Friday 26 December 2014

Richard Curran: Checks and balances required to keep new Local Enterprise Offices working efficiently

Published 29/04/2014 | 11:11

Nobody could accuse enterprise minister Richard Bruton of not being active when it comes to announcements around employment initiatives. Indeed the minister has not only seen IDA Ireland support more jobs last year than for many years before, but he has done a lot to support SMEs too.

In just the last couple of weeks he announced that more than 90pc of the recommendations in the national jobs plan had been implemented. The OECD provided details of its review of the jobs plan and was broadly favourable but questioned some important aspects of it around youth and long-term unemployed.

Bruton has also announced that IDA Ireland is to build new industrial facilities to help bring jobs to Athlone and Waterford. He recently announced that the territory covered for EU-approved state aid had been expanded to include Kerry, Kells, Athy and Arklow, bringing coverage to 51.2pc of the population.

These are all helpful measures and ones that will hopefully yield some positive job results.

The latest announcement is around the formal launch of the Local Enterprise Offices (LEOs) around the country. These are replacing the old County Enterprise Boards (CEBs) and are aimed at providing a one-stop local shop for small business and those interested in setting up a business.

Again, the ‘under one roof’ element of this is appealing but some fundamental questions remain. The first one relates to measuring success. On a qualitative rather than quantitative test, I always felt the County Enterprise Boards did a very good job.

Minister for Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation Richard Bruton. Photo: Frank Mc Grath
Minister for Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation Richard Bruton. Photo: Frank Mc Grath

They seemed to work very hard and provide useful information and help to small business. Based on my own limited experience of talking to small business owners around the country and people who ran these boards, they appeared to be very active. However, it was always going to be difficult to quantify the success of the work they did.

But the same is true of these new LEOs, which unlike the CEBs, will not be stand-alone entities. The LEOs will be run out of local authorities and their success will be just as hard to track.

The fact they will be run out of local authorities raises another question. Could they be subject to outside interference or bias from local councillors? There was little point going to a local representative to see could they use their influence with a CEB to land you some assistance.

There was a certain independence about the CEBs which might be lacking under the new system.

The Government is saying that the new LEOs will have more funding, more staff and more services. However, that might be true now, but will it remain so into the future, if the local authority has to make some cutbacks?

In truth some CEBs were better than others. The same is true of local authorities and will also be true of LEOs. Who will be watching? It may fall to the local authorities themselves to monitor and improve the performance of the local LEO. Yet, they may be in need of a good performance assessment themselves.

Having the LEOs under the wing of local authorities might aim to bring greater transparency and accountability but could actually bring about less.

Checks and balances, independent performance assessment and consistency of funding levels are the best way to ensure the new system does actually serve the public better than the old one.

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