Belfast Telegraph

It's not all doom and gloom for Invest NI as it meets its targets

By John Simpson

Invest NI receives trenchant criticism from time to time. Consequently, when the Northern Ireland Audit Office (NIAO) authored a performance review, there was an unusual and possibly unexpected twist when the review proved generally complimentary.

Invest NI has been improving its accountability and performance. Most of the performance targets, set by themselves, have been either exceeded or sufficiently stretching to act as incentives for improvement.

If the performance review stopped only with compliments, that would be inadequate.

It is also a source of advice and encouragement.

The positive results, in the last three years 2008-11, show that Invest NI has:

Increased exports: target 600, result 727 companies as first-time exporters;

Increased exports: target 1,200, result 1,666 diversify to new markets;

Investment: target £1.26bn new investment, result £1.28bn;

Investment: target £345m in added salaries, result £476m;

New jobs: target 6,500 new jobs promoted, result 7,533;

New jobs: target 2,750 jobs with salaries >25% local median, result 3,360;

Business research and development: target £120m, result £327m;

Business research and development: target 300 companies first-time in R&D, result 341.

A performance review that judges an organisation against the targets that it sets for itself is vulnerable to the criticism that self-selected targets could be more demanding. However, the recent improvements in analysis, targeting and efficiency must be acknowledged.

For the next corporate plan, 2011-14, (not yet published) there needs to be a reconsideration of the job promotion and creation targets. The new targets will be read with interest as they reflect the possible impact of the current recession and the impact of the possible withdrawal of the province-wide generic selective financial assistance scheme (after restrictive pressure from the UK Department of Business and the EU guidelines).

More than ever, the attraction of extra investment, indigenous or foreign owned, will depend on efforts to improve the competitiveness of businesses operating here.

NIAO has drawn attention to the need for alternative strategies to substitute for the reduction in permitted selective financial assistance (and its possible elimination altogether for large companies).

The performance review reveals that Invest NI is exploring alternative aid schemes including employment and/or investment aid for small and medium sized enterprises (only), aid for newly created small enterprises, aid for female entrepreneurship and environmental investment aid.

Key aspects of selected Invest NI programmes identified by NIAO as meriting continued and extra effort include the encouragement for businesses to increase their exports and also to encourage the application of research and development in more businesses.

Two other important issues are identified. First, in a previously unremarked operational policy, Invest NI informed the review that Invest NI 'was not established as a job creation agency, and that, in keeping with national policy, its corporate plans have instead focused on increasing wealth.'

That will surprise many readers, although the logic is understandable.

Second, the review draws attention to the recent change which means that, in future, the parent department, DETI, will assume lead responsibility for reporting on Invest NI's performance.

Since DETI has a vested interest in the success or otherwise of the outcome, would an alternative external agency be better? Would the NIAO be acceptable, provided it toughened up its criteria?

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