In this interview series, local authority senior executives talk to KPMG about the challenges and opportunities they see for local government, for their place and for the people they serve.

Joanna Killian, Chief Executive of Surrey County Council, talks to KPMG about how devolution and digitalisation can help local government rise to the challenges ahead.

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What does the future of local government mean to you?

Our future involves working across boundaries to reimagine what local economies need to be in the wake of the pandemic and ensuring no one is left behind. In Surrey it’s how we sustain the economy in an agile way, acknowledging our role as a net contributor to national GVA and that much of our economy is based around the aviation sector.

It’s about reinventing ourselves to deliver the core services that our communities need, while getting to grips with how we address climate change challenges. We are taking tangible actions as an organisation to become net zero: the question is how we empower our communities to take the lead themselves.

And it is increasingly about tackling health in a progressive manner. The pandemic has deepened health inequalities in a truly shocking way. More pockets of deprivation have emerged and pre-existing inequalities are widening, particularly in mental health for children and young adults.  

What will the future of local government mean for your customers and how you deliver services?

They should see a much more targeted, tailored, digitally-enabled set of services that meet their needs at the time and in the place of their choice. They will hear us talk much more about big strategic challenges and local solutions. We know they are passionate about addressing climate change and supporting those who are suffering the most deprivation, and they want us to be specific about how we are going to do this, putting power into their hands to deliver the right solutions for their areas.

Our community will have more of a stake in the services we deliver. In order to be able to deliver on big issues like health integration and the reform of social care we will have to make our money go further. We need to communicate why we are spending what we do and engage with our residents more about this, discussing how their communities can tackle some of these issues alongside us.

What will be the biggest challenges to delivering that?

Workforce keeps me awake at night. Like many other organisations we struggle to bring in the talent we need, from data scientists and engineers to social workers and support teams. What’s the shape of the workforce we will need and how will we find that? How can we rethink some of our roles and tasks to attract new people? These are our biggest challenges.

Achieving our ambitions means working with other public sector bodies but sometimes the incentives and levers aren’t there; nor are the freedoms and flexibilities we need. I want Surrey to be able to make more decisions for itself and for residents to enjoy more of the benefits themselves. That’s going to take time and effort but is crucial for us in delivering a stronger economic platform, in getting the infrastructure investment we need and the skills that help us manage our workforce issues.

What does the connected enterprise mean to you?

Having an organisation with business lines where we can simplify and digitise to increase our impact, that is how we ensure no one is left behind. My view has always been that the simpler you make things, the more effective you can be. A connected enterprise is about having failsafe processes and really good engineering concepts with technology wrapped around them to make sure we can deliver processes as efficiently and well as possible.

We’ve applied good technology at the front end of our customer service systems. Now we’re looking at artificial intelligence to change our core enterprise systems and free up people power. This will give us the data and intelligence to drive our thinking and allow us to focus strategic capacity on the big problems – and solutions.