Since I revealed in April that the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) and its Jobcentre Plus ‘subsidiary’ were forcing jobseekers, under the threat of sanction, to take a fake psychometric test on behalf of Downing Street’s ‘nudge unit’, the story has run on and on. The DWP denied that anyone had been forced to take the test and claimed that no one had risked losing benefits for non-compliance – and then admitted, in a bizarre Freedom of Information (FOI) response that it had done exactly that.
Meanwhile, the head of the nudge unit, David Halpern, had written a letter (jointly with creator of the ‘test’ and US psychological torture guru Martin Seligman) to the Guardian repeating the denial – which the FOI then showed to have been completely untrue. The situation caused considerable uproar among psychologists, particularly within the British Psychological Society‘s ‘Division of Occupational Psychologists‘ (BPS; DOP), some of whose comments in a Linkedin discussion forum you can see here.
I can now reveal (together with the Guardian) that the Health and Care Professions Council (HCPC) is investigating David Carew, the DWP’s Chief Psychologist, over the use of a ‘test’ which evidently lacks proper development and validation, and which consisted of simply extracting 48 questions from the hundreds contained in a properly-validated test created by a US organisation, the VIA.
The fact that the full test was apparently properly validated does not mean that any question, or subset of questions, is therefore validated as well – and approving a non-validated ‘test’ for use on unwilling subjects could represent a serious breach of professional ethics. The BPS said it was taking the complaints seriously and that the DWP had failed to provide full answers to its detailed questions about the test’s scientific rigour or the qualifications behind those implementing and devising the survey, saying:
We approached the DWP to try to discover how the Behavioural Insights Unit drew up its test. We have received a reply, but without our questions being fully answered.
The DOP, which represents around 4,000 BPS members, issued a separate statement saying it was “very concerned” by way in which the test had reportedly been applied and the “technical credentials of the instrument”. They said that they had “been unable to establish” from their appeals to the DWP,
any concrete evidence relating to proper development and psychometric qualities of the tool.
The government, however, continues its ludicrous denials of wrongdoing. The Cabinet Office said the test was supported by
strong academic literature including widely cited refereed journals
and that it had received “strong positive feedback from jobseekers who took the test” including evidence that it led to a reduction in benefit claims. It also repeated its denials that the test had been forced upon jobseekers:
The strengths survey is a voluntary exercise jobseekers can undertake to help rebuild self-confidence and identify character strength. It is important to note that this is not a workplace test and the survey output is for use by the claimants themselves,”
This denial persists in spite of overwhelming evidence to the contrary, including a letter to a claimant warning her that failure to complete the test could result in benefit ‘sanction’ (the immediate suspension of benefits for a minimum of 4 weeks), and the DWP’s admission in its FOI response (jointly with the Cabinet Office’s nudge unit) to me that a
number of customers were directed to use the tool
As we’ve seen over recent weeks, this is a government that is determined to dehumanise and bully unemployed people – and which is ‘perfectly relaxed’ about lying. Clearly both aspects of its behaviour have come together in a ‘perfect storm’ over the issue of this fake, coercive and cynical ‘test’. Let’s hope that the HCPC’s investigation of Mr Carew will reveal yet more information that will expose the government’s casual attitude to truth and proper process – and its complete disregard for due care and diligence when it comes to inflicting unvalidated psychological experiments on vulnerable people.