James Stewart, CTO at Public Digital, on Achieving Successful, Human-Centric Digital Transformation

Joining us for this edition of The CEO.digital Show is James Stewart of Public Digital. With projects including building and leading the tech team operating GOV.UK and assisting with California’s Covid-19 response under his belt, these are the insider views you need to bring next-gen transformation to both the public and private sectors.

James Stewart’s eclectic career zigzags seamlessly through both the public and private sector. He calls them “institutions that matter”. He has worked on transformation projects in some of the most prestigious institutions in the world, including the United Nations, the World Bank, and the NHS. He uses a pragmatic approach that combines hands-on knowledge of technology and an intimate understanding of user needs, which led to the resounding success of the GOV.UK project. In this chat, James generously shares insights gathered over a long career.

Through his unique perspective, we see why people matter as much as – if not more than – technology for the success of digital transformation projects. Politics, policies, and legacy systems and processes interplay to create situations that make transformation both a challenge and opportunity. At the heart of it all are real human beings, whose lives technology touches. He also speaks on how the Covid-19 pandemic is rapidly driving changes that were considered too risky during ordinary times.

Tune in to get more insights, including:

  • How you can build client relationships in the post-pandemic world
  • Why you need a multi-channel, multi-disciplinary approach to your transformation efforts
  • How organisations can transform themselves to serve new client groups
  • What place sustainability should have in your transformation efforts
  • Where to begin when you are planning a transformation project

The full podcast is available now on all major streaming services, including Apple Podcasts, Spotify and more.

Craig McCartney: Our guest is James Stewart, Partner at Public Digital. He is a Technology and Chain Specialist, helping leaders develop strategies and skills to transform their organizations. He’s also the non-executive director in the UK parliament, advisor to numerous startups, and a member of the Mayor of Hackney Digital Advisory Council. He was previously the deputy CTO of the UK government, helping found the Government Digital Service and supporting the creation of the UK’s National Cybersecurity Center. He built and led the team operating GOV.UK and represents the government at W3C and on GitHub’s customer advisory board. James, welcome to the show.

James Stewart: Thanks.

Craig McCartney: I have to admit, after that introduction, I’m keen to unpack some of those milestones in your career. Should we start there? Can you tell us how you became a partner at Public Digital and touch on some of those elements I mentioned in the buildup?

James Stewart: Public Digital was founded by some of the same teams that set up the Government Digital Service in the UK. We help institutions that matter around the world to transform for what we refer to as the internet era. That’s digital transformation, but where digital transformation often is purely talked about in technology terms, we see it as being much more about how the organizations thrive in the modern world.

I wasn’t one of the founders of it. I was one of the first waves of hires, but I’d worked with all of those founders before in the Government Digital Service, which had helped set up back in 2011. The new government coming into the UK recognized that it was time to significantly change how the government worked with its citizens online, how it provided services and how it organized itself internally, and we were a unit set up to lead that transformation.

Craig McCartney: In terms of your current role as a partner, what does your day-to-day look like?

James Stewart: I spend probably about 60% of my time working with clients or across a portfolio of clients globally. I will spend a certain amount of time checking in with our teams. We have a range of teams working with different clients in different ways, some doing training and assessments, helping build teams in their client organizations and some senior coaching leaders in those client organizations.

I’m trying to spend a lot of my time helping those teams focus on the right things and bring different insights to the table. I then spend a fair bit of time with the clients having coaching conversations, participating in workshops, doing other things that help them think about how they can adopt new ways of working. What are the opportunities for them? What are the challenges? Some of that’s about technology, but most of the time, it’s about how our teams empower to work.

Can they make quick decisions and test things with real users fast? Is there sufficient focus and are all the other parts of the organization supporting that? An organization that’s going through this transformation will need to learn how to hire people differently. You are bringing new skills and attributes since your organization will need to think about how we train people, then how do we communicate what we are doing?

You need to buy services differently. Effort every little bit of how the organization works and needs to change, and we are often spending a lot of time helping them see the big picture of that. I spent the rest of my time helping grow Public Digital. We have been hiring a lot. It’s developing our own structures. We do a lot of our own communicating, writing blog posts and other things, and I spent a good chunk of time on that.

