The DWP's bogus psychometric tests are dystopian, but randomised trials aren't the problem

The solution is more trials, not fewer.

The DWP is under fire for mandating benefit claimants to carry out bogus psychometric tests. The Guardian's Shiv Malik reports:

The test called My Strengths, devised by Downing Street's behavioural insights or "nudge" unit, has been exposed by bloggers as a sham with results having no relation to the answers given.

Some of the 48 statements on the DWP test include: "I never go out of my way to visit museums," and: "I have not created anything of beauty in the last year." People are asked to grade their answers from "very much like me" to "very much unlike me".

When those being tested complete the official online questionnaire, they are assigned a set of five positive "strengths" including "love of learning" and "curiosity" and "originality".

However, those taking the supposed psychological survey have found that by clicking on the same answer repeatedly, users will get the same set of personality results as those entering a completely opposite set of answers.

The aim behind the "test" is apparently to prevent the claimants with motivating statements about themselves, in an effort to encourage them to find work. The behavioural insight team itself describes the process as:

Building psychological resilience and wellbeing for those who are still claiming after 8 weeks through ‘expressive writing’ and strengths identification.

But it's worth being clear about why "My Strengths" is so unpleasant. The problem with it is that unemployed people are being lied to in an effort to psychologically manipulate them into a mental state where they will do what the Government want. That sounds like a sentence from a dystopian future, but it's a fairly straight description of what is happening.

But Steve Walker, the blogger who broke the story, goes further, attacking the test because it's part of a government trial.

Walker writes that the trial breaches principals established by the EU's body for co-ordinating R&D which state that the medical rule of informed consent "remains valid for any other kind of research".

Principles aren't laws, so there's not a legal case to answer here; but even if we're just arguing morality, establishing medical-grade requirements of informed consent in social research would be a terrible idea.

The rise of randomised controlled trials (and, to a lesser extent, randomised trials and controlled trials – not everything can be both randomised and controlled) in social research is one of the most promising trends of the last decade. It's good not only because it can increase our knowledge of how to fight social problems in employment, education and crime, but because it's barely different from what's being done anyway.

Most providers of the government's work programme – which involves more than just the unpaid mandatory labour that has made it infamous –  have neither the staff, time or money to offer every service to every person who comes through their doors. When they're trying to decide who gets to go on the CV workshops and who doesn't, the obvious thing to do is to chart which groups improve the most when given the workshops. This is doubly true if you don't actually know whether CV workshops help or harm; keeping a good eye on the results is invaluable.

When it comes to trials, the biggest crime of the BIT isn't that they did them, but that they didn't do them enough. As a report from December shows, the team aggregated together three completely different changes:

  1. Making sure every customer talks about getting back to work on their first day (not after 2 weeks) by cutting down and reorganising processes;
  2. Introducing stretching commitment devices which focus on what the job seeker will do for the whole of the next fortnight. This replaces the present system where advisors ask if job seekers have done three job search activities in each of the previous two weeks;
  3. Building psychological resilience and wellbeing for those who are still claiming after 8 weeks through ‘expressive writing’ and strengths identification.

Overall, apparently, "job seekers in the treatment group are 15-20 per cent more likely than those in the control group to be off benefits 13 weeks after signing on" – but the trial is so badly designed that we can't see which of these treatments helped the most. It could well be the case that the My Strengths test actually hindered jobseekers, but the effect was hidden by the benefits of "cutting down and reorganising processes".

The government needs to behave ethically when dealing with its citizens, and that goes whether or not it is done in the framework of a formal trial. But if it does try a new ethical way of helping jobseekers, the last thing we want to do is discourage it from measuring the results.

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

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Autumn Statement 2015: George Osborne abandons his target

How will George Osborne close the deficit after his U-Turns? Answer: he won't, of course. 

“Good governments U-Turn, and U-Turn frequently.” That’s Andrew Adonis’ maxim, and George Osborne borrowed heavily from him today, delivering two big U-Turns, on tax credits and on police funding. There will be no cuts to tax credits or to the police.

The Office for Budget Responsibility estimates that, in total, the government gave away £6.2 billion next year, more than half of which is the reverse to tax credits.

Osborne claims that he will still deliver his planned £12bn reduction in welfare. But, as I’ve written before, without cutting tax credits, it’s difficult to see how you can get £12bn out of the welfare bill. Here’s the OBR’s chart of welfare spending:

The government has already promised to protect child benefit and pension spending – in fact, it actually increased pensioner spending today. So all that’s left is tax credits. If the government is not going to cut them, where’s the £12bn come from?

A bit of clever accounting today got Osborne out of his hole. The Universal Credit, once it comes in in full, will replace tax credits anyway, allowing him to describe his U-Turn as a delay, not a full retreat. But the reality – as the Treasury has admitted privately for some time – is that the Universal Credit will never be wholly implemented. The pilot schemes – one of which, in Hammersmith, I have visited myself – are little more than Potemkin set-ups. Iain Duncan Smith’s Universal Credit will never be rolled out in full. The savings from switching from tax credits to Universal Credit will never materialise.

The £12bn is smaller, too, than it was this time last week. Instead of cutting £12bn from the welfare budget by 2017-8, the government will instead cut £12bn by the end of the parliament – a much smaller task.

That’s not to say that the cuts to departmental spending and welfare will be painless – far from it. Employment Support Allowance – what used to be called incapacity benefit and severe disablement benefit – will be cut down to the level of Jobseekers’ Allowance, while the government will erect further hurdles to claimants. Cuts to departmental spending will mean a further reduction in the numbers of public sector workers.  But it will be some way short of the reductions in welfare spending required to hit Osborne’s deficit reduction timetable.

So, where’s the money coming from? The answer is nowhere. What we'll instead get is five more years of the same: increasing household debt, austerity largely concentrated on the poorest, and yet more borrowing. As the last five years proved, the Conservatives don’t need to close the deficit to be re-elected. In fact, it may be that having the need to “finish the job” as a stick to beat Labour with actually helped the Tories in May. They have neither an economic imperative nor a political one to close the deficit. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.