Tag Archives: Behavioral Insight Team

Meet The Nudge Unit – The Snake Oil Salesmen At The Heart of Government

look-in-my-eyesA bungled government sponsored online personality test has drawn scrutiny over the weekend after the Skawkbox blog revealed that no matter what answers the respondent gave to the probing questions the results were almost identical.

The test, which has already been inflicted on some unemployed claimants,  turns out to be the work of the controversial ‘nudge unit’.  Formally known as the Behavioral Insight Team, this seems to be a  flaky operation of Oxbridge toffs and policy wonks established to ‘nudge’ people into doing what David Cameron wants them to.

This shambolic operation, currently running at a cost of around half a million a year, have managed to devise an online personality test which will tell you your ‘signature strengths’ even if you don’t bother to answer any of the questions.  In a further example of this Government’s incompetence when it comes to anything at all to do with computers or the internet, a bit of further digging revealed a not for public consumption presentation left hanging about online for all to see and which details more of the work of the Nudge Unit.

The online personality test is nothing new.  Welfare to work sharks like A4e have attempted to inflict anything from Neuro-Linguistic Therapy (NLP) to crystal healing (probably) on claimants in an attempt to cure people of unemployment.  It seems that old any piece of bullshit can now gain currency if it helps to further the myth that unemployment is caused by unemployed people and not by a fucked economy.

What is new is this kind of pseudo-scientific garbage emanating from a government department which has the stated aim of tricking people into behaving as the state desires them to.  Yet even this turns out to be bogus.  The Nudge Unit’s techniques are far more than a combination of bribes and threats with a little bit of propaganda thrown in than any secretive thought control racket.  The unit’s boss, David Halpern comes across like a sort of slightly spooky marketing manager who’s read a couple of books by Paul Mckenna and now wants to be him.

One so called success was recently splashed across the newspapers after they claimed to have doubled the number of people paying car tax after redesigning letters sent out to non-payers and adding the phrase “pay your tax or lose your car” in big letters at the top.  Yet this isn’t a nudge it’s a threat.  “Pay your tax or we’ll kill your children” would no doubt have been even more effective.  Does it really take a team of government funded boffins to teach the DVLA how to threaten people better?

Just as importantly however, the DVLA did not take up their recommendations.  In fact outside of frothy PR pieces for the Nudge Unit there is no easily found hard data available into this trial.

Elsewhere the Nudge Unit boast about how they cut carbon emissions from some public buildings (PDF) by:  “changing the defaults around when heating and cooling systems were turned on and offŠ”.  In other words when asked how to cut the electricity bill they said “look into my eyes” and then mumbled something about turning the heating down.   Did I mention that these clowns are costing half a million a year.

There are suspiciously few available details of their other so called success stories, which they claim include encouraging people to pay fines quicker by sending them a text message and persuading people to insulate their lofts by offering to pay to have lofts cleared as well – which is actually a bribe, not a nudge.

The Nudge Unit claim all their interventions are based on evidence from Randomly Controlled Trials.  In a document co-authored by surprise Tory collaborator Ben Goldacre, the unit describe this evidence based approach.  Unfortunately they have forgotten one very important part of the scientific process which is ‘peer scrutiny’.  If they do not publish their studies in a clear and accessible way – with all the necessary background data –  then we really only have their word for it that these trials have demonstrated the results they claim.  And they are Government spin doctors.  Which means they probably lie.

Now it may be that all this information exists buried on a government website or filed in a dingy office somewhere.  But it certainly isn’t available on the Nudge Unit’s own website, or their boring blog.  In fact over the last two and a half years they have only published five documents and none of these contains anything like hard scientific data.  Perhaps someone should nudge them to make sure they’re actually awake.

One post on the blog contains details of a scheme for unemployed people they ran at Norwich Jobcentre.  They claim they were able to increase the number of people who came off benefits within 13 weeks (note off benefits, not into jobs) by as much as 20%.  They even have a graphic to prove it.  Yet as is pointed out in the comments, they managed to bodge the trial.  Three different changes were implemented into the way claimants were treated at the Jobcentre which they claim resulted in people coming off benefits quicker.  But even if their results are accurate, and withstand statistical analysis, that means they don’t know which of the three measures actually worked.  The Nudge Unit say they will release a ‘report’ into the study soon which will explain everything.  Don’t hold your breath.

Far from being a shadowy Government mind control operation, the evidence suggests that the Nudge Unit are just another bunch of pseudo-intellectual scam artists who’ve blagged themselves lucrative government non jobs at the tax payer’s expense.  It’s hardly surprising that a Government – who are as out of ideas as they are out of touch – are resorting to the dubious talents of snake oil salesmen preaching little more than the latest corporate fad.

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