Craig McCartney: You talked about transformation there. It’s not about technology. It’s about culture. Let’s look at the technology elements. How has digital transformation evolved over the last few years, especially since you started out?

James Stewart: Part of it is it’s appeared on everybody’s lips. It’s gone from being a bit of a niche thing where you had some of the original dot-com companies and then a new wave of startups emerging and growing, and people spotting that. Also, a few big organizations are trying to change to something where everybody recognizes now that you need to be good at digital to thrive.

We see diverging understandings of what that means. In some cases, it’s very much oriented around the latest and greatest technology platforms and often seen as something that you buy. We’ll go buy digital for our organization. We’ll go buy transformation for our organization. Others are grappling with it in a deeper way.

They are saying what do the communication tools, the ways of running teams, the ways of getting out and getting things in front of customers that are now possible being for how we operate, what our strategy should be, and what our opportunities can be. We are seeing a growing understanding that it’s about culture. It’s also about big organizations’ entire operating environment and operating style. Being good at technology is a necessary part of that, but it’s the part of it and a foundation that you build your practices on top of.

Craig McCartney: You talk about accelerated transformation as of late. The pandemic had a big role to play in that. It’s good to get your thoughts on what impact the pandemic had on that transformation from your perspective, and then from your client’s perspective, these institutions that matter, as you call them.

James Stewart: We were very fortunate as Public Digital is a fairly new company that most of our own practices were already pretty well set up for being a global company from day one, being very flexible about where people worked and being a company that communicates a lot, which is an essential thing to do. Once people are distributed, you need to be very deliberate about that.

To thrive, you need to be good at digital. Click To Tweet

For us, it certainly has meant that the way we build relationships with clients has shifted. Gone are the days when it was quite easy to jump on a plane and go and see somebody, buy them dinner and get to know them. It’s a more drawn-out process. You have to be a lot more deliberate about it, and I hope we get back some of that being able to have face-to-face, but we have not come back to it yet.

For our clients, we saw a range of challenges and new realizations about themselves. We do a fair bit of work in healthcare. We do trainings with boards of NHS trusts. We have done a number of projects directly with parts of the NHS in the UK and healthcare providers in other countries. We saw immense pressure on that and also a realization that there were things that they could do at a pace that perhaps they hadn’t expected to be able to do.

Your whole balance of thinking about risk and reward shifts when you are under those kinds of pressures, things that were too risky to try in business as usual become necessities when you are under huge pressure. What’s appearing with that is some questions what’s the new sustainable thing that we want to put things on.

We have shifted how we work through the pandemic. Particularly pronounced in those healthcare clients, but the case is everywhere. Which of those practices do we want to capture? Which do we want to hang on to? Where do we need to work differently? A lot of that’s about people. People have been under a lot of individual pressure and burnout. The emotional challenge of the last couple of years organizations, and now getting into this, how do we settle down? How do we give people the chance to adjust and recover?

Craig McCartney: You talk about that deliberate communication with your teams. Are you guys like a video one all-the-time organization or do you have the option to dial in if you are going for a walk or whatever the case is?

James Stewart: We are trying quite hard to be balanced in that. Very early on in some of the longer sessions that we did, we made a point of saying at the start, “If you want to turn the video off, if you are going to be here for a while, then something’s in a fairly broadcast mode, turn your video off.” Your posture will be better if you do that. There’s not that clenching up that we all do when we are on video.

Suppose you need to wander out and get a drink and do all of that. I don’t do this so much myself, but quite a lot of my clients do that walking meetings thing than being on the phone. That’s been healthy for some people. I have done quite a lot of cycling meetings when we can meet up with people in person. I’m a very keen cyclist, so cycle laps of a park and have a chat. Try and mix things up.

Craig McCartney: It is a new way that I have not heard before. I was going to say doing a cycling meeting with your microphone might not work out too nicely. Let’s move on to the next section. I want to talk about the experience and how that’s been defined in this new era of digital. There’s a lot more emphasis on bridging the gap between digital and offline. Do you have any insights into how organizations are doing that?

James Stewart: That’s increasingly where our thinking and our time are being spent. You asked earlier about how digital transformations changed over time, and I gave you half an answer. We see other things a lot more of, particularly with public sector organizations, but there are also big customer-facing private sector organizations is the case.

