DWP: fake psych ‘test’ training given by unqualified ‘experts’


Please share this widely. I think it’s big again.

The saga of the DWP’s fake psychometric test, forced on unwitting jobseekers under threat of ‘sanction’ (immediate cessation of benefits), continues.

After a series of conflicting denials and admissions, and finally an outright admission that jobseekers were ‘directed’ (instructed under threat of sanction) to take the test, I’ve received another remarkable FOI response – this one primarily about the qualifications of the people who ‘coached’ Jobcentre Plus (JCP) advisers how to select the jobseekers who were directed to take the test.

Psychological experiments require stringent ethical and quality controls, carried out by qualified and registered psychologists. The Division of Occupational Psychologists (DOP) of the British Psychological Society (BPS) has been in uproar about the fact that the DWP’s ‘test’ was not properly validated or administered, and the DWP’s senior psychologist is under investigation by the Health and Care Professions Council (HCPC – please forgive all the acronyms, but they’re really unavoidable in this case!) over the maladministration of an unvalidated psychometric test.

This was the context for my latest Freedom of Information request to the DWP. The Department had responded to a previous FOI asking what training was given to the JCP advisers who selected jobseeker ‘lab rats’ for Downing Street’s Behavioural Insights Team’s experiment. The DWP had responded that the training for the test was

part of a facilitated Coaching Session under Building Resilience. Advisers would decide using their knowledge of each individual claimant whether they felt it would be beneficial for the claimant to complete a ‘My Strengths’ test. The sessions were delivered by experts and the sessions are for coaching and take on the form of a seminar rather than a lecture, hence lack of a script/materials.

Naturally, I wasn’t satisfied by such an obviously vague response, and wanted to know who these ‘experts’ were and what their qualifications were, so I submitted a new FOI to the DWP to that effect. This led to the newest, remarkable response, which you can view in full here, but the key parts of which are shown below along with the questions I asked:

Q: Who were these ‘experts’ [who ‘delivered’ an informal coaching session to JCP advisers – so informal that there are no notes or written handouts!]?

A: The experts were members of the “Behavioural Insight Team in the Cabinet Office”

Q: What are the qualifications that make them expert?

A: The lead facilitator is a Psychologist in the Cabinet Office.

This is hugely significant, for two main reasons.

First, while the DWP’s chief psychologist is under investigation over this matter, it’s been unclear yet whether the ‘test’ had involved a psychologist at all, or had simply bypassed any qualified involvement. Now we have it on record that a psychologist was involved in this unvalidated, improper, coercive experiment on vulnerable people – but one from the Cabinet Office, not the DWP. Whoever that was, and whoever they report to, needs to be investigated for malpractice too.

Second, and particularly, the BIT’s experts clearly had no qualifications whatever. If they did, the DWP’s response would have used them: ‘the BIT experts were qualified and registered psychologists/psychiatrists/psychotherapists’ or whatever. Instead, they answer a question I didn’t ask, by telling me that the ‘lead facilitator’ (whatever the hell that is) was a psychologist. It’s an evasive answer, clearly designed to cover for the fact that they made a false claim in their previous FOI response. I will be challenging this evasive response!

Q: Please provide a copy of their notes for these sessions – it is implausible to suggest that they all carried out the sessions without any notes or prompts whatever. [The ‘sessions’ referred to relate to the previous FOI, which asked how the people mandated to complete the ‘test’ were selected.]

A: As the sessions are for coaching and take on the form of a seminar rather than a lecture, script/materials are not used. I have attached a note which they can refer to which provides an overview of Building Resilience (see separate attachment).

Now we move from the absurd to the ridiculous. These ‘coaching sessions’, supposedly given by ‘experts’ to JCP advisers to prepare them for the rigorous, delicate, vital task of selecting human guinea pigs for a psychological experiment… consist of nothing more than a description of the purported aims of the test. Here it is in its entirety, o you can see whether there’s a single word about how to select candidates or the care that should be taken in doing so, which is what I had asked about:

Building Resilience: Strengths


It widely accepted that increase resilience and positive approaches are important to people in work but we’ve all seen Jobseeker’s Allowance claimants whose morale and self-belief visibly decrease during their time out of work. How do we remedy this?

