The collective voice of the business community, through the eight main business representative bodies, has set a refreshed agenda to grow the private sector in Northern Ireland.
Today marks the release of The Jobs Plan which aims to help create a more prosperous Northern Ireland linked to an aspiration for an additional 94,000 jobs by 2020.
The Jobs Plan puts together six strategic themes which are then sub-divided into 45 recommendations. The matrix of proposals is comprehensive, suitably selective and targeted. The big question now is whether ministers in the Executive are taking the business community’s ideas as seriously as they deserve.
Each Executive minister, each assembly committee and each permanent secretary now has a moral and rational responsibility to read and respond to what the business leaders say.
Two compelling features stand out. First, the 45 proposals are not a last-minute shopping list compiled on the basis of selfish self-interest. Hours of debate and selection lie behind the conclusions.
Second, on this occasion the business community deserves a considered answer from the public sector leaders.
Too often organisations submit proposals on government plans, such as the Executive Budget, and get little thanks or satisfaction when the submissions lie dormant in some filing cupboard. The polite acknowledgement, followed by no real response, is neither good enough nor appropriate.
The business leaders are stakeholders and partners in seeking a stronger private sector.
Before some senior person from government or the public sector gives a “warm welcome” (meaning we hear what you say but do not intend to do what you ask), it should be noted the 45 proposals bring together realism, shared responsibilities, and a recognition that in present circumstances a stronger economy cannot be bought with higher public sector spending.
Funds are constrained, reallocation may be necessary rather than greater spending, and many improved actions and policies are possible with minimal extra finance.
The 45 recommendations can be analysed to illustrate their possible impact. Whilst the classification is crude and capable of better refinement, an initial review suggests that:
The Jobs Plan is not an easy option. It is, however, a considered approach which, if implemented, would show that the economy was a priority and would test the skills of the Executive in working with co-operative collegiate responsibility.
The policy and process ideas would call for selective choices in several of the government departments and non-departmental bodies.
The Jobs Plan is summarised by the authors in five action-related areas. These are:
A. Decisive political leadership to create stability and confidence (which is an important reminder that a dysfunctional Executive is a handicap for the economy and in the perception of potential external investors;
B. A more competitive tax base to support an ambitious export-led economic recovery, while reducing barriers to growth and job creation;
C. A sustained investment strategy through the increased use of alternative sources of finance;
D. Ensuring skills provision is realigned to meet the future needs of the economy;
E. Reform and re-engineering of how public services are delivered to enhance productivity and outcomes.
These five action-related areas comes as no surprise. The surprise, if any, is that there has been, in the recent past, too little recognition of why these are critical.
Even a cursory examination would confirm that much of the agenda is less about funding than about decision-making priorities.
Underlining the commitment from the private sector, the business organisations point to the significant number of successful businesses that exist. They then add: “We are up for the challenge of playing our part in economic recovery and restoring much-needed confidence.”
To the Executive, is this an offer which can be ignored?