There’s a recognition that as we get better at the core of digital and providing online services and getting the technology under control and learning the ways of working that allows that to get the opportunities of this era. We have to work much more multidisciplinary. We have to think about all of the channels through which people experience services and provide joined-up services. Some of my colleagues were very involved in the universal credit service that benefits reform program for the UK government, which was politically still controversial.

The government has been changing the amounts of benefits that people get but was very successful at scaling as more people needed its service. Setting aside the way that people are getting the right amount of money that we saw in lots of parts of the world, unemployment registration systems are collapsing under the weight of people who’d lost their jobs through the pandemic and universal credit in the UK did not have that.

The reason for that is that it’s partly got their online service delivery to a point where scaling and adapting and changing every week was natural for those teams that got that agile thing down. Also, fate does not stop there. They brought people who understood the job center frontline human contact experience into that same service design practice. They brought the people who developed the policy into that same practice and worked as a single team.

What they thought about was what’s the overall outcome that we are trying to achieve for the government and for people in need of this service, and then what’s the full journey by which people experience it. Then they brought what has been good at what people have traditionally thought of as digital means that we can do to transform all those parts of it.

We are seeing that in other organizations is they are thinking about in a bank. How are we not having a very segmented? Here’s the online channel, here’s the branch channel people are thinking about how we integrate those, but it’s exciting to see that some of the government services have been some of the trailblazers in how to do that and how to build tightly integrated teams.

Craig McCartney: Is that some of the success of some of the GOV.UK sets up, do you think?

James Stewart: GOV.UK started something in the UK government. It showed the power of building an in-house team that knows how to move fast on these things. It’s shifted how government thoughts about getting close to its users. It built the practice of user research. We’d go out and take ideas and early-stage prototypes and test them with users, but also understand those users’ contexts very deeply.

Put all the fat together in empowered digital teams that could move. What I see has happened in universal credits and in some organizations, we have worked with in Latin America and in a number of other places is that they have gone beyond that. They said those are important foundational practices. We can now take that out of the purely online channel, take that away from the purely modern digital skills and think about how those ways of working and let us transform the end-to-end service delivery.

Craig McCartney: My editor asked me to come up with this question for you because we did interview you in a report called Anyway Operations. Now that organizations have moved to a connected office approach, you could say there’s also a digital and an offline version of this happening. Is there anything that surprised you about that change from that connects the office approach to these hybrid offices and the hybrid way of working, and do you think that shift has been working well? Is there anything that organizations could be doing to improve that?

James Stewart: That’s a big question thing because that’s getting into the whole future of work. We are in a funny moment with reflecting on that at the moment. In 2020, organizations necessarily had to react to the fact that we couldn’t gather in offices and the way we had and shift ways of working quite rapidly. Some of them thrived on that. People weren’t commuting.

They got some time back. People were able to focus on the connections within their organization that were valuable for their experiment with new tools. It’s been this explosion of not so much new tools but tools that were beginning to emerge like the mirrors and murals of this world that have accelerated massively along with Zoom.

In 2021, it felt like we have started to see a bit of a reaction to that. Some of that is people realizing that being at home all the time isn’t so much fun. Some of it is that management styles have to change when you’ve got a distributed workforce and some people like that and some people don’t, and some people are ready for it and some aren’t.

It’s quite hard to draw out patterns right now because we are in that reactive second wave of reaction. I do suspect that we are going to see this rumbling on for quite a few more years. As people hopefully find a balance for us as an organization, we are hitting that the office is a resource mentality that nobody’s expected to go there, but some people like it, some people need it for certain types of events. It’s great to be able to kick off some work as a team in person, even if you never again meet in person. My hunch would be we are going to see a lot more of that, but it does feel like we are in a slightly awkward turbulent ever de reacting period.

Craig McCartney: What about you? Is that the home office for the preferred location?

James Stewart: I liked mixing things up. Throughout my career, I have had a certain amount of homeworking. In some ways, where I’m at now, it doesn’t feel that different, but there’s something about gathering together with a team in person that I have not felt I have been able to replicate online. Starting a new client’s engagement, we have spent about a week on it. You got to that point where you’ve absorbed a lot of the complexity that the client has. We got together in a room for about six hours, some chats, some eating and drinking together, and a lot of getting stuff out of our heads. We were able to simplify things for ourselves so much that way that I can’t imagine doing it another way.

