By Conor Lambe, Chief Economist at Danske Bank

When the last Executive published its draft Programme for Government, one of the stated aims was to improve Northern Ireland’s international reputation. Perceptions can play a direct or an indirect role in decision making, and as the Executive’s document rightly points out, how people view Northern Ireland could affect how willing they are to live, study, do business and invest in this country. All of these things can impact upon economic performance.

Among the business community, companies have long focused on their reputation and how they can enhance it. But countries are doing the same thing. Recent examples include the ‘Make in India’ initiative, or closer to home, the UK Government’s hope to build a ‘Global Britain’ after Brexit.

Accurately measuring reputation is not a straightforward task, with most assessments based on surveys of people’s opinions. This is the method employed in compiling the Anholt – GfK Roper Nation Brands Index, which has included Northern Ireland for the last two years.

Before discussing the findings, I think it is useful to briefly set out what the index is and what it measures. The index scores and ranks 50 nations according to their image and reputation. It is based on a survey of over 20,000 people in 20 different countries and respondents are asked questions relating to six areas – governance, exports, tourism, investment & immigration, culture & heritage and people. A result is then given for a country’s overall reputation and for each of these six areas. The result includes a score out of 100 and a rank out of 50.

The latest release of the Nation Brands Index covers 2017. Germany is ranked top, France is in second place and the UK rounds up the top three. The US, which had been top of the pile in 2016, fell to 6th place last year.

Northern Ireland has been close to the middle of the pack in each of the last two years. Its overall score increased in 2017 compared to the previous year, but despite that, it did drop one place in the rankings – from 21st down to 22nd. But the increase in score does signify that Northern Ireland’s international reputation improved last year and its overall score is closer to the best performing nations than the poorer performing countries. For a small country like ours, I think this is an encouraging performance.

It may come as a surprise given that Northern Ireland has been without a devolved government for over a year, but the area on which we were ranked highest (in 20th position) was governance. This can partly be explained by the fact that there are a number of emerging economies included in the study, and broadly speaking, they tend to score lower than advanced economies on governance measures. However, looking forward, a functioning government will be essential if we want to make further improvements on this indicator.

Northern Ireland ranked relatively well on immigration and investment. A high quality of life was highlighted in the data, but we fell down a bit on willingness to invest in local businesses. This may be a consequence of Brexit and the uncertainty that exists around future market access and the lack of an agreement on avoiding a hard border.

People was another category in which we ranked in the top half, with survey respondents believing local people to be welcoming and expressing a willingness to employ well qualified-individuals from Northern Ireland. However, I would argue that perhaps the more relevant question related to employability relates to actually finding the people with the right qualifications. A shortage of skills and difficulty finding the right people for jobs is one theme I have heard time and time again during my interactions with businesses across all sectors in the last twelve months. So while it’s good to hear that people around the globe would be happy to employ an individual from Northern Ireland, finding that person may not prove an easy task.

On exports, we dropped into the second half of the rankings (26th). We didn’t score particularly highly on our reputation as a country that makes a major contribution to innovation in science and technology. However, an example of progress in this regard is that Belfast is now becoming known as a hub for cyber security, so I’m optimistic that we can bring our scores up in future.

Despite being the area on which we received the highest score out of 100, we only ranked 28th for tourism. We scored highly for being a country rich in natural beauty. But we didn’t rank as well on our historic buildings and vibrant city life. While local people may respond to the former by pointing to buildings such as Carrickfergus Castle or the Guildhall, unfortunately they are rarely listed alongside global icons such as the Tower of London, the Colosseum or the Taj Mahal so we might just need to accept our score on that one. However, with Titanic Belfast recently named the world’s leading tourist attraction, Belfast and the Causeway Coast selected by Lonely Planet as the number one region in the world to visit in 2018 and new hotels opening their doors throughout Belfast, I’d like to think our vibrant city score could rise in the coming years.

Culture was the area in which we received our lowest rank – 30th position, with a particularly low score for excelling at sport. That is probably a topic for a separate article!

On balance, Northern Ireland’s position within the Nation Brands Index is a pretty good one. Our score increased between 2016 and 2017, there are areas in which we perform strongly, and some in which ongoing developments will hopefully see our score rise in the not too distant future. Of course, there are dimensions in which work will be needed to improve our performance.

Improving our international reputation will not solve all the challenges facing the Northern Ireland economy, far from it. But it would have a positive impact. The question is – can we break into the top 20 countries on the index anytime soon? Let’s hope so.

This article was published in the News Letter on 10th April 2018