ESSEX County Council chief executive Joanna Killian didn’t always plan to go into public sector work. After university, she started as a trainee dealer in the City.
But fate intervened and what became something of a calling led to her current role as chief executive of Essex County Council.
The 46-year-old explains: “Part of my passion for public services is I had quite a peculiar upbringing. My parents both came across from Ireland. They were immigrants who worked really hard to build a life, but then my dad was left to bring me up alone.
“There wasn’t a public service around to help me, but I had some great teachers and others who helped me to be the person I am now.”
Born and raised in Bedfordshire and having studied politics and geography, the lure of London led Joanna to the City.
When her father became ill, she left to care for him and took a temporary job in a council housing department. It was a move that was to shape her career in the public sector.
Joanna says: “It was a really big shift and, although most of my friends said I was mad to make the change, I felt I had just landed in a place where I immediately felt comfortable.
“Like lots of people who work in the public sector, I just thought I could make a difference.
“That does sound trite, but I honestly thought that, and that I had found the prospect of a really good career.
“I worked with some challenging families, worked a lot with homeless people, women who had suffered domestic violence and people with mental health problems, and it just anchored my desire to make a difference.
“It was that experience which really made me think, ‘there is a role for public service’ and one of the things I continue to love about this job is the work we do to support the most vulnerable.”
Joanna first arrived in the corridors of power at Essex County Council in 2005 as director of performance and finance, following a stint at the Audit Commission.
Fifteen months later, former chief executive Paul Coen quit to head up the Local Government Association and she applied for the role.
She says: “I didn’t have the greatest education, or the sort of background many would expect of a chief executive. There is that dimension which has helped me to want to be in public service and stay in the job I am doing.
“It is quite unusual for a chief executive to come up through the route of housing and regeneration. But that experience taught me more than anything about the importance of delivering very strong services for the most vulnerable people, and not doing that without an eye to value for money and an eye to the taxpayer.
“Given my role in the Audit Commission, I had spent two or three years assessing the performance of every other council in the country and I saw in Essex, in the members, in the staff, a group of people who really did want to deliver change.”
But her role has not been without controversy, not least her own her salary when set against the backdrop of a swathe of cuts.
She earned £285,152 in 2010/11, including payment for her dual role as Brentwood Council boss.
She says; “I am lucky I am doing a great job I enjoy. But I can absolutely understand people thinking, ‘when you are delivering this level of cuts, this level of job losses, how can she sit there with a salary like that’?
“I have taken a pay cut and, clearly, I will continue to make sure I provide the council with value for that money, to prove I am worth every penny I get paid.
“But, of course, I do need to keep thinking about how that seems to staff, to people in the community. I am not completely naive and I am ever mindful of that, but also ever mindful that, if the council thought I wasn’t doing my job or wasn’t worth it, then equally it could make a decision about not employing me.
“It is good people scrutinise and it is right people want to know I am delivering against my salary. It is really difficult. If I was in the private sector and delivering the level of efficiency and change I have, it wouldn’t be criticised in the same way.
“The bottom line is, the salary for the role is set by the council and I feel very strongly that if I am not doing what I am asked to do, I can be got rid of.”
Regardless of whether you think they are right or wrong, it is hard to deny Joanna has made an impact with the changes she has implemented.
She says: “I’m really proud of the work we’ve done to make the council more efficient. People will say, ‘why were you so inefficient’, and it is an argument I know we can never win, but I feel proud we have orchestrated this programme of change.
“I know it has been hard for our staff and I absolutely accept that, but it has meant we haven’t had to make the level of cuts some other councils are now facing.”
“Clearly money is at the core of everything we do here. I feel I run a very big business. Essex continues to be an incredibly ambitious council. We have been very clear about changing the way the council works with more focus on our customers, making it more modern and making every penny count.”
Joanna also takes pride in the number of schemes the council has implemented that have directly affected lives. Perhaps because of her own experiences growing up, she points to apprenticeships.
She says: “The work we have done in promoting apprenticeships, more than 1,500 now, may seem like a small thing, but the damaging impact of not having young people in education or training, feeling despondent and being disconnected for the world of work so early in their life is devastating and I have seen the impact of that.”
With public service cuts grabbing headlines locally and nationally, and the county’s settlement for next year from central government being down by 28 per cent, Joanna is aware the hard times are far from over.
She says: “It is going to be very difficult for people with some very tough times and lots of families across Essex are already feeling the pinch. As a county council, we are doing our utmost to try to relieve pressures and make the most of taxpayers’ money.”
She continues: “There are some difficult times ahead. The council met on Tuesday and the leader was very clear about the need for us to take some very difficult decisions going forward. I just want people to feel reassured the focus here is on spending their money wisely and doing the right thing for them.”