Craig McCartney: This human connection element isn’t there because, on Zoom and Teams, it spoils straight into the business. When you are together, there are other things to speak about, not work.

James Stewart: The fact that you can mix the physical tools and the virtual tools as well. There were some things where we were in the same room. We still typed into Google Docs. Other times somebody would jump up and grab a pen and write on the whiteboard, and that mix of physical activities is helpful for being creative.

Craig McCartney: Having the freedom to say something out loud and not thinking, “I’m going to interrupt someone.” The microphone is something that you take for granted. I do want to go back into the GOV.UK thing. That’s quite a big meaty project and I’m sure you are very proud of and to have your name associated with it. You took over 1,800 websites and streamlined them all into one experience or at least built the templates or model for that. How did you stop something like that?

James Stewart: The origin is that Government Digital Service and GOV.UK was when the new government came in 2010. There’d been a bit of a generational shift. The previous government had been around for several years, regardless of what political parties were involved. A change after that period of time can stimulate new things and brings a new generation of people there.

You had some politicians and some advice to them who recognized that the internet was a firm part of our society and that it presented new opportunities and challenges. They commissioned Martha Lane Fox to write a report mainly focused on Directgov, which was the main government website at the time. Martha took a broader view said, “Focusing on one website isn’t the right thing. Focusing on the opportunity for the government to be digital is the thing. However, websites are important in that.”

After she published her reports, a small team of us there were about a dozen were brought together to prototype what it might look like to approach government websites differently. That was important because one of the big obstacles that I see a lot of organizations having is it’s always a lack of belief that a different way of doing things is possible and you need to do something differently.

Whatever its long-term prospects, that show we can work differently. That’s what we did for about twelve weeks. We demonstrated something that thankfully was popular with the right decision-makers and was tasked with creating the Government Digital Services as central digital units and with GOV.UK as the new government website. The traditional way of doing that would have been to go and survey all the existing websites and maybe try and consolidate their content management systems or roll out a new set of templates across them.

One of the main things we’d recognized through the previous work was that the whole landscape of those websites was confusing to citizens. Whether it’s you wanted access to a particular service, but the delivery of that service was spread across multiple government departments, we want to understand government policy on something, but six different departments had partial responsibility for that policy.

Management styles have to change when you have a distributed workforce. Click To Tweet

Getting to the thing you wanted quickly was hard. What we did was we gathered as much data as we could get our hands-on. What are the hundred biggest needs people have of government? We started with how can we most simply solve the 80% of those understand, say that the common cases on those and start to build out from there. We are not going to build based on our existing landscape of websites or organizational architecture. We are going to build based on the user needs we find.

Once we’d done that, we then looked at how to scale it and you continue with a certain amount of what we call the mainstream user needs. Let’s say the central team is going to continue to be responsible for solving those and bringing whatever tools we have to bear to doing that. Also, you do need to federate parts of it. We built a publishing system that lets people in different departments manage.

The policy information, the workings of government information and some of the specialist content, say tax manuals, the HMRC publish for accountants. They are written by accountants for accountants, and there would be no value in us getting in the middle of those. We need to join them up for the other bits properly.

Over time, that’s turned into a substantial publishing operation run centrally by the Government Digital Service but also our network of people across government who contributes. With that has come a lot of training because what became apparent was that working to a content style guide, how we are going to write stuff in plain English and training people in that was going to be the crucial thing and making it successful.

Craig McCartney: Any key takeaways from a project like that? Any key lessons for someone who’s about to dive into something huge?

James Stewart: The place where people often get stuck, there are two things. One is being daunted by the scale of it. A little bit of that’s healthy. We are running the government website. It’s easy because it’s not, and you make a lot of mistakes if you don’t take it seriously, but also, it’s not a challenge that you solve. It will go. You find the right place to start.

Starting small is absolutely essential. If it’s a service delivery, starting ends to end. Don’t start with the application process. Think about how we can do a thin step through how are we going to satisfy somebodies needs here and the scale-out from there. Start small, but starting the right way is crucial. The other thing with something of that scale, you need a lot of political backing to do it because we were saying things that individual government departments have been responsible for on the web. They were no longer going to own the whole of that.

