I have recently written quite extensively about problems with how the government conduct “research,” I’ve also highlighted the many official rebukes the Conservatives have faced because of their tendency to invent statistics to “verify” their ideologically-driven, value-laden “hypotheses.”
Who could ever forget the Department for Work and Pension’s fake testimonials from fake benefit claimants telling us all how fakely beneficial the fakesters had found having their fake lifeline benefits withdrawn for fake non-compliance, leading to fake improvements of behaviour, presumably after a bout of fake starvation and destitution.
The new Work and Health Programme, aimed at reducing the number of people claiming Employment and Support Allowance (ESA), is currently still at a research and trialing stage. Part of the experimental nudge element of this research entails enlisting GPs to “prescribe” job coaches, and to participate in constructing “a health and work passport to collate employment and health information.” (See The new Work and Health Programme: the government plan social experiments to “nudge” sick and disabled people into work.)
This raised some serious ethical concerns for me, which I addressed in a Freedom of Information (FoI) request to the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP). The most important part of the request was:
I should like to ask what ethical guidelines are in place regarding the use of behavioural theory on claimants. What guidelines are in place to protect claimants from any potential adverse effects of trials and experiments using methods aimed at changing behaviours of claimants? And what method of gaining claimant consent (to be used as a subject in trials and experiments ) is used by the Department and by job centres?
I did ask a further three brief and reasonable questions, citing a source of information – The Government Communication Service guide to communications and behaviour change – quoting from it and explaining the questions.
My request was refused.
I can confirm that we hold information falling within the description specified in your request. However, we estimate that the cost of complying with your request would exceed the appropriate limit for central Government, set by regulations at £600. This represents the estimated cost of one person spending 3½ working days in determining whether the Department holds the information, and locating, retrieving and extracting it.
Under section 12 of the Freedom of Information Act the Department is not therefore obliged to comply with your request and we will not be processing it further.
Firstly, something as fundamentally important as safeguarding and ethical guidelines regarding government behavioural/psychological experimentation should actually be available for public access and scrutiny, not hidden away in a place that allegedly takes so much time, effort and money to locate.
Anyone would think those comments are simply an obstructive tactic, if the DWP can confirm that they have the information, then surely that reduces the cost and time spent retrieving and extracting it to comply with my request. Wouldn’t you think?
Someone who is earning £600 for 3½days work is on a very generous annual salary of around £45K. Unless this person is being paid to be intentionally incompetent and obstructive, their job skills suck, it has to be said. So do the logic and reasoning skills of the person who wrote that response.
I also know from experience that the DWP regularly respond only partially. They had the option of answering some of my request, at least. After all, they claim to have the information, seems a shame not to share some of it.
However, because the ethical considerations of government experiments and trials on people needing welfare support are so very important, I have pursued this request further by taking the option of simplifying it.
Dear DWP CAXTON HOUSE Communications,
You confirm that you have the information that I requested, but then claim that it would exceed the £600 limit to provide that
information which you state is because of the “estimated cost of one person spending 3½ working days in determining whether the Department holds the information, and locating, retrieving and extracting it.”
If you confirm you have the information, then surely that reduces the cost and time spent retrieving and extracting it to comply with my request.
I will however simplify my request. Most people would expect that ethical guidelines, safeguards and the important matter of client consent to participating in Government trials and experiments on people needing welfare support is something that the DWP would have to hand – easy to retrieve and very important information that one would expect to be in the public domain in any case. But I can’t find it.
I refer again to the The Government Communication Service guide to communications and behaviour change –
In particular, I refer to page 5: “Behavioural theory is a powerful
tool for the government communicator, but you don’t need to be an experienced social scientist to apply it successfully to your work.”
I should like to ask:
- What ethical guidelines are in place regarding the use of behavioural theory on claimants?
- What guidelines are in place to protect claimants from any potential adverse effects of trials and experiments using methods aimed at changing the behaviours of claimants?
- And what method of gaining claimant consent (to be used as a subject in trials and experiments ) is used by the Department for Work and Pensions and by job centres?
Here is the FoI request and response in full: Use of behavioural theory to change behaviours of people claiming benefits.
Under Section 16 of the FoI Act the DWP should assist me in helping to narrow my request so that it may fall beneath the cost limit. I have narrowed my request and submitted a shorter, simplified version, focussing on the ethical issues only. It is reasonable to expect the DWP, whose remit includes face to face work with some of our most vulnerable citizens, to have ethical and safeguarding guidelines and consent forms to hand without having to pay someone hundreds of pounds for days of work to “find and retrieve” information that ought to be in the public domain anyway.
In the event of that request being refused, I will be pursuing this further via the Internal Review Mechanism, and if need be, I shall be contacting the Information Commissioner’s Office.
I wonder if the response was influenced by this
My second amended request has been refused. I have therefore asked for an Internal Review. I said:
Dear DWP CAXTON HOUSE Communications,
I refer to your first response: “Under section 16 of the Act we
should assist you in helping you narrow your request so that it may fall beneath the cost limit. It may help to reduce the number of questions by refocusing it to only a few elements of the presently broad request. We will consider a fresh any revised request however we cannot guarantee that any revised request will fall within the cost limit.”
I subsequently submitted a narrowed and focussed request in
response, with just 3 basic questions from the initial FOI request. You responded by refering to my original request, and completely ignored my amended and narrowed down, shorter request.
I am therefore making a formal complaint that you did not address the reduced, simplified and narrowed down request. I am asking for an internal review.
“I should like to ask what ethical guidelines are in place
regarding the use of behavioural theory on claimants.
What guidelines are in place to protect claimants from any
potential adverse effects of trials and experiments using methods aimed at changing the behaviours of claimants?
And what method of gaining claimant consent (to be used as a
subject in trials and experiments ) is used by the Department for Work and Pensions and by job centres?”
You have stated that you do have this information. As I have
considerably narrowed down the request to 3 very basic questions, the costs involved in retrieving and providing it ought to be quite minimal. It’s also a very reasonable request. The DWP works with some of our most vulnerable citizens. It is especially important that in light of the current experimental nature of behavioural theories, and the current trialing of the new government health and work programme, that there are ethical guidelines and safeguards in place to protect vulnerable clients, and also, that there is a mechanism for gaining informed consent from clients who are subjects of trials and experiments.
These are issues that researchers within the medical sciences and social sciences have to consider every day. Using behavioural modification (“behavioural change theory”) methods on citizens without their consent and without engaging their deliberative processes has enormous ethical implications.
The British Psychological Society , for example, has strict code of
conduct and human research ethics –
And I refer to the Helsinki Declaration regarding medical research – http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles…
The Geneva Declaration – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Declaratio…
And the the Nuremberg code includes such principles as informed consent and absence of coercion; properly formulated scientific experimentation; and beneficence towards experiment participants – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nuremberg_…
These are just a few examples of codes of ethics regarding human research.
There are a wide range of legal and Human Rights implications
connected with experimentation and research trials conducted on social groups and human subjects. My request for clarification that there are ethical guidelines, safeguards and protections for subjects and basic consent mechanisms in place and the details of what they are is therefore a very reasonable one.
I also added that Section 16 of the FoI Act places a duty on public authorities to provide reasonable advice and assistance to applicants. I was not provided with “advice or assistance.” I was not asked if I prefer to narrow my request in an alternative way to reduce costs (this is a breach of the section 16 duty to advise and assist). Nonetheless I did narrow my request, and that was completely ignored, the second response I received was related entirely to the initial request. In fact it was exactly the same response. I also challenged the DWP’s estimate of the costs of meeting my request. The rest of the grounds for my request for an Internal Review may be viewed here.