Opinion

Patrick Murphy: Dear Joe Kennedy... A few things to know before your visit next week

Patrick Murphy

Patrick Murphy

Patrick Murphy is an Irish News columnist and former director of Belfast Institute for Further and Higher Education.

Joe Kennedy III is US Special Envoy to Northern Ireland for Economic Affairs
Joe Kennedy III is US Special Envoy to Northern Ireland for Economic Affairs Joe Kennedy III is US Special Envoy to Northern Ireland for Economic Affairs

Dear Joe Kennedy,

As US Special Envoy to the north you will be coming to Belfast next week with a high-powered delegation of US business leaders to foster job creation here. You and they are very welcome.

However, it might be helpful for you to know that just a month after your much-heralded investment conference in Belfast, Invest NI decided to switch its priority away from job creation.

Their decision follows a damning report by Sir Michael Lyons which criticised the organisation’s leadership, structure, operation, control and public accountability. (There aren’t many more things to criticise in an organisation.)

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In the US it would be expected that the board would be stood down and replaced. Here, however, when the report savaged Invest NI, the Department of the Economy (DfE) gave the organisation something different to do.

So our main job creation agency is now set to focus on increasing productivity in the existing economy rather than attracting the type of business leaders you are bringing with you.

Welcome to the world of make-it-up-as-you-go-along economics.

A review found that dysfunction and division at leadership level of Invest Northern Ireland was harming its economic performance
A review found that dysfunction and division at leadership level of Invest Northern Ireland was harming its economic performance A review found that dysfunction and division at leadership level of Invest Northern Ireland was harming its economic performance

The Lyons Report also criticised DfE for having “unclear expectations”. They are a lot more unclear now since the Department and Invest NI have based their economic strategy on a DUP ministerial document known as 10X.

The document has not been approved by the Executive, even though Invest NI claimed that Sinn Féin supported it. The party not only denied this, it described the document as “replete with rhetoric but vague on important detail”, while failing to address the need to “transform Invest NI”.

A more scathing analysis might have described 10X as the sort of document which would be laughed out of any US boardroom. It is written in the jargon of an advertising agency: “A 10X Economy is a transformational mindset”, which sounds like an advert for a skin-care product which will make us all look younger.

If you think that is a bit harsh, the Lyons Report said: “Invest NI staff were unclear on what 10X entails and how Invest NI could take forward its delivery.” Despite that Invest NI tells us that 10X is now “set in stone” and is “the only show in town”. (Heaven help the town.)

The 10X strategy (I use the term loosely) identifies five areas “where change can make a difference”. (Can you have change which does not make a difference?) One of these is health where, we are told, we have a unique environment for cutting-edge research and development “underpinned by a uniquely integrated health and social care system”.

Would that be the same system with 700,000 patients on the NHS waiting lists? (If only we could get them to engage in a transformational mindset.)

Of course, there is nothing wrong with a government agency trying to improve economic productivity. It is a responsibility which might reasonably form a sub-set of Invest NI’s strategy, but the problem is that many of the factors preventing increased productivity lie in DfE.

One of these is ensuring an appropriately qualified workforce. Oddly, DfE is responsible for part of our education system. (Some 17 year-olds are under the Department for Education, but other 17-year-olds are the responsibility of the DfE. Don’t ask why.)

What the north needs is a carbon copy of the south’s higher education system. They have five technological universities which educate 100,000 students in a range of subjects from engineering to business studies. We need something similar, but I have seen senior civil servants here dismiss the idea over many years.

Without such a system, productivity will remain largely unchanged.

So, Mr Kennedy, when you come here, you might politely point out that direct foreign investors prefer to do business with a government agency which knows what it is doing. If those you meet are not sure how to do that, tell them to go to Dublin and look at what Dublin’s Industrial Development Authority (IDA) does.

That might lead them towards a transformational mindset.