Fresh approach needed for new challenges
Invest NI has come out of the recent six years of recession with an upbeat report on how it has defied the worst of the impact of a serious downturn.
The evidence of a sustained achievement lies in the figures for jobs promoted, increased levels of research and development (R&D) and innovation spending, and efforts to up-skill many employees.
Part of the recent success story comes from the unplanned gains from the accident of changes in the EU rules which apply to offering selective financial assistance to new investment projects.
The new rules had the effect of accelerating decision-making. During the last 12 months there was a large number of positive decisions which converted into aspirations to promote nearly 13,000 jobs in 2014-15 of which, unusually, over 7,400 were linked to larger projects.
And 2014-15 was also the last year for assistance under the then Jobs Fund, which had been a powerful extra stimulus in the previous two years.
Invest NI has now reported on the way in which its activities have changed in 2015-16. Inevitably, the current year would promote a smaller number of projects and job commitments. There is no diminution of the credit for exceptional results in 2014-15 in expecting that 2015-16 would offer lower results.
That success inevitably leads into a discussion of whether now is the time and opportunity for Invest NI to reconsider its operational objectives.
How can the local economy be enhanced using concepts and devices that are specific to the changing business world up to 2020?
Two underpinning statements seem merited. Firstly, there is continuing worth in attracting further investment in the bigger businesses that are already in Northern Ireland, whether as foreign direct investment (FDI) projects or as growing indigenous companies. The focus of efforts to incentivise these companies must become more tightly targeted and value-added related.
Secondly, for the years to 2020, the temptation to rely on the forthcoming reduction in corporation tax as a complete game changer should be downplayed. The tax change will give only a marginal set of extra incentives.
The new reality must now be converted into a new, reshaped corporate development plan for Invest NI which must be ready for implementation in 2016.
In the early weeks of 2016, Invest NI will be preparing for a new Programme for Government for the Executive and Assembly to implement after the May elections.
Invest NI shows that it is aware of these challenges. How can Northern Ireland gain from more subtle measures to encourage the local application of R&D, and innovation?
How can NI more carefully and usefully add to the investment in personal skills for modern projects?
How can local businesses be incentivised to seek more and larger export markets to further build the local industrial and services base?
These challenges are an indirect source of stimulus to generating employment and higher value added.
Jobs still matter, but better jobs will matter even more.