The Slow Death of the DWP ‘Lie Detector’


1:00 pm - November 4th 2010

by Unity    


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More than a year ago, Liberal Conspiracy published a short series of briefings on a controversial trial of a so-called ‘voice risk analysis’ system by the Department of Work and Pensions.

Yesterday, the ultimate fate of these systems was revealed in a rather terse response to a parlimentary question tabled by the Tory MP for East Yorkshire, Greg Knight:

Chris Grayling (Minister of State (Employment), Work and Pensions

In 2008-09 a total of £1,734,314.07 was paid directly to the 24 local authorities involved in voice risk analysis pilots. There was no DWP funding for voice risk analysis in subsequent years. The pilots finished in December 2009. Local authorities can continue to use voice risk analysis at their own discretion and at their own expense.


The DWP’s brief – and wasteful -flirtation with this supposed ‘lie detector’ technology looks to be over, more or less, with the suggestion that Local Authorities may continue to the use the system at their discretion and [council tax payers’] expense indicating that the DWP would like to allow the system to wither away quietly ‘on the vine’ with as little fuss and attention as possible.

That isn’t going to happen.

For starters, there is more than whiff of burying bad news about the manner in which the DWP has pulled out of using this system.

Over the course of the last nine months the DWP, and almost all of the participating local authorities, have repeatedly refused to release any data relating to these trials under FOIA on the grounds that it would be published at a future date as part of the final evaluation of the trial. That evaluation report, which was due to be completed in May/June of this year, has still not been published, nor does it appear to be scheduled for publication at any time during the next month or so, although a briefing for local authority staff has recently – and very quietly – found its way onto the DWP’s website, one that provides at least some information as to why the DWP have chosen not to persist with this system.

The evaluation is based on the result from the 23 pilots which provided auditable information in time for evaluation. The main conclusions are:

– of the nine local authorities testing VRA at new claims stage, three were judged successful

– of the two local authorities testing VRA on changes in circumstance, one was judged successful

– of the twelve local authorities testing VRA on in-claim reviews, one was judged successful

To be judged ‘successful’, trial sites had to generate an error rate of less than 30% with a bias towards false positives – wrongly identifying a sizeable number of claimants as possible fraudsters would be tolerated  – and yet, even with this low measure of success in place, 18 of the 23 local authorities that supplied auditable data failed to make the grade.

One can, however, glean a little more information on the failings of the system from an internal report published in March by one of trial sites, Bexley Council, which found that the trial system initially doubled the amount of time it took to process a housing benefit claim and proved to be between 4 and 5 times more successful in identifying underpayments than potential frauds and overpayments.

Ultimately, the DWP have tried to duck the major issue here, that of the wholesale unreliability of the technological aspects of the VRA system, by publishing this conclusion:

DWP conducted the research to investigate whether VRA worked when applied to the benefit system. From our findings we cannot conclude that VRA works effectively and consistently in the benefits environment. The evidence is not compelling enough to recommend the use of VRA within DWP.

At no stage did the evaluation carried out by the Department explicitly consider the effectiveness of the technological aspects of VRA. However, social research evidence suggests that the scripting and training elements of the trial were successful.

This leaves a number of outstanding concerns, not least as it appears that some of the trial sites have continued to use the VRA system , at their own expense, after the conclusion of the trial in the mistaken belief that the system works and will help to reduce fraud and administration costs. In reality, if the system is being used by these local authorities as was originally intended then this will almost certainly increase rather than lower the risk of housing/council tax benefit fraud going undetected, given that claimants who ‘pass’ the VRA test and are classified as low risk are not required to provide the same level of evidence, i.e. original documents, in support of their claim as would be the case in councils were VRA is not in use.

By ducking the question of whether the VRA technology actually works, the DWP is effectively allowing the system’s UK licensees, Capita and Digilog UK, to continue to peddle its manifestly unreliable [and wholly pseudoscientific] system to other local authorities and other industry sectors, notably the insurance sector where several companies have been using VRA to triage insurance claims.

To make matters worse, the Israeli company behind the VRA ‘technology’, Nemesysco, has been actively trading on the unjustified veneer of legitimacy conferred on its products by the DWP trial in an effort to peddle a variation on its system to the airline security sector as a ‘border access control system’ which, the company claims, will ‘detect’ the ‘harmful/malicious intentions’ of airline passengers, a system that [unfortunately] already appears to be in use at one major Russian airport.

It’s one thing to peddle a supposed lie detector as a tool for identifying benefit cheats, quite another to pitch it as a ‘terrorist detector’, particularly given recent events.

Bearing all this in mind, a fresh FOIA request went in to the DWP, yesterday, asking for both the full evaluation report and the raw data from the trials, and further requests will be going out to the participating councils, over the next few days, in order to identify where the VRA system is still in use and what, if anything, this is costing council tax payers.

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About the author
'Unity' is a regular contributor to Liberal Conspiracy. He also blogs at Ministry of Truth.
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Story Filed Under: Blog ,DWP lie detectors ,Science

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Reader comments


Only bit I’d quibble with is this:

”Unity’ is a regular contributor to Liberal Conspiracy.’

