, an independent review has found.

The external assessment of the agency's performance said research suggested it was having "little, if any" impact in increasing productivity in Northern Ireland.

The review panel also raised serious concerns about "damaged" relationships at the senior leadership level of the organisation, particular in the dynamic between the board and executives.

It said these issues must be addressed "urgently" as they are "harming the performance of the organisation".

The panel said there was "widespread concern" that the board, and in particular chairwoman Rose Mary Stalker, had "at times, become too operational", although the review team also noted a "lack of understanding among some very senior managers" who wrongly believed the board only had an advisory function.

The review team, which engaged with more 300 stakeholders in examining the performance of Invest NI, concluded that the agency was still best placed to undertake Stormont's economic development activities, but only if significant changes were made to how it works.

Panel chairman Sir Michael Lyons said: "We were encouraged to be challenging, and we haven't flinched from reflecting back what we found."

The agency receives around £160 million each year to fund its work supporting local businesses and attracting foreign direct investment.

The panel highlighted the need for improvements in leadership, structure, operation, control and public accountability.

Sir Michael, former chairman of the BBC Trust, said Stormont's Department for the Economy also needed to provide stronger governance and oversight of the agency and give it better strategic and policy direction.

The panel raised concerns about the effectiveness of Invest NI at a sub-regional level across Northern Ireland and questioned whether decision-making was too centralised in Belfast.

It also identified issues with the agency's "client/company" model whereby enhanced support is offered, often on a repeating basis, to a small group of businesses that meet certain criteria.

The panel said this was the source of frustration among many other companies that found it difficult to secure the same level of support.

The review was commissioned last January by former economy minister Gordon Lyons.

At the time, he said the move was required to ensure the operations of Invest NI aligned with his department's economic strategy, 10X.

A commitment for Stormont departments to review the effectiveness of all their arm's-length bodies was included in the New Decade, New Approach agreement that led to the restoration of powersharing in 2020.

Stormont is currently without a ministerial executive amid a political stand-off over Brexit's Northern Ireland Protocol.

Sir Michael said the lack of an executive should not prevent reforms of Invest NI being implemented, though he acknowledged it would make it more "complicated".

"The publication of our report comes at a time when Northern Ireland, like other parts of the UK, is facing huge economic challenges," he said.

"Having a robust economic development agency that can open up new opportunities, boost trade, foster growth in key sectors, attract inward investment and support the emergence and growth of indigenous businesses is crucial if Northern Ireland's frail economy is to be transformed for the better.

"Following the review process we have identified recommendations across 17 broad areas, and whilst our report found Invest NI to be the best-placed organisation to take this work forward, there remains a need for profound change and reform within the agency in terms of how it is run, the way in which it operates, and how it is perceived across its wide programme of work.

"If there was one issue that we're trying to pull out here and to shine a light on, it is the fact if there is going to be public investment in the economy, you absolutely have to be confident that it's bringing about changes that wouldn't otherwise have taken place. And that's a weakness at the moment.

"The indicators that the agency works to are its own indicators, it's to some extent marking its own test papers, and the Department for the Economy has to lay down some very clear KPIs (key performance indicators) for the future."

In a statement, the chair and board of Invest NI said changes were already taking place within the agency.

"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," they said.

"The board is committed to the transformative change needed for Invest NI to become a more efficient, agile and outcomes-focused organisation delivering an even greater impact throughout the economy. This change has already started.

"The review will help us move forward with renewed focus and accelerated pace to reshape Invest NI into the economic development agency it needs to be to deliver on the Department for the Economy's 10X Vision.

"Driving transformational change, new emerging policy direction and ambiguity on roles and responsibilities has led to challenges on priorities, and divisions among leadership.

"We accept this working and with DfE will urgently reshape and refocus leadership so that we can drive forward the necessary change with clarity and unity, and rebuilt confidence."

The statement said the agency had "delivered strongly" over the past 20 years.

"Many individuals and families are much better off and we have supported the emergence of new sectors where NI either has, or has the potential to have, world-leading capability," it added.

The statement concluded: "We are determined to transform this organisation, building on its strengths and working in partnership with the department and our stakeholders to build an ecosystem that delivers a growing economy that works for all."

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