Often Jobcentre advisers tackle this informally, doing the best they can to improve their claimant’s morale; the best advisers will use resources available on the internet for the claimants to support themselves. The claimant experience in a Jobcentre tends to focus on the weaknesses people have and how we can help them; this is similar to healthcare (think of the language we use like ‘diagnostic’ interview) but it can be more effective to aim for being ‘healthy’ rather than ‘not unhealthy’ – which can lead people to focus on what they are bad at. A light touch approach can stop these issues before they cause harm to people.

How does it work?

We all know confidence in your own abilities is fundamental to finding work (see this article from MEP Seligman as an example) – believing you have something to offer an employer will drive how you sell yourself in your CV, application or interview. In our Jobcentre environment, claimants have naturally been through a stressful period of either losing their job or having not working for a long time. Strengths tests, like the one below, provide the individual with strengths about their personality they can apply to any scenario. The respondent is not given weaknesses or a score for their strengths – a strength is a strength, not a high or low scoring strength.

Applying it to Jobcentres

As part of the behavioural insights trial, Jobseeker’s are requested to complete a strengths testing exercise at some point in the first 13 weeks of their claim. The exercise is particularly useful if:
 morale or confidence have visibly fallen
 the claimant is looking to refresh/update their CV or prepare for an interview
The effect of these tests should provide the claimant with a greater belief that they have something to offer an employer, giving them a more positive and optimistic approach to finding work.
You can register on the Authentic Happiness website or at http://www.viasurvey.co.uk and complete your own strengths test there.
Alternatively, you can complete the signature strengths test used in the Behavioural Insights trial here.

Did you find a single word about how to choose candidates, or ethical issues, or the need for care? No, nor did I.

Once again we have from the DWP a series of non-responses designed to mislead and misdirect – yet which give away far more than intended. The current DWP is rather good at persecuting the vulnerable, but rather less good at covering it up.

I’ll be passing this information on to the BPS DOP, so that its members can decide what to do with it. I also plan to make my own complaint to the HCPC, once I have the name of the psychologist responsible for ‘facilitating’ this bizarre, threat-based experiment on struggling jobseekers.


  1. Why should we expect anything other than barefaced lies from the Department of Wanton Prevaricators?

  2. As far as I can see it does give a couple of vague “indicators” as to when it would be most useful, ie low morale and/or refreshing CV/preparing for interview. But since this applies to almost all jobseekers it isn’t exactly very discerning.

    I also note that “As part of the behavioural insights trial, Jobseekers are requested to complete a strengths testing exercise at some point in the first 13 weeks of their claim.”
    I find the language interesting. It doesn’t say “selected jobseekers” or “appropriate jobseekers” or similar. It sounds far more like jobseekers in the trial area will be routinely requested to take the test rather than screened and selected. I could of course be reading too much into it, but it isn’t the language I would expect of a research trial.

  3. Great stuff, Steve. This is the angle I think the Guardian should have been chasing up all along.

    I’m very interested to see who the “psychologist in the Cabinet Office” is. David Halpern, head of the BIT, has a BSc and PhD in psychology disciplines but AFAIK is not a CPsychol and wouldn’t be entitled to describe himself as “a psychologist”. On the other hand, it says “in the Cabinet Office”, not necessarily the BIT.

  4. Good work, Steve. The link given to “viasurvey” didn’t open, but “via” reminded me of that American firm, or whatever it is, that does *something* with Seligman’s work. Getting curious, I Googled Authentic Happiness and found this: http://www.authentichappiness.sas.upenn.edu/Default.aspx . I don’t remember if Via is that company or organisation, but this might be interesting. PS. upenn is the University of Pennsylvania.

  5. PS. Here’s a half-baked query. If the BIT first used a mere selection of Seligman’s test, why does it *now* refer back to the full test, at Seligman’s website? Or is the full test not there?

