Ethics in program evaluation

Ethics, as it applies to any research involving humans, cannot be ignored by public servants running policy and program evaluations. But if the slow process of going through an ethics committee can be avoided, perhaps it should be.

All research using human subjects or information about specific people must respect the enduring ethical principles famously enshrined in the 1947 Nuremberg Code, and that includes policy and program evaluations.

In the Australian Public Service, the PGPA reforms have triggered a need for agencies to brush up on evaluation and quality assurance activities. With that in mind, Canberra Evaluation Forum participants discussed human research ethics in the context of evaluation at their most recent get-together, and heard from two public servants who are knee-deep in the subject.

“Examples of human research include interviews, surveys, focus groups, observations, chat rooms, testing,” explained Gary Kent, who heads up the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare’s governance unit. Kent gave the CEF a general overview of the subject and the work of the AIHW ethics committee.

“You can also talk about obtaining specimens from people, like DNA or blood or something else. All of that is human research. It doesn’t have to involve the physical body. It can even be interviewing someone, because there are ethical issues even in talking to someone. Even in a focus group, issues arise.”

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