Obituary: Kate Gross, civil servant and writer

Born: 10 July 1978, Plymouth. Died: 25 December, 2014, Cambridge, aged 36

Kate Gross: Former private secretary to prime ministers Tony Blair and Gordon Brown
Kate Gross: Former private secretary to prime ministers Tony Blair and Gordon Brown

Kate Gross was a former private secretary to both 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, being chosen as one of the top 40 international development leaders under the age of 40 (2011), selected as one of Management Today’s top 35 women under 35 (2012), and receiving an OBE in 2013, Gross remained a self-deprecating, good-humoured yet determined woman, who “just wanted to make a difference” not just to the people around her but for the greater good of others.

Sign up to our daily newsletter

Ultimately, however, her whole raison d’être revolved around 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. The couple married in February 2013.

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. Just ten minutes later her sons awoke and asked: “Is it morning?” They were ready to open their Christmas stockings.

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.”

Blair concluded: “Kate was an inspiration… and will remain an inspiration now and for the future. She was a life changer and a life giver… as a writer and sage she gave everyone around her hope and purpose in their lives even as her own drew to a close.”

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

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

As a young girl, Gross had wanted to become a Poet Laureate, then focused on advertising in glamorous Soho, London, before a suggestion from her mother nudged her into applying for the Civil Service, despite believing her mother’s main interaction with that world had been through the sitcom Yes Minister.

In 2000, Gross joined the Civil Service “Fast Stream”, initially serving in the Home Office, Cabinet Office and European Commission, and gained a management role inside 18 months. Her strengths, attention to detail, 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, advising him on complex and contentious policy issues such as the House of Lords reform, counter-terrorism – the response to the 7/7 attacks in London, 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, aged 27. With the outgoing Blair 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 chief executive 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.

Recognising that her time at Downing Street had fundamentally shaped her approach to development, she acutely appreciated how tough government was in the UK, let alone the developing world where resources were much scarcer and the capacity of government so low.

With a steely resolve and determination, Gross set about raising more than £20m; staff increased from three to more than 40; she helped establish the infrastructure and healthcare systems in these countries which has been crucial in the reduction of children’s deaths caused by childhood diseases, and the doubling of the numbers of women giving birth in Sierra Leone hospitals.

AGI also worked with the Rwandan government to end the legacy of the 1994 genocide. AGI’s work has also 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 Four colon cancer, which would prove to be terminal. She stepped down as AGI chief executive in February 2013 and returned in September in an advisory capacity.

Following Gross’ diagnosis, she remained optimistic and witty, and started documenting 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 the Magnificence of 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, but includes thoughts on how best to support those who have the disease.

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 savvy, 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.

Gross’ death was announced by her mother online: “Kate died at home, as she wanted. Her last two weeks were characterised by the same qualities that marked her life. There was care for others: were we all OK, would we be OK, how could she make it OK for us? There was a decision not to complain.”

Clearly Gross achieved more in her short life than most achieve in a lifetime and she has been an inspiration to many through her work and later through her online blog; her legacy will certainly live on through AGI and her sons.