Belfast Telegraph

Getting private sector growing

As Invest NI is set to launch its next corporate plan, chief executive Alastair Hamilton reviews the progress made and the challenges that remain from the 2009 Independent Review of Economic Policy

Just over a year ago, Enterprise Minister Arlene Foster provided an update on progress made since the Independent Review of Economic Policy (IREP) published its recommendations.

The IREP report, published in September 2009, clearly acknowledged that ultimate responsibility for private sector growth in Northern Ireland lay with businesses themselves, but also recognised Invest NI's crucial role in providing the most efficient and effective support possible.

Of the report's 58 recommendations, around half fell to Invest NI to deliver. These have influenced Transform, our strategic change programme, and to date we have delivered on around 20 of them.

One of the IREP's key recommendations was: "The concept of Invest NI 'clients' should be removed to allow Invest NI to work throughout the entire business base".

We have addressed this through a new customer segmentation model which has resulted in a tiered portfolio of support to accelerate innovation, research and development and export growth.

This model will go live later this year, but we are already providing market development and capability support to a much wider range of businesses through, a mix of seminars, workshops and diagnostic tools, and the single contact number introduced for the Boosting Business campaign.

Under this campaign we are proactively designing new initiatives to meet the needs of our existing customers and the wider business base.

For example, following the success of our focus on finance regional workshops that attracted over 500 attendees, a series of 'focus on selling' workshops will take place over the next two months.

A second major recommendation from IREP was that we should work to significantly reduce the number of support programmes we offer.

In response, we have simplified our product offering into 23 solution sets and we are implementing a proactive customer management approach through our new organisation design.

The IREP also noted that greater resource should be channelled towards research, development and innovation. Again, this is an area where we have made substantial progress.

As a result of skewing more funds towards innovation and research and development, we have helped grow R&D expenditure from 0.6% of GVA to 1.1%.

Northern Ireland now has record levels of business expenditure on R&D (BERD) and lies sixth of the 12 UK regions and just below the UK average.

We have also focused on encouraging many more small and medium sized enterprises to become 'innovation-active' through initiatives such as our highly successful Innovation Voucher scheme, and we're providing higher levels of support to make it easier for small companies to get involved in R&D.

We have also supported the development of industry-led innovation communities, such as the recently opened Northern Ireland Advanced Composites and Engineering centre.

We have gone beyond the initial recommendations of the IREP in relation to the use of co-investment, by putting in place a £100m fund of funds to ensure that early stage companies with high growth potential are not restrained because they cannot access finance.

This will provide a range of funding to support businesses from start-up level through to development capital.

We have taken on board IREP's recommendations on our land acquisition strategy, our work in the social economy and on the need to continue to drive up the quality of new inward investment.

Last year, over 80% of the jobs promoted will offer salaries above the private sector median, and the average salary from inward investment projects is up 32% since 2008/09.

The IREP also made a number of recommendations around our internal processes and the governance system under which we operate, noting that this was too complex and time consuming, impeding our responsiveness.

Internally, we have acted where we can.

We've examined our organisation structure to ensure that it is aligned to the needs of our customers, put in place a new executive leadership team, introduced a new vision and values set which embeds a customer service culture, and aligned our staff performance management system to it.

We have refined how we appraise potential projects and secured higher delegation limits, meaning that more projects can be authorised internally, without the need for recourse to the Department of Enterprise, Trade or Investment or Finance and Personnel. Seamless end-to-end processes that further enhance our customers' experience will be the end result.

To increase the transparency and relevance of our performance reporting, we are creating a more outcome-based reporting framework which will see our corporate and operating plan targets closely linked to the Programme for Government and Economic Strategy.

Whilst a small number of actions remain as work in progress, it is clear that, in little over two years, we have substantially transformed Invest NI into a much more proactive organisation, delivering professional customer-focused solutions that add greater value to a much wider business base.

Invest NI is sponsor of the categories of Excellence in Innovation and Outstanding Business Team of the Year at Belfast Telegraph Business Awards in association with British Midland International


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