DWP ‘nudge’ chief: none forced to take fake ‘test’. DWP FOI: yes they were

Picture from the Guardian’s publication of a letter from the DWP’s head and the original author of the fake DWP ‘test’

Last month I exposed the fake psychometric test the DWP was forcing candidates to take for behaviour-manipulation purposes, under threat of losing their benefits through ‘sanction’ if they did not comply. The story continues to rumble on.

On the 1st of May, the Guardian picked up the story and it became one of their most-read articles of the week. Shiv Malik, the author of that article, told me that the DWP was trying to deny all kinds of things in what seemed clearly to be a transparent attempt at damage limitation. It denied:

  • that the test referred to in the ‘jobseeker’s direction’ (JSD) letter was in fact the ‘my strengths’ test in question
  • that anyone had ever been forced to take the test
  • that anyone could have lost benefits for not taking it
  • that the test was bogus

These denials in the face of the evidence of the JSD letter were remarkable, especially when the US institution that owns the full version of the test from which the DWP ‘test’s questions were lifted condemned the use of the test and complained that it had explicitly turned down the DWP’s request to use the questions.

Not only that, but the issue sparked resounding condemnation and intense discussion from the British Psychological Society’s (BPS) ‘Division of Occupational Psychology’ (DOP). Here’s a comment from that discussion that was made by a psychologist who used to be employed by the DWP that couldn’t be much more emphatic:

Complete trash and totally unethical.

The DWP still employs many occupational psychologists and even has a head of profession. So what happened I wonder.

Having worked in big government my guess is that No10 and the life style nudge [theory] nudge wink wink charlatans wanted it and rode rough shod over the internal psychologist experts in the DWP.

Very sad that chartered psychologists in the public sector are losing their jobs when the dimwits at the BIT can do this stuff.

The denial that anyone had ever been made to take the test was clearly hollow, since I had a copy of a JSD letter to a jobseeker warning them that if they didn’t take the test they may be sanctioned. But I submitted a Freedom of Information (FOI) request to the DWP about the issue anyway.

The response that came back was no less remarkable than the denials. In a confused and self-contradictory reply, the DWP repeated its claim that completing the online ‘test’ had never been compulsory – and then a few sentences later, admitted that jobseekers had been ‘directed’ to take it:

a very small number of customers were directed to use the tool this did not result in any sanctions nor was it considered mandatory.

A ‘direction’ to a jobseeker is a very specific thing in DWP parlance. It is absolutely a mandatory instruction – and it is always backed by the threat of sanction for non-compliance. So even as it tried to deny that the test had been compulsory, the DWP admitted it.

Now, thanks to reading that DOP debate, I’ve come across some new (to me) and very interesting information. It turns out that, on the 15th of May, the head of David Cameron’s ‘nudge unit’ – together with the US psychologist of shady past who originally wrote the questions (as part of a much larger test) – wrote a letter to the Guardian responding to its initial article.

I think it’s safe to say that the letter completes a hat-trick of remarkable instances around this whole issue.

In a letter titled ‘Strengths test does work‘, the two authors claim:

You ran a story that jobcentres were requiring jobseekers to conduct a strengths test as a condition of receiving benefits, and described the test as “bogus” (Report, 1 May). Neither of these claims is correct. The test is not a requirement and jobseekers cannot lose their benefits as a result of not doing it. Furthermore the test is not “bogus” as claimed in your story. It was only described as such because one blogger found they could game the test when putting in certain unusual sequences of answers. Like any test of this kind, meaningless responses to the questions will lead to meaningless results. The test is supported by a strong academic literature including widely cited refereed journals. We too often define people by what they cannot do, rather than what they can. Exercises such as this test help rebuild self-confidence and identify character strengths, such as being good with people. It would be a shame if that confidence, and help, is knocked by a cheap exercise in showing it is possible to game a test.
David Halpern Cabinet Office behavioural insights teamProfessor Martin Seligman University of Pennsylvania

In this letter, most notably, the head of a taxpayer-funded government unit publicly repeats the claim that the test was never compulsory and that nobody was threatened with sanction for not completing it – a claim which, just 9 days later, his unit’s parent department admitted (albeit inadvertently) was untrue.

Very nearly as significantly, he and his co-author still continue to insist that the test reveals genuine attributes – even though it has been tried by hundreds of readers of this blog, all of whom found that the results bore no relation to the answers entered, and even though it was possible to get a glowing ‘profile’ without actually answering any questions. The test also only gives effusively positive answers, even if you answer all questions in the most negative and self-centred way possible.

Without question, this test does not ‘identify character strengths’, as the two co-authors of the letter claimed. Instead, it is set up to mislead respondents into thinking they have traits which have nothing to do with either their answers or their true personality.

On top of all that, the two gentlemen try to blame me (and others who took the test and exposed its nonsensical nature) of being responsible for the flawed results. It would be adding insult to injury, were it not too laughable to be taken seriously.

There’s nothing funny about the core issues here, though. The government was threatening people to make them take a ‘test’ that was designed to manipulate people psychologically – and then the head of the department responsible made a public claim that even his own department admitted was false shortly afterward.

As I said, this story continues to rumble on. It should, until those responsible for the malignant threatening and cynical deception of vulnerable people, and for the subsequent cover-up attempts, are held to account – or do what used to be considered the decent thing.


  1. Reblogged this on Vox Political and commented:
    This story won’t go away quickly, no matter how badly the DWP and the Cabinet ‘Nudge Unit’ might want it to. The latest development – involving claims by the false test’s creators, reminds me very much of the claims by the UK Treasury that it still has good documentary evidence that George Osborne’s austerity policies are necessary.
    Two questions spring to mind: First, is the theory behind this activity sound? Second, if that theory is being used to support a particular course of action, is that action justifiable?
    Expect an article, soon.

  2. I really want to read this aricle, but the print is too small to read! The quotes are OK, but not the main text. Thanks

    1. That’s set by WordPress – but you can use the options function on your browser to increase the viewing size of either just the text or of the whole page.

    2. If you use Firefox there is an excellent addon called NoSquint which allows you to adjust the page size and the text size on web pages and remembers the settings when you return.

    3. Install the free Opera browser, press the Ctrl key and use the scroll button on the mouse to zoom in or out to enlarge or reduce the text size.

    4. Easiest option- Hold the control key and press + repeatedly until you get best size- Press ‘control and -‘ (minus) to shrink it again

  3. This is the type of matter the union should be picking up with the help of its members.

    This type of activity is clearly in breach of the civil service code of practice and DWP values:

    • fulfil your duties and obligations responsibly

    • always act in a way that is professional and that deserves and retains the confidence of all those with whom you have dealings

    • deal with the public and their affairs fairly, efficiently, promptly, effectively and SENSITIVELY, to the best of your ability

    Respecting people.

  4. Reblogged this on this 'n that and commented:
    Having had experience of the suspect (Atos) I can vouch to the fact that they and,their paymasters (UK government aka swivel eyed loons) are complete fraudsters and, charlatans. Heard about the ill going to ‘appointments’ with Atos and,the quote of a social worker when asking a colleague why so many premises that Atos use,have steps up to the entrance? Said conference attendee replied (and,not remembering the exact words used) “oh ,that’s easy.If they can’t get up the steps,they are deemed to have failed to attend hence,they lose their benifits. If they can get to the appointment,they’re deemed fit so losing their benefits”. Methinks Atos (+ Tories have watched too many Carry On films. I hate and,detest both the swivel eyed loons + Atos!

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