They were going to depend on us to do it, and there were some justifiable fears that we were publishing information about floods. We are publishing information about potential natural disasters. All sorts of things. Are you going to be there? Are you going to do that responsibly? We had to build that confidence.

When you talk about that, it becomes common. People say, “We can’t do it because we don’t have enough political backing to do it.” Going back to the belief point that I made earlier that you get some of that by starting. You need enough permission to start something, and then you need to focus your start both on how can we solve a real problem for users but also how do we build the confidence that we need that will get us permission to do the next bit? There are two dimensions to your prioritization there, but it all comes down to getting started.

Craig McCartney: Those lessons you learned during that project held you in a good state for some future ones are ones you’ve been working on. Can we talk about some of those examples that you are allowed to share about them? You worked with the New South Wales Government and also you worked for Peru’s largest conglomerate Intercorp. Can you tell us a little bit about those, what you did and anything that you wanted to share or feel could be useful?

James Stewart: Intercorp is the one I can talk about in more detail. There’s some exciting stuff in New South Wales. Intercorp is fascinating because it’s 4% of GDP in Peru. It’s huge there. You walk down any street in Lima and you’ll see storefronts for their banks and their pharmacies and all of these other things that they run, and yet hardly anybody outside Peru’s ever heard of them.

We were involved there when their chairman, who had grown this group of businesses from one bank to a portfolio of about 30 different businesses, recognized that the Peruvian society had been on quite a journey where it had gone from very politically troubled in the ‘70s and ‘80s. Even though a lot of political turbulence is still going on, a much more stable, emerging middle-class and quite fertile business environment is still in a position where there wasn’t all that much international competition coming in.

There was an interesting moment for them where his businesses had got to a scale where they had a huge impact. They had lots of opportunities ahead of them, but neither a bit of a challenge to think about how do we reinvent ourselves before the competition came and reinvents things for us. They had set up an innovation lab, which was helping the different businesses in the group come up with new business ideas.

Some great ideas about things that are important for their society are like how do we provide financial services to the large proportion of Peru’s population that doesn’t have a bank account because they still got this huge divide between the urban Lima, increasingly affluent population and the rest of the countries.

How can we take some of our services and make them relevant to the rest of the population? They were doing great work there, but they were struggling with how we then take those great ideas and embed them in our existing businesses and transform them so that they cannot throw away the great customers and revenue they had but embrace these new opportunities.

We got involved partly to provide some technical and delivery experience in those innovation projects. What are the things you need to think about if you are getting ready to scale this? How do you set some good goals around it? What’s reasonable to ask of the teams? What skills are you going to need coming up? All of those sorts of getting ready to grow things, but also spend a lot of time with the senior leadership and the existing companies, helping them understand how these new teams work, helping them set the rights challenges for those teams.

What do you think about the right governance for what’s a very different way of working? Also, what new skills and ways of working do you need to bring to the core of your leadership team? You’ve run a supermarket and you buy a big supermarket management system from a vendor. They provide it to you and it does the job to one where suddenly we are selling through loads of channels and we have got delivery going on and we have got lots of different types of products.

We need a much more dynamic approach to our technology. You are going to need some different skills there. We help them think about how to build those. Sometimes around CTOs or CDOs, but often also about what are the skills the rest of the executive team needs so that you are not putting all of your eggs in that one basket.

Craig McCartney: It sounds like a lot of pressure handling a project like that. How do you handle the pressure?

James Stewart: I love working in teams and our best client relationships are the ones where we have a strong sense of team with the clients. We are drawn to work that we think matters, which inevitably brings pressure because you start to care about the work. You share that amongst the team and you help each other through it. You hold each other to account for it of like, “We need to get this done,” but also, there’s a moment to stop. There’s a moment at least to pause. There are other people who are also responsible for this.

This is where we differ from a lot of traditional consultancies. We are very satisfied if we can walk away from a client knowing that we have helped make their teams stronger. We don’t want that land and expand the relationship, but our job is to help them to learn to do things for themselves. Also, you can take a lot of satisfaction and that helps with pressure getting some satisfaction along the way and some celebration along the way from seeing the shift in the people you are working with. They were asking for my help with that and then not anymore. That’s good. Then now confident enough to deal with that situation themselves. They have learned some skills and I have probably learned a lot back from doing it with them.

