The Guardian's Shiv Malik reports that the Government's Behavioural Insight Team – the so-called "nudge unit" – is in hot water over its unauthorised use of a bogus "psychometric test" designed to boost the self-esteem of jobseekers. Malik writes:
The Behavioural Insight team… has been accused by the Ohio-based VIA Institute on Character of bad practice after civil servants used VIA's personality tests in pilot experiments in Essex despite being refused permission to do so.
The £520,000-a-year Cabinet Office unit run by Dr David Halpern was told by VIA – whose members devised the personality test – to stop using the questionnaire because it had failed its scientific validation.
The Government's mistake was apparently in using a shorter version of the questionnaire than the 120- and 240-question ones which VIA had tested. So not only were they misleading jobseekers over what, exactly, the tests were doing – they were also using an intervention which had no evidence backing it up.
It will be interesting to see how – or whether – this affects the privatisation of the nudge unit. The government has announced plans to turn the team into a public service mutual, which would involve at least 25 per cent of the shares being held by the staff, and the rest split between government and a private sector partner. As Ed Mayo, of Co-Operatives UK, writes of that spin-off:
There is no vote for staff in this version of mutualisation, so they can perhaps be pressed into something they don't buy into. It is not really a new model but rather good old privatisation – although with the potential for the taxpayer to benefit if the business does well.
Above all, it is not, or at least not yet, a genuine mutual business. Nor is it a co-operative. And don't even mention the wonderful John Lewis, which is tediously and often inappropriately trotted out as an ideal for all services.
And if the government is hoping to benefit from this privatisation, it's best if it doesn't happen in a climate where the unit's unprofessionalism and lack of evidence-based rigour has just been exposed for all to see.
Which makes this particularly awkward timing.