‘We have to be a bit audacious’

By Heather Jameson | 06 March 2019

It has been exactly a year since Joanna Killian took up the post of chief executive of Surrey CC – walking into an authority many believed was close to collapse. But despite predictions of its demise – and comparisons with Northamptonshire, Surrey is still standing.

When she arrived, Ms Killian commissioned an independent report by the Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy (CIPFA) and the conclusions were stark – the council faced a cash shortfall of £94m by 2021, and there was no plan B.

But it seems there was a plan B, in the shape of Ms Killian and the new team she brought in to turn around the council. While there is a long list of issues the council still needs to address, getting a grip on the money was the top concern. After the CIPFA report in September, Surrey found itself having to find an extra £40m in-year for the 2018/19 budget – just six months into Ms Killian’s tenure.

The 2019/20 budget had to find a further £106m savings without drawing down on reserves. ‘It was achievable, but it has been tough,’ Ms Killian told The MJ. ‘We agreed a financial strategy in November – which is very early. Our planning assumptions were almost spot on – we assumed negative Revenue Support Grant would go away. The issue now is about being absolutely focused about delivering stretched targets.’

Just a year into post and she has got a grip on the money and the finances are stable – although with an inevitable element of risk that is facing the whole of local government. ‘Staff and members have been extraordinary,’ Ms Killian says. ‘There is a sense of achievement that we have made it happen.’

But it hasn’t been easy. She admits it has been stressful and ‘the hardest I’ve ever worked. I’ve had to lead in a swan-like way. It’s really important to walk around serenely and calmly and be positive about the future.’

The staff had suffered from being told they were failing, that they were in denial and that all their previous assumptions were wrong. Even now, they face a massive restructure across the council, with all the uncertainty that will bring – at a time when they are crucial to the future. ‘None of the stuff I’m doing will stick unless I get staff on board,’ she acknowledges.

‘We have two or three tough years ahead, but the things we are doing will put us on an equal footing [with the rest of local government]. The ambition Tim [Oliver, leader of the council] and I share is to catapult Surrey forwards. We have to be a bit audacious. I don’t want to settle for mediocracy, I want to leap forward.’

But there is more than just the financial picture to worry about: ‘People ask about the money. I say it’s gripped, but more important is being honest about the services,’ Ms Killian says.

In May last year, shortly after Ms Killian arrived, the council received a further blow with an ‘inadequate’ judgement from Ofsted. Three years after its original inadequate judgement, the watchdog found a ‘pattern of denial’ and a ‘lack of curiosity’ from the management. It was typical of the authority.

Now, the council has just had its latest planned visit from the inspectors. ‘Ofsted has recognised there are green shoots of improvement. There is still a long way to go, but we know ourselves now,’ she says. ‘It’s not good enough and it’s not consistent, but it is improving.’

In addition to bringing Dave Hill into the top team at Surrey as director of children’s services, Ms Killian has asked for help elsewhere.

An Ofsted action board is chaired by Hampshire CC’s chief executive, John Coughlin, while Essex CC’s Trevor Doughty is also assisting Surrey’s improvement journey.

It is part of Ms Killian’s ‘philosophy’, to get the best people involved in order to turn the authority around. ‘I’m not afraid to ask for help,’ she says.

The council was high spending, but not delivering the right outcomes. More than half of its looked-after children were placed out of borough, damaging them and costing the council more. She is determined to turn that around.

Nor was there much in the way of early help for families and children. But the biggest threat to the authority’s stability remains – special education needs and disability. While it is an issue everywhere, the rise in Surrey has been higher than in other places and if it is not addressed, it will lead to problems.

‘This is the issue that will cause the authority to fall over,’ Ms Killian says. ‘We are no different to anyone else.’

Across the council, the story is similar: the issues have been an inward-looking authority, poor partnerships, a lack of early intervention and denial. ‘We know what the issues are. We’ve got some good plans and we’ve got to make them work.’

A fire service inspection report in December found people were safe, but there wasn’t enough prevention.

In adult’s services, the core issue is prevention and intervention, working with partners to improve the basic model of care. She has drafted in Social Care Institute of Excellence chief executive Tony Hunter to advise on the service and is taking on some of the principles of the ‘fantastic’ Wigan deal.

The council is reorganising its finance, HR and back office – bringing some of the services back in-house from its shared service partnership with Brighton and Hove City Council and East Sussex, and Orbis. While she says the partnership will continue in some form, Surrey had to withdraw some of the service last summer to get a grip on the programme of change.

Council leader Tim Oliver shares her ambition to make Surrey innovative. ‘He really believes in the whole value of integration and joined-up public services. If he were here, he would say his mission is to provide more joined-up public services at a local level.’

He also has plans to make better use of assets across the county, including moving the council out of its county hall in Kingston. Surrey has always wrestled with the anomaly which found its main headquarters outside the county.

‘It’s not about selling off County Hall, it’s about being back with our residents.’ And it will not follow in the footsteps of Northamptonshire’s folly, creating a shiny new building. Instead, Surrey will use its existing facilities with hot desks and assuming staff will be more mobile.

The move is designed to modernise the estate, improve the facilities and get back into the county, but it will also be a ‘catalyst for culture change’.

‘In all my career I’ve noticed that the organisations that do well are really good at looking outwards. They have a bit of humility about them,’ Ms Killian says. Neither are descriptions that would have been true of the old Surrey, but Ms Killian is changing the culture, bringing in experts from across local government to advise and help with the improvement plans.

‘The most effective chief executives are the ones that ask for help. I’ve made it my mission to ask for help. You can’t accomplish change on this scale without help,’ she explains. ‘The longer you are in a chief executive role, the more challenging it is to ask for help and to ask for a mentor.’

Personally, Ms Killian has former Hackney LBC chief executive Max Caller as her mentor – and she says he has been ‘brilliant’.

‘You have to reflect on what you need in each role. You have absolute principles on which you never give way. You have to have control on the money. You have to be clear about the ambition.’

That ambition is to catapult Surrey from the brink of failure to being a modern, innovative council, delivering for the residents of the county.

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