Ethical considerations for evaluation research
Introducing ethics applications
It is most likely that any program evaluation that you undertake as a service provider will be subject to an ethical review process.
Although a little daunting, going through the ethics application process and receiving this ethical clearance provides welcome reassurance that the proposed project meets the ethical standards outlined in the National Statement on Ethical Conduct in Research Involving Humans.
It is important to allow sufficient time for the preparation of the relevant ethics application and accompanying documentation, keeping in mind that unless your project is low-risk and qualifies for an expedited review, submission of your material is likely to be required some time prior to the scheduled Ethics Committee meeting.
Documentation accompanying your application may include data collection tools (survey instruments or interview schedules) as well as information sheets about the research, consent forms and protocols for researcher personal safety or for negotiating consent with potentially vulnerable participants.
Seeking informed consent
Your ethics application should demonstrate that potential evaluation participants will be provided with information about the evaluation in an accessible, plain language format. Participants must be allowed sufficient time to consider the information and raise any queries before deciding on their involvement in the research. This information may include:
- the purpose of the research;
- details of any funding and/or commissioning stakeholders;
- information about the nature and duration of participant involvement;
- information about how the data will be used, stored and who will have access to it; and
- the measures in place to safeguard the anonymity, confidentiality and privacy of participants.
An important aspect of participant consent is the absence of any pressure to participate. It is important for researchers to make clear to participants that participation is voluntary and that they are free to withdraw from the research at any time without consequence.2
Measures to confirm a participant’s ongoing consent may be required where the data collection occurs over an extended period or where the participant becomes distressed. If participants are to be drawn from a dependent population (for example, recipients of the program services subject to the evaluation), providing opportunities for their refusal to participate and for their withdrawal from the research is a key ethical consideration.
Seeking agreement to participate from children and young people requires particular attention. Children and young people must be provided with an age-appropriate information sheet. Verifying that children or young people are fully informed about the research and are participating of their own volition can be challenging.
Having a protocol in place that involves the researcher engaging in a relaxed discussion that covers the content of the information sheet and confirms the child’s willingness to participate at a point in time sufficiently prior to their involvement in the research is one possible safeguard.
Providing avenues for support following participation
Engaging in evaluation research (for example, in the context of service provision in the field of family violence) may give rise to participant distress. In these circumstances it is prudent to have protocols in place outlining the steps that will be taken to alleviate distress and to refer participants to appropriate support services; a measure that is likely to be required by the ethics committee prior to clearance.
Smith, A. B., Taylor, N., & Gallop, M. (Eds.), (2000). Children’s voices: Research, policy and practice. Auckland: Pearson Education New Zealand.
Squirrell, G. (2012). Evaluation in Action – Theory and practice for effective evaluation. Dorset: Russell House Publishing.
2. In the case of survey data collection on an anonymous basis, the withdrawal of consent would apply at any time prior to completion and submission of their survey.