HUNDREDS of staff at Invest NI were diverted from their normal daily work in order to process tens of thousands of Spend Local applications, it can be revealed.
The Department for the Economy (DfE) initiative, which sought to put a £100 cash card in the pocket of 1.4 million adults in the north, hit a major bump at the mid-way point, when Economy Minister Gordon Lyons told the Assembly that the details of around 160,000 people could not be automatically verified.
That had significant repercussions for Invest NI, which was then tasked with reviewing documentary evidence for individuals.
At the height of the scheme, 299 Invest NI staff were re-deployed to pour over the Spend Local applications.
One disgruntled staff member told The Irish News that the north’s economic support agency was ‘essentially turned into a call centre’ for a period.
“It meant we were not taking care of the actual jobs we were employed to do,” said the source, who did not wish to be named.
“All other work was suspended in order for us to process the high street shopping vouchers.
“Some of the most highly paid public servants were actually involved in administrating this scheme, checking IDs etc. It was ludicrous.”
Figures obtained under the Freedom of Information Act show an average of 237 staff per day were diverted in the first five days, peaking at 299 and 288 in the first two days.
The numbers significantly dropped after the first fortnight, but several dozen staff were still involved into the third week.
The processing continued for 26 days in total.
Invest NI confirmed that the majority of the staff re-deployed to the scheme worked on processing applications for the full day. It included staff from customer facing, customer support and corporate service departments.
As well as reviewing individual documentary evidence of eligibility and either approving or rejecting the applications, Invest NI staff were also tasked with administering the review process for applicants who challenged their rejection.
SDLP MLA Matthew O’Toole, who sits on Stormont’s economy committee raised concerns over the impact on Invest NI's workload.
“Given the importance of Invest NI’s work and current deep concerns over is performance, it is worrying that such high numbers of staff seem to have been shunted over on an ad-hoc basis to work on the Spend Local card.
“All of it seems chaotic and last minute and in no way designed to actually maximise economic return – very much like the Spend Local scheme overall.”
Invest NI said an additional seven staff were also re-deployed on a full-time basis during the pandemic to Covid-19 emergency support schemes.
Invest NI’s involvement in processing coronavirus business support schemes resulted in 60 staff being re-deployed at its peak.
The staffing pressures came during an extremely difficult period for Invest NI, which saw the arms-length body lose chief executive Kevin Holland.
Invest NI’s board were also informed in December that uncertainty over the organisation’s future budget prompted DfE to advise the economic support agency to pause issuing letters of offer to businesses for a period, with potential implications for performance targets and engagement with potential investors.
The failure to replace EU funding streams in particular has led to significant budget gaps for Invest NI.
The organisation is also facing an independent review, which will be led by former BBC chairman Sir Michael Lyons.