  6. Thanks! Steve for all your research on behalf of the vulnerable, where would we be without people like you taking the time and effort to expose what this government is doing behind our backs. So thank you! once again & to all of you that are fighting hard for the underprivileged “You are all hero’s in my eyes “

  7. Hmm. If the DWP was serious about improving ‘morale’ among jobseekers, they might want to consider calling ceasefire on their propaganda war depicting us all as lazy scrounging parasites wallowing in ‘handouts’.

    By co-incidence, I’ve recently been reading about the Forer effect, which I suspect is the inspiration behind this entire farce. (In a nutshell,the Forer effect shows that we’re often easily fooled into believing that a series of mundane – generally upbeat – platitudes is a detailed assessment of our own unique personality. Both James Randi and Penn & Teller have re-run versions of the original experiment in order to debunk astrology. Summary here,: http://skepdic.com/forer.html )

  8. As each week passes the number of misdeeds by Jobcentre Plus. increases. I have never heard or read about so many judicial reviews, horrendous news stories or whistle-blowing in my lifetime.

    Further, the reports I hear from friends, family and people who are referred to me are beyond belief!

    Thanks Steve, for bringing some of the most serious DWP issues into the public domain in a fair and reasonable manner. Stories that touch the ordinary man and the people who work or have worded in the system as well as the professional commentator are worthy of praise!

  9. The government seems completely disconnected from reality on the ground. This is what comes of the managerialisation of government …. and society.

    1. It is truly frightening how quickly the current regime has evolved as well as the ease in which some government officials justify their actions/approach.

  10. Steve, from an FOI from 2011 I know that the BIT does not employ any chartered psychologists. I think that they mean David Halpern who is only a psychology graduate and THEREFORE IS NOT a qualified practitioner psychologist and certainly is not qualified to do psychometric testing.

    The strengths test is a personality test and therefore should be conducted by people who have passed both level A and level B psychometric test training which is supervised by the BPS. In saying that the training was supervised by a BIT psychologist clarification is needed if this person is a) chartered b) registered practitioner with the HCPC c) has qualifications in level A and level B psychometric testing. Level B is now called level 2 EFPA.

  11. What worries me is that there are a lot of GP’s that are pig ignorant about these sort of schemes. My GP thinks that ‘work = good’ and that everything is black and white and thus if the DWP want you to be psychoanalysed by some bullshit test it can only be for the best. This is scary; claimants have zero support or protection because people are conditioned to believe that anything related to work, no matter how crappy/poorly paid/poor conditions etc, is a panacea.

    1. I had the same problem. See my comment above, about the link to Authentic Happiness.

  12. I have the very strong impression that this particularly choice piece of bullshit was expelled simply to answer your query, by some lowly, wretched minion who will probably be the only person to lose their job as a result of this disgusting episode. It was clearly written by someone who either lacks basic literacy skills or, far more likely, was given 15 minutes to throw it together and didn’t have time for subbing: note the mistakes in para. 1 line 1 (read ‘increased’); 2.2 (read ‘claimants’); 4.5-6 (‘having not working’); 5.1 (read ‘with [information about] strengths’], cf. 5.2; 5.4-5 (read ‘high-/low-scoring’); 6.1 ([my favourite] read ‘Jobseekers’); 6.2 (read ‘strengths-testing’); 6.7 (‘a greater belief’, read ‘a stronger belief’).

    And these people are supposed to be training other people to help other people put a CV together. ‹‹sigh››

  13. I don’t think it really matters whether people in the “behavioral insights unit” are qualified psychologists or not. The entire history of psychometrics is murky, and what – if anything – such tests really indicate has always been a matter of controversy or dispute.

    Introducing psychometric tests creates busy work for the government bureaucrats, making them look as if they are “doing something”, but I think it’s very unlikely to help people gain employment. Much of the experience of unemployment seems like that, with various meetings and form-filling administered often by people who may be well-meaning but which is of no real practical help.

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