Belfast Telegraph

Civil service 'lacks skill to drive business goals'

By Margaret Canning

A think tank on the economy set up by Enterprise Minister Arlene Foster has suggested government departments lack the attributes for a 'business-focused' agenda.

The Economic Advisory Group (EAG) cited Invest NI's failure to spend its full budget in its response to the Executive's draft Programme for Government and investment and economic strategies.

It also said public sector reform was an "obvious omission" from the draft PfG and suggested the Northern Ireland civil service lacks the skill to maximise the value of public assets.

However, group chairwoman Kate Barker, a non-executive member of the Office of Budget Responsibility and former member of the Bank of England's Monetary Policy Committee, welcomed the document's general focus on the economy.

Devolving corporation tax powers was "perhaps the most significant measure that could be deployed to improve the local economy" but was not a silver bullet, she added.

The group said: "EAG has concerns that Northern Ireland government departments may not have the authority and flexibility needed to pursue a business-focused agenda.

"The situation in which Invest NI had to return a substantive proportion of its budget because it was not drawn down [by clients] in the projected budget period is one example.

"As an agency working directly with the business community, it is impossible for them to operate effectively with a budgetary system that is not aligned with the changing environment its customers operate in. More flexibility on budget cycles is needed."

Last month it emerged that Invest NI would return around £21m that it had not been able to spend to the Department of Finance and Personnel (DFP) . That followed an underspend last year of £17.5m.

DFP was not available to comment last night on EAG's recommendations.

Like the CBI in its response, the EAG said access to finance should have been more closely addressed.

It said the skills to make the most of publicly-owned assets may not be available in the civil service and that "it may become necessary to bring in these skills".