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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Find the EU renegotiation demands dull? Me too – but they are important

It's an old trick: smother anything in enough jargon and you can avoid being held accountable for it.

I don’t know about you, but I found the details of Britain’s European Union renegotiation demands quite hard to read. Literally. My eye kept gliding past them, in an endless quest for something more interesting in the paragraph ahead. It was as if the word “subsidiarity” had been smeared in grease. I haven’t felt tedium quite like this since I read The Lord of the Rings and found I slid straight past anything written in italics, reasoning that it was probably another interminable Elvish poem. (“The wind was in his flowing hair/The foam about him shone;/Afar they saw him strong and fair/Go riding like a swan.”)

Anyone who writes about politics encounters this; I call it Subclause Syndrome. Smother anything in enough jargon, whirr enough footnotes into the air, and you have a very effective shield for protecting yourself from accountability – better even than gutting the Freedom of Information laws, although the government seems quite keen on that, too. No wonder so much of our political conversation ends up being about personality: if we can’t hope to master all the technicalities, the next best thing is to trust the person to whom we have delegated that job.

Anyway, after 15 cups of coffee, three ice-bucket challenges and a bottle of poppers I borrowed from a Tory MP, I finally made it through. I didn’t feel much more enlightened, though, because there were notable omissions – no mention, thankfully, of rolling back employment protections – and elsewhere there was a touching faith in the power of adding “language” to official documents.

One thing did stand out, however. For months, we have been told that it is a terrible problem that migrants from Europe are sending child benefit to their families back home. In future, the amount that can be claimed will start at zero and it will reach full whack only after four years of working in Britain. Even better, to reduce the alleged “pull factor” of our generous in-work benefits regime, the child benefit rate will be paid on a ratio calculated according to average wages in the home country.

What a waste of time. At the moment, only £30m in child benefit is sent out of the country each year: quite a large sum if you’re doing a whip round for a retirement gift for a colleague, but basically a rounding error in the Department for Work and Pensions budget.

Only 20,000 workers, and 34,000 children, are involved. And yet, apparently, this makes it worth introducing 28 different rates of child benefit to be administered by the DWP. We are given to understand that Iain Duncan Smith thinks this is barmy – and this is a man optimistic enough about his department’s computer systems to predict in 2013 that 4.46 million people would be claiming Universal Credit by now*.

David Cameron’s renegotiation package was comprised exclusively of what Doctor Who fans call handwavium – a magic substance with no obvious physical attributes, which nonetheless helpfully advances the plot. In this case, the renegotiation covers up the fact that the Prime Minister always wanted to argue to stay in Europe, but needed a handy fig leaf to do so.

Brace yourself for a sentence you might not read again in the New Statesman, but this makes me feel sorry for Chris Grayling. He and other Outers in the cabinet have to wait at least two weeks for Cameron to get the demands signed off; all the while, Cameron can subtly make the case for staying in Europe, while they are bound to keep quiet because of collective responsibility.

When that stricture lifts, the high-ranking Eurosceptics will at last be free to make the case they have been sitting on for years. I have three strong beliefs about what will happen next. First, that everyone confidently predicting a paralysing civil war in the Tory ranks is doing so more in hope than expectation. Some on the left feel that if Labour is going to be divided over Trident, it is only fair that the Tories be split down the middle, too. They forget that power, and patronage, are strong solvents: there has already been much muttering about low-level blackmail from the high command, with MPs warned about the dire influence of disloyalty on their career prospects.

Second, the Europe campaign will feature large doses of both sides solemnly advising the other that they need to make “a positive case”. This will be roundly ignored. The Remain team will run a fear campaign based on job losses, access to the single market and “losing our seat at the table”; Leave will run a fear campaign based on the steady advance of whatever collective noun for migrants sounds just the right side of racist. (Current favourite: “hordes”.)

Third, the number of Britons making a decision based on a complete understanding of the renegotiation, and the future terms of our membership, will be vanishingly small. It is simply impossible to read about subsidiarity for more than an hour without lapsing into a coma.

Yet, funnily enough, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Just as the absurd complexity of policy frees us to talk instead about character, so the onset of Subclause Syndrome in the EU debate will allow us to ask ourselves a more profound, defining question: what kind of country do we want Britain to be? Polling suggests that very few of us see ourselves as “European” rather than Scottish, or British, but are we a country that feels open and looks outwards, or one that thinks this is the best it’s going to get, and we need to protect what we have? That’s more vital than any subclause. l

* For those of you keeping score at home, Universal Credit is now allegedly going to be implemented by 2021. Incidentally, George Osborne has recently discovered that it’s a great source of handwavium; tax credit cuts have been postponed because UC will render such huge savings that they aren’t needed.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle