Responding to COVID-19: insight, support and guidance

Joanna Killian, Chief Executive, Surrey County Council

Joanna Killian was appointed Chief Executive of Surrey County Council in March 2018, where her initial priority was to address the authority’s precarious financial position. Joanna led a successful recovery strategy that has subsequently strengthened control of the council’s finances and put them in a significantly healthier, more resilient position. At the same time, she has overseen a wave of service improvements and efficiencies across the authority.

Prior to joining Surrey County Council, Joanna spent three years as a partner at KPMG in the local government services team, working with both the public and private sector and gaining experience of public service delivery across Europe and in the US.

Joanna’s career has been spent predominantly in the public sector. Starting in a local authority housing department – and having been involved in housing, regeneration and economic redevelopment roles – she then moved to the Audit Commission, where she helped to set up the housing inspectorate and deliver the first round of audit assessments for local government in 2002.

Joanna was appointed as Director of Finance and Performance at Essex County Council in 2005, soon becoming Chief Executive Officer, a role she performed for nine years before joining KPMG. Joanna also served as Chairman of the Society of Local Authority Chief Executives (SOLACE) from 2011–2015.

What led you to become a CIPFA member?

I was made an honorary member of CIPFA in 2019, although I’ve been involved with CIPFA on and off for many years. It was while I was at the Audit Commission that I first began working with CIPFA, and then in my SOLACE role, to build the performance framework that would allow us to evaluate the performance of councils. That was my first strategic engagement.

I always really longed to gain CIPFA qualification, but I never quite got around to doing it. But I think the reason I was nominated as an honorary member was the attention I’ve always paid as Chief Executive to very strong financial management – and the need to link good financial management with good outcomes. I’ve always been vocal on the importance of long-term planning, ensuring security of our taxpayers’ money, but also being creative to ensure that money would go further. And I’ve always recognised the role CIPFA has in terms of governance and regulation. They’ve been a good partner – and always one I’ve turned to for advice and support.

When did you first become attracted to a career in the public sector, and particularly public finance?

When I left university, I originally went into a job in investment banking, but I hated it. I suppose I couldn’t see the impact of what I was doing, and it just didn’t seem to have a purpose for me. I’d always been interested in social action, politics and volunteering when I was coming through school.

I went travelling and, when I returned, I was looking for a temporary job. I got one working in a housing department, doing work with homeless people and estate management. It was totally by chance that I took the job – it could have been anywhere – but I was in it for about a week when I thought “I love this – I love the public sector”. It was great.

What have been the highlights or biggest successes of your career to date? Are there any particular stand out, pivotal moments?

I am really proud of the work I’ve done over the past couple of years with a great finance team in Surrey to bring the council from the brink of financial disaster to now – a council that has very strong control of our finances. We’ve achieved significant savings and efficiencies. We’ve transformed how we support our business to provide great services underpinned with really strong finance business partners.

The CIPFA team were brilliant in support of that work – I had invited them in to do review work to test the robustness of our financial planning, to support our finance teams, and to evaluate whether they had the skills and capabilities to deliver for the longer term.

I have also led a lot of complex regeneration schemes I’m proud of. A lot of that was achieved in Tower Hamlets, London, which was a great but challenging place to work. It seems a long time ago now, but that really helped me to understand the power of good, positive financial investment coupled with a confident community – you can deliver great economic and social benefits to communities.

My time at KPMG was really interesting and transformative in a way as well. Operating in a very large organisation with a global span meant I worked with colleagues from across the world. I learnt a lot from my work in Europe and the US. I think my understanding, particularly about the importance of diversity in an organisation, was absolutely honed working for KPMG. You always need to keep learning as a chief executive, and this was a really good opportunity for me to experience and understand how other organisations work.

What have been the greatest challenges, both during your career and within the public finance sector?

When I first became a Chief Executive Officer, there were very few women chief executives. I had always wanted to prove my worth, and to be able to demonstrate my capabilities in such a role. But there were barriers along the way – people’s prejudices about a woman, particularly a slightly younger woman, at the time I was first appointed. I think it’s different these days, but it definitely felt a slog to be recognised. 

What advice would you give to people who are beginning their career in public finance?

A career in public finance can take you anywhere. Some of the best chief executives I have worked with in the broader public sector have been CIPFA-qualified people who absolutely understand the technical bits of being a finance whizz, but also have got that ability to see how brilliant financial management delivers high quality public services.

Having a CIPFA qualification can lead you anywhere. It’s the first step to a brilliant career and it broadens your horizons. And always think big about how those skills can change the lives of people in communities and society.