Review of Invest NI calls for "profound change" within "damaged" economic agency

Invest NI's headquarters on Belfast's Bedford Street. Picture by Mal McCann.
Invest NI's headquarters on Belfast's Bedford Street. Picture by Mal McCann.

DYSFUNCTION and division at the leadership level of Invest Northern Ireland is harming its economic performance, an independent review has said.

Ex-BBC chairman Sir Michael Lyons spent the best part of year looking deep within the £160 million-a-year arm’s length body with the economist Maureen O’Reilly and veteran business figure Dame Rotha Johnston.

What they found was dysfunctional relationships and tension at the highest level of the organisation that has harmed its performance.

The panel’s 17 recommendations, published across 371 pages, calls for “urgent” and “profound change” within Invest NI.

While it said the agency remains best placed to take forward the north’s economic development activities, it said there is “considerable room” for reform and repurposing of its leadership, structure, operation, control and public accountability.

READ MORE: Invest NI: Failure by senior figures to act on 'serious' whistleblower case "extraordinary" - Sir Michael Lyons

ANALYSIS: 'Crisis? What crisis?'

Launched in January 2022, the panel was due to complete its review in September. But Sir Michael said the range and complexity of issues uncovered was much greater than anticipated.

The panel obtained a significant volume of evidence on “negative and damaging relationships” between the board, chief executive and other senior leaders.

Staff described “a battle” between the board and the executive leadership team (ELT) over decision making, as well as “fundamental disagreements” over policy amongst senior executives and “confusion and poor delegation” from senior managers.

The panel said it was “seriously concerned” about a lack of understanding among some very senior managers regarding the board’s responsibilities for oversight and strategic direction.

It also recounted evidence from numerous staff of what was perceived as “inappropriate” interference by the board in operational matters, particularly in the case of its chair, Rose Mary Stalker.

The report said the “profound divisions” at the top posed “a serious threat” to the future trust that can be placed in the organisation to deliver its strategic priorities.

Speaking to The Irish News, Sir Michael Lyons said: “The entanglement in the leadership of the organisation, the divisions within between the board and the executive leadership team, and quite how damaged leadership is, we couldn’t possibly have anticipated.”

As well as engaging with more than 300 stakeholders, the review panel also commissioned the Technopolis Group to conduct three pieces of external research.

The most significant finding from that research was that Invest NI is “currently having little, if any, bearing on the crucial issue of productivity” in the north.

The review also found “insufficient focus” on the development of sub regional economies around Northern Ireland, with regional offices under-utilised with staff and decision-making too centralised in Belfast.

It also identified issues with the agency's "client/company" model whereby enhanced support is offered, often on a repeating basis, to a small group of businesses that meet certain criteria.

The panel said this was the source of frustration among many other companies that found it difficult to secure the same level of support.

A statement issued on behalf of the Invest NI board and its chair said the board is committed to the transformative change needed for Invest NI.

“This change has already started. The review will help us move forward with renewed focus and accelerated pace to reshape Invest NI into the economic development agency it needs to be to deliver on DfE’s 10X Vision.”