Posted on Thursday 17 January 2013 by Ulster Business

Neil Gibson

The economist hopes to make a positive contribution to the way government formulates economic policy in his new role as director of the Northern Ireland Centre for Economic Policy at the University of Ulster.

Already one of the best-known commentators on the Northern Ireland economy, Neil Gibson is likely to become even more prominent in 2013.

From this month he will head up the Northern Ireland Centre for Economic Policy (NICEP) which will be based at the Ulster Business School and be tasked with regularly assessing the state of the economy as well as informing and critiquing the Executive's policies.

NICEP has been established with startup funding provided by a range of sources including DETI, First Trust Bank and Belfast Harbour, and will carry out policy-oriented economics research, while also contributing to the teaching of economics within the university.

It is a return to his alma mater for Gibson, who graduated from University of Ulster in 1999. After stints with PwC and the Northern Ireland Economic Research Centre, he founded consultancy Regional Forecasts in 2003. When it merged with Oxford Economics in 2007 Gibson became a director there.

He told Ulster Business that NICEP's primary function will be to help Northern Ireland by encouraging innovative economic policy.

"Northern Ireland needs new policies, it hasn't had any in a long time. Critiquing and challenging are part of the role, but NICEP's primary goal is to help Northern Ireland. It is a challenging economic time and we should be thinking carefully about what to do," said Gibson.

"It is about thinking of ways that we could do things differently, putting new ideas on the table for us to think about. If the Executive does make legislative changes, what should those changes be? What are the policy choices around skills, or the rates base, or austerity versus investment?" he added.

Despite receiving some funding from government the economist says NICEP will be independent and will have to "say things that might offend people".

"We want to contribute ideas, not just be reactive. It won't just be a case of 'what would you like us to look at, Minister?'. It will be us promoting areas that should be looked at," he said.

Gibson notes that he, and other economists, comment in the press on a host of economic issues, but have not had the chance to work with senior civil servants to be involved in the formulation of any solutions.

He hopes to put together a team of people who are "genuinely interested in economic change" and who can make the most of the centre's position within the university, with both private and public sector sponsors.

"The Centre is well positioned. It is not there just to be provocative and get you column inches, it's not commercial in a making money sense, and it's not within government to just be a rubber stamp to what's already been decided," he said.

"It's not just about focusing on what is bad, it is about what you would do instead. There's not enough of that."

A board will be appointed to ensure NICEP's research is relevant to the current economic climate, and Gibson also expects to engage more with the media in his role as its director.

"Sometimes the criticism is that the media doesn't cover things in enough depth. But as economists have to be willing to contribute the time and play a more active role than a few sound bites," he said.

"Economic policy is very distant from people at the moment, and it shouldn't be. The only way to improve that is to spend time with our business media and there will be willingness to do that."

However, Gibson says his first job will be to meet with each of the main political parties to get a sense of what's on their economic agenda. He'd like to get to a point where parties have a dialogue with NICEP when formulating policy or want research done, but at this stage believes it would be sensible to first take stock of what economic policy actually is in Northern Ireland.

"From that we'll determine where there are gaps. Where there are policy aims for things we would like to see in NI but there is no legislation or mechanism to make them happen. I'm going into it with a very open mind as to where there are gaps," he explained.

"Our work should be ending with something that is genuinely actionable as a policy. We need to be cognicent that we live in austere times and that is not likely to change any time soon. We know that if NI wants to do things itself it's going to have to find its own way of raising money to do them, or find ways of spending less. So there's no doubt that the Centre's economic policy angle will have to look at policies that can fund themselves."

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