Not so much recently, but good to see a follow up on your original posts.

This was only ever a lie detector in the minds of the grasping company selling it and the dimwit MPs. It is a voice stress analyser and it only detects what it interprets as stress which may be caused by many reasons other than lying. In trials for the US government it achieved results that were no better than simply guessing. Lie detectors are polygrpahs which require trained operators to have any meaningful results and even then can be beaten by some people. The government’s next tactic will probably be sodium pentathol and waterboarding for benefit claimants

Nice going – my only question would be about why the government would be trying to bury bad news here (unless you think this is a civil service job – DWP could be either), as they could use this for political pointscoring, and there is no credibility lost by present ministers.

I’m still mildly concerned that anyone, anywhere, thinks lie detection is possible using machines since they rely on reading biological indicators of certain stresses, not minds.

Watchman:

If there’s a burial detail involved then I would expect it to consist of members of the administrative brach of government rather than the executive.

Unity,

Thanks. That would kind of worry me – even civil servants should own up to failings of trial ideas. That it was labelled a trial means that they can tick this one up to a good idea that didn’t work (not that I’d encourage anyone to believe that…).

It would be cheaper and more efficient to hire Tim Roth.

They could still have a use for lie detector technology…. They could use it when MPS are asked about expenses.

They could also check whether this woman has any other benefit claimants leaving at her house:

http://www.abcofesa.co.uk/board/viewtopic.php?f=12&t=154


Reactions: Twitter, blogs
  1. Liberal Conspiracy

    The Slow Death of the DWP 'Lie Detector' http://bit.ly/cVxK96

  2. earwicga

    The Slow Death of the DWP ‘Lie Detector’ | Liberal Conspiracy http://t.co/SGyz5nW via @libcon

  3. Nick H.

    The Slow Death of the DWP ‘Lie Detector’ | Liberal Conspiracy http://t.co/DlB90mw via @libcon – Who's wasting your money now?

  4. Clive Power

    1/09 Lie detectors “saved millions since 2007”; DWP OKs roll-out http://j.mp/cniTug -11/10 Lie detectors dropped; useless http://j.mp/aFynMS

  5. Web links for 4th November 2010 | ToUChstone blog: A public policy blog from the TUC

    […] The slow death of the DWP Lie Detector | Liberal Conspiracy The TUC was a critic of the use of voice recognition technology to detect benefit fraud. It hasn't worked, but the DWP don't want to say so. […]

  6. Dr Evan Harris

    Govt stops buying nonsense voice lie detectors for DWP after last Govt wasted over £1m http://bit.ly/bamDCM

  7. Alan Henness

    RT @DrEvanHarris: Govt stops buying nonsense voice lie detectors for DWP after last Govt wasted over £1m http://bit.ly/bamDCM

  8. Fraser McCormick

    RT @DrEvanHarris: Govt stops buying nonsense voice lie detectors for DWP after last Govt wasted over £1m http://bit.ly/bamDCM

  9. Phil Tanner

    RT @DrEvanHarris: Govt stops buying nonsense voice lie detectors for DWP after last Govt wasted over £1m http://bit.ly/bamDCM

  10. Toby Bryans

    RT @DrEvanHarris: Govt stops buying nonsense voice lie detectors for DWP after last Govt wasted over £1m http://bit.ly/bamDCM

  11. Anandamide

    At last! RT @DrEvanHarris Govt stops buying nonsense voice lie detectors for DWP after last Govt wasted over £1m http://bit.ly/bamDCM

  12. Roy Grubb

    RT @DrEvanHarris: Govt stops buying nonsense voice lie detectors for DWP after last Govt wasted over £1m http://bit.ly/bamDCM

  13. Gemma Hallam

    RT @DrEvanHarris: Govt stops buying nonsense voice lie detectors for DWP after last Govt wasted over £1m http://bit.ly/bamDCM

  14. Maria Wolters

    RT @DrEvanHarris: Govt stops buying nonsense voice lie detectors for DWP after last Govt wasted over £1m http://bit.ly/bamDCM

  15. sunny hundal

    @bitfuzzy yes, I think we covered this recently http://liberalconspiracy.org/2010/11/04/the-slow-death-of-the-dwp-lie-detector/

  16. Deb

    The Slow Death of the DWP ‘Lie Detector’ | Liberal Conspiracy http://t.co/msTuBDH via @libcon

  17. Welfare Advocate

    The Slow Death of the DWP ‘Lie Detector’ – 4 November 2011. http://t.co/ObxgBauf

  18. pip

    The Slow Death of the DWP ‘Lie Detector’ – 4 November 2011. http://t.co/ObxgBauf

  19. liane gomersall

    The Slow Death of the DWP ‘Lie Detector’ | Liberal Conspiracy http://t.co/qsPMI78f via @libcon

  20. Welfare reforms: how the same fight keeps getting repeated | Liberal Conspiracy

    […] Purnell’s dept came up with the idea of lie-detector tests that were useless, and offered programmes that didn’t […]





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