Bogus psychometric tests for jobseekers were used without permission

Questionnaire "had failed its scientific validation".

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.

Photograph: Getty Images

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

Photo: Getty
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Forget planning for no deal. The government isn't really planning for Brexit at all

The British government is simply not in a position to handle life after the EU.

No deal is better than a bad deal? That phrase has essentially vanished from Theresa May’s lips since the loss of her parliamentary majority in June, but it lives on in the minds of her boosters in the commentariat and the most committed parts of the Brexit press. In fact, they have a new meme: criticising the civil service and ministers who backed a Remain vote for “not preparing” for a no deal Brexit.

Leaving without a deal would mean, among other things, dropping out of the Open Skies agreement which allows British aeroplanes to fly to the United States and European Union. It would lead very quickly to food shortages and also mean that radioactive isotopes, used among other things for cancer treatment, wouldn’t be able to cross into the UK anymore. “Planning for no deal” actually means “making a deal”.  (Where the Brexit elite may have a point is that the consequences of no deal are sufficiently disruptive on both sides that the British government shouldn’t  worry too much about the two-year time frame set out in Article 50, as both sides have too big an incentive to always agree to extra time. I don’t think this is likely for political reasons but there is a good economic case for it.)

For the most part, you can’t really plan for no deal. There are however some things the government could prepare for. They could, for instance, start hiring additional staff for customs checks and investing in a bigger IT system to be able to handle the increased volume of work that would need to take place at the British border. It would need to begin issuing compulsory purchases to build new customs posts at ports, particularly along the 300-mile stretch of the Irish border – where Northern Ireland, outside the European Union, would immediately have a hard border with the Republic of Ireland, which would remain inside the bloc. But as Newsnight’s Christopher Cook details, the government is doing none of these things.

Now, in a way, you might say that this is a good decision on the government’s part. Frankly, these measures would only be about as useful as doing your seatbelt up before driving off the Grand Canyon. Buying up land and properties along the Irish border has the potential to cause political headaches that neither the British nor Irish governments need. However, as Cook notes, much of the government’s negotiating strategy seems to be based around convincing the EU27 that the United Kingdom might actually walk away without a deal, so not making even these inadequate plans makes a mockery of their own strategy. 

But the frothing about preparing for “no deal” ignores a far bigger problem: the government isn’t really preparing for any deal, and certainly not the one envisaged in May’s Lancaster House speech, where she set out the terms of Britain’s Brexit negotiations, or in her letter to the EU27 triggering Article 50. Just to reiterate: the government’s proposal is that the United Kingdom will leave both the single market and the customs union. Its regulations will no longer be set or enforced by the European Court of Justice or related bodies.

That means that, when Britain leaves the EU, it will need, at a minimum: to beef up the number of staff, the quality of its computer systems and the amount of physical space given over to customs checks and other assorted border work. It will need to hire its own food and standards inspectors to travel the globe checking the quality of products exported to the United Kingdom. It will need to increase the size of its own regulatory bodies.

The Foreign Office is doing some good and important work on preparing Britain’s re-entry into the World Trade Organisation as a nation with its own set of tariffs. But across the government, the level of preparation is simply not where it should be.

And all that’s assuming that May gets exactly what she wants. It’s not that the government isn’t preparing for no deal, or isn’t preparing for a bad deal. It can’t even be said to be preparing for what it believes is a great deal. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.