Craig McCartney: That was a side question. I did want to come back to the differences between the public sector and private sector in terms of some of those transformation projects. I know you don’t work in the public sector. Are there any similarities between the two and or not and what are the differences?

James Stewart: There are a lot of similarities and we work with institutions that matter and there’s something quite deliberate in that language of institutions doesn’t mean public sector. It also means large corporates. It means large nonprofits and multilaterals. We do work with the UN and the World Bank and others as well. Almost all of our clients are long-established organizations. They existed before the internet or at least before the internet was a big part of people’s lives.

Over that time, every organization naturally accumulates ways of working. It accumulates processes, governance, and responsibilities, regardless of whether you are public or private sector. It also usually has a lot of people and lots of internal politics, whether or not it’s got external politics attached to it. Our specialty is jumping into those sorts of complex environments built up over the years. We are helping them find the deceptively simple thing you could get started on that that you can then use to test what other parts of your organization have to change that apply to the private or public sector.

You get into what the motivations for change and those can obviously be very different between the public and private sectors. In both cases, we are drawn to organizations that have some sense of admission about them. That puts us at a moment where I remember the COP26 that’s going on. At the moment, a lot of people are talking about that.

Their sustainability mission and it’s encouraging to see across sectors people stepping up on that. I don’t know how much they are stepping up. We’ll see at the end of the summit, but there is this new sense in a lot of big organizations, public or private sector, that it will be much clearer about the social value you create is essential. We try and connect to that and that motivates us a lot regardless of sector.

Craig McCartney: Thinking about it now is a little bit of a silly question because they are very similar. It’s this the motives behind then wanting to change. Talking about sustainability is another curve ball for you that is coming up more. In terms of those transformation projects, are you seeing technology driving any goals around sustainability or maybe pressure on the technology to improve the sustainability of those organizations?

James Stewart: At the moment, if you are looking at Western developed countries, there’s a lot of talk about that. I’m not seeing it come together very much. As I mentioned, we do a fair bit of work with Wells bank UN and others in Africa and Southeast Asia through those bodies and there this comes to the fore a lot more because all of that work is focused on the sustainable development goals.

Whether it’s sustainability in the sense of how can we help communities thrive or sustainability in the sense of how can we get better environmental outcomes? There’s a lot more focus in that work. That’s sometimes challenging because it’s quite easy to fall into Western technocratic ways of doing things, but it’s also exciting as you think about how we can make sure that what we are doing is helping build local skills and it’s helping build local supply chains, but it’s also building transparency into those things.

Where does technology play a part in that, but also where does helping people be better equipped to have conversations about what they want to play a part in that? In that work, it’s starting to come to the fore. We got a lot of publications coming up which will have a sustainability focus. We did a periodical called Signals. That’s the theme of the next edition.

Craig McCartney: Are you working on anything exciting at the moment that you can talk about or that you would like to share?

James Stewart: I’m working on lots of exciting things. One of the things that mark us out is we get quite excited about working in places that other people might find a bit boring because we are interested in this the institutional infrastructure that supports society. We have been doing some work with Sellafield Limited, the nuclear plants, as they move into their decommissioning phase.

Start small, but start the right way. Click To Tweet

One of the things that I find interesting there is thinking about timescales, in the digital world, we are used to quite a fast pace of things and that. What’s going to change next week? What’s going to change next year’s conversations and they are thinking about, “We have got nuclear waste. What’s going to happen in 30 or 70 years and beyond that?”

We are trying to make sure that you capture the real value in that long-term thinking while also injecting some. We can still try some quick things. We can still have an experimental culture and a culture that thinks, “We don’t have customers there, but there are a lot of important users who need information and safety outcomes and other things that technology can help with.” That package of the challenge is fascinating.

Craig McCartney: You guys get some interesting projects. Is it mainly through word of mouth or is it because of the work you’ve done previously for big institutions that matter?

