Kate Gross: Adviser to Tony Blair and Gordon Brown who became a dynamic leader of the Africa Governance Initiative


Click to follow
The Independent Online

Kate Gross was a former private secretary to Prime Ministers Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, before leaving to become the founding chief executive of the Africa Governance Initiative (AGI), a charity set up by Blair which works to “provide practical advice and support” to rebuild structures of Government in post-conflict African states.

Despite being the youngest ever senior female civil servant and receiving an OBE in 2013, Gross remained a self-deprecating, good humoured yet determined woman, who “just wanted to make a difference”; ultimately, however, her whole raison d’être was her twin five year-old boys, Oscar and Isaac, and her husband, Billy Boyle, co-founder of a nanotechnology company which makes microchip chemical sensors that can be used in the early detection of cancer.

Diagnosed in October 2012 with cancer of the colon, which she dubbed “The Nuisance” in an online blog, Gross lost her two-year battle at 6.29am on Christmas Day, with enough time to say “goodbye” to her husband.

Describing her as “a fabulous colleague, wonderful leader and a dear friend,” Blair summed-up Gross’ contribution: “The tragedy of her death only illuminates the magnificence of her life. Her work and her achievement will endure. She created and built AGI as an organisation that took a new and innovative approach to development and today is making change happen in many different African countries.

Born in Plymouth in 1978, Kate Elizabeth Gross was the elder of two sisters to Tim, a former engineering company owner, now landscape designer, and Jean (CBE), a child psychologist and special-needs expert and government adviser. The girls spent much of their early years in the Middle East, where their father worked as a consultant water engineer.

Upon returning to the UK, the family settled in Bath, where Gross attended Hayesfield School and St Laurence School in Bradford-on-Avon, before reading English at Keble College, Oxford where she achieved a First in 1999.

After a nudge from her mother, in 2000 Gross joined the Civil Service Fast Stream, initially serving in the Home Office, Cabinet Office and European Commission. She gained a management role inside 18 months. Her decisiveness and ability to cut to the heart of matters were rewarded in 2004, when she was appointed one of the four Private Secretaries reporting to the then Prime Minister, Tony Blair.

Within this role, Gross was a key member of the No 10 team, dealing with Parliamentary and Home Affairs; her responsibilities included preparing Blair for the weekly PM’s Questions and advising him on complex and contentious policy issues such as the House of Lords reform, counter-terrorism, EU policy and the ban on hunting with hounds.

In 2005 her talents were further recognised when she became the youngest ever senior female civil servant at the age of 27. After Blair’s resignation in 2007, Gross worked closely with Gordon Brown, dealing almost immediately with the car bomb attacks at Glasgow Airport and in the West End of London.

Soon after, she left No 10 for Cambridge to study for a Master’s in International Relations at St John’s College, passing with distinction.

In 2008 Gross was invited to become the CEO of AGI. During her tenure, she advised the governments of some of the world’s poorest countries such as Nigeria, Malawi, Rwanda and Sierra Leone on how to shape a better future for their people.

With a steely resolve and determination, Gross set about raising over £20m; staff increased from three to over 40. She helped establish infrastructure and healthcare systems in the countries in which she worked – crucial in the reduction of deaths caused by childhood diseases – and helped to achieve the doubling of the number of women giving birth in Sierra Leone hospitals. AGI also worked with the Rwandan government to end the legacy of the 1994 genocide and contributed to the efforts to stem the current Ebola crisis in Liberia and Sierra Leone.

Before her diagnosis, Gross was “your average BlackBerry-addicted, workaholic mother of pre-schoolers”. In October 2012, however, her world was thrown into turmoil. On a return flight from the US, she felt unwell. Within hours in the UK, she was undergoing emergency surgery for stage 4 colon cancer, which would prove to be terminal. She stepped down as AGI CEO in February 2013 and returned in September in an advisory capacity.

Following Gross’ diagnosis, she started to document her battle in a blog, describing her illness, treatment and how she was coming to terms with her situation and wading through a list of “deathmin”. This formed the basis for a book called Late Fragments: Everything I Wanted to Tell You (About this Magnificent Life), due for publication in January 2015; it was proposed as a book “about life, not about cancer”, so that her sons may later discover who she was and what she held dear.

After treatment, Gross resumed part-time work as a civil servant in the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills as a deputy director responsible for strategy. She continued to show leadership skills, political savviness, and the ability to think radical thoughts as well as sensitivity to the political context.

Her final weeks were spent with her family. A self-confessed control freak, she accepted her fate in the most practical sense, creating a manual for her family that catalogued “everything from what to do when the dishwasher gets blocked to where to buy coats and socks for the boys”. Additionally, she stored photos, videos and recordings of her favourite music for her sons. 

Kate Gross, civil servant and writer: born Plymouth 10 July 1978; married 2013 Billy Boyle (two sons); died Cambridge 25 December 2014.