My aspirations for dxw’s future

Our founder’s letter of wishes for dxw as we become employee owned

dxw has come of age

In mid-2020, the directors and I decided to sell a controlling interest in dxw to an Employee Owned Trust. This is a legal structure in which the majority of dxw’s shares are held in trust on behalf and for the benefit of the staff.

This happened last week, and in so doing, we have both transferred ownership of the majority of the company to dxw’s staff and given legal backing to the company’s values and mission, and to one of our long-standing and most central principles: building a company which respects and values its people.

These are enshrined legally in the Deed of Trust, and I’ve expanded on them here with my wishes for dxw’s future.

dxw’s past, future, mission, and purpose

I hope that this change to employee ownership will usher in a new stage in dxw’s story. One where our structures of ownership, control, and governance align with our culture and our public service ethos.

As we grow, I hope we’ll be more able than ever to pursue our mission: not only to build better services, but to help public servants, wherever they may be, to change the way they work for the better. 

I believe deeply that government, despite all of its peculiarities, inequities, and inefficiencies, is an instrument of good. Without it, what kind of world would we have? It is deeply imperfect. But it’s all we’ve got. 

We deserve one that serves us better.

When I started dxw, I wanted to build a supplier that could win contracts to build better digital services, at lower cost than the suppliers of the time.

Government’s inability to provide usable services at sensible cost felt like an unacceptable problem. Not only because of the direct impact that poor services have on their users, but because of the failure and lost opportunity suffered by spending money on those services that could be better spent elsewhere. 

At the time, ideas about user-centricity, design-led practice and agile methodologies were just gaining traction in government. I believed that they stood a much greater chance of producing good outcomes than the prevailing approaches of the day.

Very early in my journey with dxw, I found that the most challenging aspects in that work are not technological, but cultural. 

That arriving with good ideas and a good methodology is not sufficient to produce lasting change. 

That new online services, in and of themselves, cannot produce the kind of user experience or efficiency in service delivery that would lead to a wholesale change in the quality and usefulness of people’s interactions with government.

While exemplary technology delivery is necessary to see this change happen, it’s not sufficient.

It’s not sufficient because, at root, all of these services are built and operated by people

And the perspectives, processes, values, cultures of work, methodologies, and histories of those people and their organisations are deeply relevant to the quality of the experience that their users will have.

So, for us to be effective — for us to play our part in making users’ experience of public services so good that it starts to change the nature of their relationship with government — we need to address those things, as well as bringing our technological expertise to bear.

That is the mission I hope dxw will pursue into the future.

I hope that dxw will continue to build services that fit seamlessly into users’ lives, making public services usable and accessible to all – especially to those most in need.

I hope that dxw will help government to spend less money on technology, so that it can spend more money on the services that society needs in order to protect its most vulnerable members.I hope that dxw will continue to use the combination of its experience, technical expertise, public service ethos and metta٭ not only to produce better services, but to radically and permanently improve people’s interactions with government. To make government a better instrument of good.

*Metta is benevolence, loving-kindness, friendliness, amity, good will, and active interest in others.

Recommendations to trustees

I believe that government is an instrument of good, and that the better it works, the more good it can do

In all of our decisions, I believe that dxw should maximise the positive impact of our work on the people our clients serve.

We are here not just to build websites, but to influence the way that government thinks, plans, and delivers public services.

Within the boundaries of our commercial relationships, we should have regard not just for the wishes of our clients, but also to the interests of their users, and the ways in which we can use our role to improve people’s experience of public services, and help government do more good.

I believe that we must liberally interpret what constitutes “government”

Government brings to mind visions of parliament, politicians, and centralised authority. 

But most people’s interactions with government don’t happen there. They happen locally, and are distributed between numerous institutions. When people talk about government, they often mean “public services”.

The majority of users’ interactions with our public services are with or mediated by local authorities, housing associations, NHS trusts, emergency services, and increasingly, charitable and third sector organisations.

We should go where the users are.

I believe that powerful work emerges from empowered people

I believe that good work only happens when people are respected, supported, and rewarded for what they do.

We must also all show each other the same kindness and compassion that we bring to bear with our clients and their users.

dxw should aspire to be a place where every person feels welcome, safe, and able to bring their whole self to work.

