Public Service Leadership: lessons from #BlackLivesMatter

by , | Jun 19, 2020

This article is part of our Freedom and Justice Week series – as Global Dashboard provides a platform for a diversity of voices to explore how we respond to the wave of protests that followed the murder of George Floyd. Read all the articles in the series here.

Two NHS leaders from different generations, and different points of the institutional hierarchy, reflect on the impact of the Black Lives Matter resurgence within the NHS and offer three reflections for public service leaders.     

Find out more in this reflective video (7 minutes – full transcript below).        

Zarah: Hello and welcome. My name is Zarah Mowhabuth, and this is my colleague Kathryn Perera.

Kathryn: Welcome and thank you for being with us. So, we’re going to offer a short reflection each on what struck us over the past month in terms of the intersection of the COVID-19 pandemic and the Black Lives Matter resurgence. And then we’re going to offer three lessons for you to reflect on in your own leadership in public service. Let me just share how this conversation came about. Following the murder of George Floyd, a group of more junior members in the hierarchy within the NHS and our team – NHS Horizons – came to me and gently but firmly encouraged me to take moral leadership in working with them to mount a response to what we were seeing in the world. And it was that that led me into conversations with Zarah to better understand from her position of leadership how I could think differently about the response to what’s been happening in terms of Black Lives Matter and the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on BAME communities. So my reflection, the thing that has stayed with me most, is just how difficult this leadership moment is and that the leaders who are really thriving are those who are able to hold the complexity of the moment and not be drawn into demands that they create binary choices In Bristol, in the west of England, where we’ve just seen the statue of a famous slave trader ripped off its plinth and dropped into the harbour, the Bristol mayor, Marvin Rees, was able to hold that space. He was able to say, “I do not condone public disorder” and “I cannot say I am sorry that that statue has gone”. And despite repeated attempts for him to make a choice of one or the other, he denied that false dichotomy and found a space where he could speak to the multitudes of issues and feelings and historical contexts.

Zarah:  And I think that really relates to the one thing I have held closest through this, and that is the importance of history.

Zarah: If we want to truly address and understand Black Lives Matter and other issues of racism, we really need to see where this all stemmed from. And this is all generational trauma. And this generational trauma is the thread that link the past to the  present day.

Kathryn: Let’s look at that through the lens of the NHS. There is growing anger about the disproportionate impact on Black and Minority Ethnic populations of this COVID-19 pandemic. Look at this research from Oxford that’s emerging. Trisha Greenhalgh says that BAME communities are at markedly higher risk and the causes may be over representation of BAME populations in lower socio economic groups, or perhaps because more BAME people are employed in lower band, key worker roles, or perhaps because black and minority ethnic colleagues have comorbidities, such as diabetes. All of these factors may be true. Yet my question is, what are the causes of these causes? What Professor Michael Marmot calls the “social determinants of health”. What are the structural inequalities that we put up with? We accept or we don’t even notice, that lead to this disparity..

Kathryn: We’re going to offer three lessons on which to reflect. Lesson one: Morality and neutrality are not the same thing. It took this thread from Prerana Issar, the NHS Chief People Officer, for me to better understand that. And what Prerana did in this thread was to decouple proper neutrality of a public service institution, and the thirst that people have now for moral leadership and to say there are moral issues which supersede the need to have due recourse to neutrality in public life. I learned that from my own team, from younger activists calling for a different quality of leadership around what is fundamentally a moral issue. So let’s try not to conflate morality and neutrality as we develop our leadership through COVID-19 and beyond.

Zarah: Our second lesson is: Don’t bring a fact to a narrative fight. And what we mean by that is experts and health professionals can arm themselves with white papers and peer reviewed studies. But if these are our only weapons, then there is only so much we can do. In this era where experts are increasingly distrusted, the “we know best” mindset is counterproductive. If we want to truly to catalyse progressive change, then we need to identify and amplify stories from lived experiences and real life and we can start that by just listening to the people around us in our communities. A great example of this is footballer Marcus Rashford. He wrote an open letter and shared his experiences of free food vouchers and because of this, there has been a government u-turn, and children all around the country can continue to enjoy free food vouchers during their six week summer holidays.

Kathryn: Our third lesson is this: Create context, not content. Gone are the days when a single woman or man stands and provides leadership and all the answers. New power, energy driven communities thrive when they are invited to participate and not simply to consume. Let me give a dark example of that – the anti vaccination movement was spawned out of Andrew Wakefield, a now discredited former clinician, creating a context around fear of vaccinations around which people could organise. And we’ve seen hundreds of Facebook groups, of Instagram groups now feeding into the anxiety around COVID-19 vaccinations and antibodies. And they thrive not because they’re told what to do, but because a space which is self organising, is created around a set of values. I think we in public service institutions have a huge amount to learn from how the counter Black Lives Matter movement, from how the anti vaccination movement, from how dark web activists think about that context and the creation of power.

Zarah: We hope these reflections and these lessons can help you and your leadership as someone who works in the public service.

Suggested further reading:

  • Professor Richard Bolden, The Fall of Edward Colston and the Rise of Inclusive Place-Based Leadership (2020)
  • Kathryn Perera, Jeremy Heimans, Henry Timms, New power versus old: to beat antivaccination campaigners we need to learn from them (2019)
  • How To Use Social Media To Be An Effective Ally


  • Kathryn Perera is the Director of NHS Horizons, a national unit within the health service which uses social movement approaches to accelerate the pace of change. NHS Horizons is now 100% re-purposed towards the national COVID-19 response effort. A Community Organiser and political activist by background, Kathryn writes regularly on how “new power” approaches to change will shape the future of public services. Both as an “institutional leader” and as a mum of two children whose heritage is mixed Asian/Irish, she’s learning a great deal from the resurgence of #BlackLivesMatter and its impact in the UK.

  • Zarah Mowhabuth is a Programme Officer at NHS Horizons. She recently completed her Masters degree at the University of Warwick in History (Global and Comparative). Determined to understand more about her own background, Zarah focused her work on identity politics and challenging the marginalisation of the black community within her own Mauritian heritage. She is now drawing the bridges between her academic background and job role with the intent to address these issues for the BAME community within the NHS.

More from Global Dashboard

Justice for All and the Economic Crisis

Justice for All and the Economic Crisis

As COVID-19 plunges the world into its most serious economic crisis for a century, a surge in demand for justice is inevitable. Businesses face bankruptcy – and whole industries may be insolvent. Similar pain is being felt in the public and non-profit sectors....

Who Speaks for the Global South Recipients of Aid?

Who Speaks for the Global South Recipients of Aid?

The murder of George Floyd and the resurfacing of the Black Lives Matter movement has led to heightened discussions on race in the international development sector. Aid practitioners in the North have not only condemned the systemic racism that they (suddenly) now see...