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
Show Hide image

Leader: History is not written in stone

Statues have not been politicised by protest; they were always political.

When a mishmash of neo-Nazis, white supremacists, Trump supporters and private militias gathered in Charlottesville, Virginia on 12 August – a rally that ended in the death of a counter-protester – the ostensible reason was the city’s proposal to remove a statue of a man named Robert E Lee.

Lee was a Confederate general who surrendered to Ulysses S Grant at the Appomattox Court House in 1865, in one of the last battles of the American Civil War – a war fought to ensure that Southern whites could continue to benefit from the forced, unpaid labour of black bodies. He died five years later. It might therefore seem surprising that the contested statue of him in Virginia was not commissioned until 1917.

That knowledge, however, is vital to understanding the current debate over such statues. When the “alt-right” – many of whom have been revealed as merely old-fashioned white supremacists – talk about rewriting history, they speak as if history were an objective record arising from an organic process. However, as the American journalist Vann R Newkirk II wrote on 22 August, “obelisks don’t grow from the soil, and stone men and iron horses are never built without purpose”. The Southern Poverty Law Center found that few Confederate statues were commissioned immediately after the end of the war; instead, they arose in reaction to advances such as the foundation of the NAACP in 1909 and the desegregation of schools in the 1950s and 1960s. These monuments represent not history but backlash.

That means these statues have not been politicised by protest; they were always political. They were designed to promote the “Lost Cause” version of the Civil War, in which the conflict was driven by states’ rights rather than slavery. A similar rhetorical sleight of hand can be seen in the modern desire to keep them in place. The alt-right is unwilling to say that it wishes to retain monuments to white supremacy; instead, it claims to object to “history being rewritten”.

It seems trite to say: that is inevitable. Our understanding of the past is perpetually evolving and the hero of one era becomes a pariah in the next. Feminism, anti-colonialism, “people’s history” – all of these movements have questioned who we celebrate and whose stories we tell.

Across the world, statues have become the focus for this debate because they are visible, accessible and shape our experience of public space. There are currently 11 statues in Parliament Square – all of them male. (The suffragist Millicent Fawcett will join them soon, after a campaign led by Caroline Criado-Perez.) When a carving of a disabled artist, Alison Lapper, appeared on the fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square, its sculptor, Marc Quinn, acknowledged its significance. “This square celebrates the courage of men in battle,” he said. “Alison’s life is a struggle to overcome much greater difficulties than many of the men we celebrate and commemorate here.”

There are valid reasons to keep statues to figures we would now rather forget. But we should acknowledge this is not a neutral choice. Tearing down our history, looking it in the face, trying to ignore it or render it unexceptional – all of these are political acts. 

The Brexit delusion

After the UK triggered Article 50 in March, the Brexiteers liked to boast that leaving the European Union would prove a simple task. The International Trade Secretary, Liam Fox, claimed that a new trade deal with the EU would be “one of the easiest in human history” to negotiate and could be agreed before the UK’s scheduled departure on 29 March 2019.

However, after the opening of the negotiations, and the loss of the Conservatives’ parliamentary majority, reality has reasserted itself. All cabinet ministers, including Mr Fox, now acknowledge that it will be impossible to achieve a new trade deal before Brexit. As such, we are told that a “transitional period” is essential.

Yet the government has merely replaced one delusion with another. As its recent position papers show, it hopes to leave institutions such as the customs union in 2019 but to preserve their benefits. An increasingly exasperated EU, unsurprisingly, retorts that is not an option. For Britain, “taking back control” will come at a cost. Only when the Brexiteers acknowledge this truth will the UK have the debate it so desperately needs. 

This article first appeared in the 24 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Sunni vs Shia