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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The future of the Left is London

Far from debating it and arid pamphlets, local politicians in City Hall and across the country are bringing change today, says Fiona Twycross. 

Broadly, London is viewed as a left-wing city. This is an assumption backed up by polling. That same city, however, has twice voted in Boris Johnson defying tribalism and defining a new order in which politicians will be defined less by the colour of their rosette and more by their pragmatism and how they make you feel about the world.

With the concepts of left and right as inaccessible and irrelevant as ever to most members of the public, the future of political ideas will be understood and judged by voters less by their ideological purity and more by their actions and effectiveness. On a recent canvass session on a housing estate in Outer London, it was a change to the bus route not Trident the people I spoke to wanted to discuss.

The future of the left – and of the Labour Party – isn’t something that will be shaped in the future. The future of the left is being shaped now. It is being shaped wherever those of us who define ourselves as left of centre are using whatever power we have to directly or indirectly effect change. In Labour run town halls, in Select Committees, through carefully worded press releases – however, we can. Limited by the budgets and rules laid out by central government – with the Tories in Westminster, politics is a game in which the dice are loaded against the left but in which we can sometimes win a round.

At the London Assembly, we have played a part in shaping the direction. We have won the occasional round. London Assembly Members have proven that shaping the debate is not only reserved for those who wield power. The banning of water cannon, the promotion of universal free school meals, the Government’s climb-down over devastating cuts to the police budget and not least exposing the Mayor’s vast record of vanity projects. As the largest party in City Hall, Labour has achieved sometimes small but often fundamental victories against Boris Johnson. Victories that have allowed the public to better understand the alternative we could provide as politicians who stand with their communities and protect the services they rely upon.

City Hall offers a challenging yet pragmatic forum to shape policies. With just 25 members in total, and no party having a majority, you really have to be able to work together to get anything done. The electoral make-up of the Assembly, including groups from minority parties as well as the two main parties requires a much higher degree of pragmatism, collaboration and in the end compromise than Parliament. As a result, policy - particularly that coming out of City Hall’s scrutiny committees - often commands cross-party support and a certain degree of legitimacy that political point scoring rarely achieves.

However, while we can change things round the edges; highlight injustices and propose alternatives that may sometimes be adopted, we must never lose sight of the fact that you can do immeasurably more if you are in power. Winning power to enact positive change, should be the guiding aim of any centre left politician.

With the next general election still likely to be more than four years off, the first major electoral challenge since 2015 comes in the shape of this May’s elections in local councils across the country, in devolved countries and in London.

The upcoming Mayoral election means throwing off the abstract and painting an image for Londoners of what a left wing alternative in London would look like. That picture will resonate far beyond London - the future of the left really is being shaped today.

That is exactly what we are doing and what Sadiq Khan is offering. Standing up for hard pressed Londoners who are increasingly forced into poverty or priced out of the capital altogether.

From building affordable homes to tackling London’s air quality. From freezing fares to protecting neighbourhood policing. All of these are policies with mass appeal but at the same time, all are ones which disproportionately benefit the least well off in our society. The left, if anything has to stand for a fairness.

But voters don't want just abstract vision, they want tangible change. Sadiq Khan is putting forward ambitious, progressive policies for London, but to implement them as Mayor, with the Conservatives in power nationally, he will have to not just argue with government but make the arguments for London to get the best deal he can. 

With high levels of child poverty in Conservative run boroughs like Westminster and Kensington & Chelsea, he knows he can’t afford only to be able to work with Labour boroughs if he wants all young Londoners to have better life chances. What matters isn’t just what works it is working with all those you need to build and deliver change.

From City bankers to environmentalists, a Labour Mayor will need a range of allies. In charting his own course, having his own voice and putting London and Londoners at the heart of his policies. What works for London won't necessarily work everywhere, that will mean a necessary element of independence, that's not disloyal, its the job. 

Whether in London or beyond, the left needs a message relevant to people like those I met on that housing estate in outer London. Authenticity and independence matter. In a world where tribal politics has broken down ensuring you don’t look like you put your party before the people you represent matters. But you can do this and still stay true to your values.

Our opponents like to paint a horror story image of what the country would look like under Labour. A win in London offers the chance to dispel that myth and will show the success to be had with a Labour politician who is willing to govern in the interests of the majority rather than just the few.

A win in London will show the progressive left has a future, here and now. A future that delivers.