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The Importance Of Allyship: Insights From James Freed


James Freed
Deputy Director, NHS Digital Academy
NHS England

by Bernie Clarke

18 March 2024

James Freed’s career has been a “meandering through opportunities” rather than a focused path towards his current role as the head of the NHS Digital Academy. In his own words, “I didn’t even know there was a digital academy when I was a kid.” His journey began as a scientist and musician before transitioning to cancer research and service redesign within the NHS.


The National Programme for IT: A Turning Point


A turning point in James’ career came when he joined the National Programme for IT in the early 2000s. “I saw these big piles of patient notes and thought, ‘There’s got to be a better way of doing this. It’s the year 2000 – why do we use 1980s technology.'” This experience sparked his interest in driving technological change within healthcare.


From Public Health England to Health Education England


After the National Programme for IT, James joined the Health Protection Agency, which later became Public Health England. He held roles as an information specialist, informatician, and the first head of information strategy, authoring the organisation’s knowledge strategy.

It was an unexpected job posting that led James to his next role at Health Education England (HEE). “What attracted me was the value statement in the job description: ‘We value our staff.’ Not many NHS job descriptions had that front and centre at the time,” he explains. At HEE, which later became part of NHS England, James focused on work he truly enjoyed, including leading the cross-health and care digital skills development initiative that evolved into the NHS Digital Academy.


Defining Allyship


When asked about the meaning of allyship, James provides a thoughtful definition: “Allyship is about supporting others from the position that I find myself in, particularly a position of privilege… It means supporting someone who is different from me in some sort of socially recognisable characteristic, whether it’s gender, ethnicity, disability, or sexuality.”

James acknowledges that consistently demonstrating allyship can be challenging, citing the deeply rooted nature of social inequalities. However, he remains committed to finding practical ways to support underrepresented groups, particularly through his work with the Shuri Network, which supports women of colour in health and technology roles.

One of James’s hopes is to develop toolkits that empower employers to make meaningful progress on equality, diversity, and inclusion. “How we support people from different perspectives and backgrounds to bring their full selves to work, how we recognise what those differences mean and how we might redesign our organisations so those people are less disadvantaged by our structures and processes – that’s what I’m aiming for,” he explains.


Calling Out Microaggressions


James also recognises the importance of addressing microaggressions – subtle, often unintentional instances of bias or discrimination. He candidly shares a recent experience where a colleague gently pointed out that complimenting a woman’s appearance could be interpreted as demeaning or reducing her to her looks.

While the experience affected him deeply, James appreciated the thoughtful way it was addressed. “It was called out in a way that made me feel that someone was on my side, not against me,” he reflects. This highlights the need for nuanced, constructive approaches when calling out potentially harmful behaviour.


Overcoming Imposter Syndrome


James is open about his struggles with imposter syndrome, a feeling of self-doubt and inadequacy despite evidence of success and competence.

By speaking openly about his experiences with imposter syndrome, even in high-profile settings, James hopes to destigmatise these common feelings and encourage others to embrace vulnerability and authenticity. “Talking about one’s feelings is more beneficial than not,” he asserts. “In my experience, it builds trust to talk about one’s own frailties.”


The Road Ahead


Looking ahead, James remains dedicated to fostering a more diverse, inclusive, and digitally skilled NHS workforce. By leveraging his position of privilege and leading with empathy, he aims to create practical tools and initiatives that dismantle systemic barriers and empower individuals from all backgrounds to thrive.

As the NHS Digital Academy continues to evolve, James’s commitment to allyship will undoubtedly shape its approach to skill development, ensuring that the programme remains a driving force for positive change within the healthcare sector.

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