We should create opportunities for staff to meaningfully engage with and contribute to the decisions we make about our future.

We should reward our people well, invest in their development, and give every person who works at dxw the opportunity to realise a fair portion of the value that we generate together.

I believe that our freedom to pursue our mission is built on our commercial stability

dxw is a company with a social mission, but it’s not a charity. 

For us to have the freedom to make the right decisions for our mission, we must maintain strong commercial performance.

Without profits, we have no power.

We should continue to develop and improve our structures of governance, operations and delivery.

In our work, we should manage risk proactively, make decisions effectively, respond decisively to change, and communicate liberally about what we’re doing and why.

I believe deeply in our core values, and am entrusting their care to our trustees

As I’ve often said to new staff, I believe that our values are real, and useful. 

They are not a marketing tool, nor are they platitudes. They’re our principles, and are real, substantial tools to help everyone at dxw make better decisions.

We should hold our values close in every decision that we make, individually, and as teams.

I hope that our staff, leaders, and Trustees will embrace and embody our values, use them to shape our future, and help us each to hold to them in our work. 

Our values

Be helpful

We are helpful, useful and expert. We give practical and pragmatic advice to each other, and to our clients.

At the root of our values is helpfulness.

We can’t make the change we want to make by imposing our ideas on people. 

We won’t create long-lasting change by having the most correct philosophy or the cleverest technical solutions. 

I believe the best way for us to make lasting change is to find people who want to see it, and use our expertise and experience to help them achieve it.

Be positive

We are positive, cheerful and supportive. Even in crisis, we stay optimistic. We assume good faith and offer constructive challenge.

Positivity is powerful, and infectious, and bold. Its effect on others can be profound. It creates hope.

To be positive in the face of an intimidating problem or difficult working relationships is hard. And we must be wary of slipping into a good news culture. But positivity is vital to our success.

Its inverse – negativity, cynicism and pessimism – are critical steps towards failure and disillusionment. 

Be reliable

We are reliable, consistent and committed. We make every effort to live up to each others’ expectations, and to exceed the expectations of our clients.

Our success depends on people trusting us. 

To trust us, it’s not enough to believe our intention is good. They must also believe that we’re capable.

Unreliability is a large space, running from persistent minor lateness to big missed deliverables.

All of that space is toxic to trust, and so, to our mission.

Be honest

We are honest, trustworthy and straightforward. We give plain-spoken, frank, accurate feedback and advice, and we never mislead or obscure the issue at hand.

Trust also depends on honesty. People who are not honest are not – and should not be – trusted.

Honesty is perhaps the most important quality of integrity. And integrity is a tricky thing. It is undermined not only flagrant dishonesty, but also by convenient half-truths, omissions and spin.

Integrity is also fragile. The moment it’s questioned, it’s gone. So there can be no half-truths at dxw. We must be honest to a fault.

Be curious

We are curious, diverse and creative. We help each other to learn and improve and we’re sensitive to each others’ needs. We love technology and finding new ways to solve problems.

Curiosity is profoundly necessary to do good work at the intersection of people and technology.

It’s what makes us able to collaborate, and what allows us to understand not just the technical aspects of our work, but also their impact on the people we serve.

And curiosity about the lives and perspectives of others is part of what makes inclusiveness a real, valuable thing: not just a word.

Be determined

We are determined, discerning and motivated. We believe in high standards, we enjoy doing things properly, and we’re loath to settle for less.

Our work is often hard. The problems we’re solving are not easy ones: if they were, they’d already have been solved.

We must bring focus and determination to our work, and find ways to do the best work we can given the client’s budget and context.

Finally: to be determined, and to do challenging work cheerfully, come at personal cost. We must all take care to protect our personal wellbeing, to look after ourselves, to rest, recharge and restore, so that we can always take satisfaction in having done our best work.

These values are often hard to live and work by, but they are critical to our future success.

Applying these values, especially within the boundaries of our commercial relationships and realities, is frequently difficult. 

The right answer is not always obvious, and they often trade off each other.

But I believe that they are fundamental. 

If we apply them consistently, diligently, mindfully, and in good faith, I believe they’ll help us to create a better future for ourselves, for our clients, and most critically, for their users.