James Stewart: We have been lucky for the first few years of the company that our past work and colleagues who’ve done a lot with BBC, the Guardian and the co-op. We personally ran the digital government for Argentina and this interesting network within the company, which has brought us a lot of work. We are in the process of getting more proactive about what we do there as we have got some more great case studies to share.

We always see our work coming through best when it’s in the context of relationships and partnerships. We are not looking to be that company that leads with sales and marketing and cold contacts. We want to spread the word about what we do and build the right relationships with clients who genuinely want what we offer.

Craig McCartney: Thank you so much for all of that information. I’m looking at the time. It’s time to liven up this show with some quickfire fun questions, which don’t have a bearing on too much about the future and technology. One of my favorite ones is how would your family describe what you do versus your friends versus your boss? You are the boss, but maybe your peers.

James Stewart: My parents probably got to a point where they found us did it when I made websites. I think there’s still quite a lot of that. It makes websites. I help other people learn more from that. It is quite easy with peers because of my technology background. To think that I spend a lot of time talking about technology and most of my time talking about all the other things around it, not nearly so much about technology. We have a CEO. That’s the boss. He has a fairly good understanding of what I do. My kids know I spend an awful lot of time on Zoom. They used to like it when I traveled a lot more because there were stories and presence.

Craig McCartney: What is your guilty technology pleasure?

James Stewart: I am attempting to make a point about I can’t tell myself away from my iPhone, even though I don’t like what Apple is doing with their browsers at the moment. It’s not so much a DLC pleasure as if I had a bit more time. I’d quite like to resurrect a lot of the old set of games of my youth which my mom found a load of old cassettes with games on which I’d love to get some time to get back into.

Craig McCartney: That checks that box there. Do you go to a lot of these digital/virtual events as a guest? Do you attend any?

I have not been to all that many. To be honest, through the pandemic, I was spending so much time in front of a video during the working day. The day job expanded to take up more time because that stuff you can do quickly with physical human contact takes longer that I didn’t have the energy to do very much more beyond that. There’s been a fantastic conference called Forward 50 in Canada focused on digital government. I dipped into bits of that.

Craig McCartney: In terms of the family and friends’ interaction, what’s the funniest Zoom experience you’ve had? I’m guessing you did a few games and quizzes.

There’ve been two things. One is my kids discovered Kahoot! quiz app at school, and then started doing quizzes for the extended family on some Zoom calls. It’s partly their growing up and watching them stepping up and doing that stuff for themselves, but in a way that wouldn’t have happened previously.

Homeschooling was challenging for us as it was for everybody, but there was something quite nice about seeing them interact with their peers, which you don’t normally get to see. That’s a voyeuristic, almost just watching thing. I enjoyed and seeing that and seeing the little jokes they tell each other in the chat or Google Meet or whatever it is they are doing.

Craig McCartney: I found my daughter in reception. They send you photos and videos and all of these updates, and then obviously, when they start your one, that’s it. You are like, you have no idea and it is a very sweet thing to witness. James, thank you so much for your time. We covered all of the questions. Readers, thank you so much for reading. Please do subscribe wherever you get your show, Spotify, Apple, Amazon, and Google. I got them all. James, thank you again. I will look out for any content and the magazine you are talking about and great to have you here.

James Stewart: Thank you very much.


We’re seeing a growing understanding that [transformation] is about culture. It’s also about the entire operating environment and style of big organisations. Being good at technology is a necessary part of it, but it’s just a part of it.

James Stewart,
Public Digital,

James Stewart
CTO, Public Digital

James Stewart is Public Digital’s lead technology specialist. James is a non-executive director in the UK Parliament, advises a number of startups, is a member of the Mayor of Hackney’s Digital Advisory Council, speaks regularly at events around the world, and is the author of Budgeting for Change. Previously, he was also Deputy CTO of the UK Government. A software developer by background, he built and led the technical team operating GOV.UK.



Craig McCartney
Managing Director,
Chief Nation

Welcome to The CEO.digital Show, a new peer-to-peer podcast series where we’ll be talking to influential thought leaders about how tech is continuing to change the way the world does business.

The CEO.digital Show is brought to you by host Craig McCartney. Each week, we’ll be interviewing major thought and industry leaders to learn how they are embracing new technologies and strategies to create new value and success for their companies. Find us on all major podcast streaming platforms.