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Ethics in Evaluation: Exploring Informed Consents, Confidentiality and Safety


Brett Morrison

>> Hello, everyone, this is Brett and on this episode of elevate evaluate, we're going to be talking about evaluation ethics. So before you start collecting data for a program evaluation, there's one really important issue that can't be overlooked or overstated. And these are strategies to protect the rights and the dignity of those who participate in the evaluation.


And these should be incorporated into the way that you design and carry out your project from the very beginning. It's also important to consider safeguards that may be needed when your participants are used in particular and we'll cover that a little bit later. To start though, it's important to recognize that there are lots of professional organizations that have ethical guidelines.


There's the National Association of Social Workers, the American Psychological Association, the American Counseling Association to name a few. And while there are details very most guidelines in these kinds of organizational documents address for overarching issues. And these are first to help or to benefit others and this involves acting in ways that promote the interests of others by helping individuals, and organizations, or even society as a whole.


A second issue is to do no harm, this is sort of a corollary principle about not bringing harm to others. And this includes physical injury as well as psychological harms sort of like damage to people's reputations, or self esteem, or emotional well being. Third of these issues is acting fairly, just treating people in ways that are equitable, including making decisions that are independent of such characteristics as race, or gender, or socio-economic status.


And the fourth principle is simply respect for others, that's respecting the rights of individuals to act freely, to make their own choices. And including while protecting the rights of those who might be unable to fully protect themselves. So, that said with those sort of foundations principles laid, we'll talk about some key ethical issues related to program evaluation.


And the first of these that we'll cover is a simple consideration of risks and benefits that should accompany any program evaluation. So evaluations are designed hopefully to benefit program participants and others associated with the program. In some cases, it might be really explicit, there might be benefits to an individual who participates in an evaluation itself.


Such as receiving a gift certificate or other incentive in exchange for completing an interview for example. Whereas other benefits, of course emerge as a result of changes made at the program level, as a result of the evaluation. So, hopefully the evaluation might guide strategies for improving a programs impact which would lead to more positive outcomes for participants.


And so considering those benefits, it's also helpful to consider the risks that might be associated with them. And when conducting an evaluation, it's really important to be careful to consider any harm that might result from an evaluation and to take steps to reduce or to mitigate it. For example potential risks could include just simply sacrificing time and energy to participate the opportunity cost or participating in an evaluation exercise.


There might be emotional consequences depending on the content of the evaluation. Participating might require folks to answer questions about negative experiences which could be uncomfortable hobbies, social harm like confidentiality breaches that might occur. And then in some cases, it might be the case that youth involved in the evaluation might disclose dangerous or unhealthy family situations.


And program staff might need to report those kinds of situations to authorities. So in weighing benefits relative to risk, evaluators wanna make sure that they maximize the resources used to conduct the evaluation like both time and money and the involvement of the participants in the evaluation. And as some of the strategies, to do this might include targeting your evaluation to the key questions that you have and carefully reviewing and discussing findings.


Another key ethical consideration is what's known as informed consent. Everyone who participates in an evaluation should do so willingly, that's the general principle. And people participating in any research project really including any program evaluation have a few basic rights that are to be kept in mind. They have the right to choose whether or not they want to participate without penalties.


For example, participation in an evaluation should not be mandatory for participation in the program itself. Participants have the right to withdraw from the evaluation at any time even if they previously agreed to participate. And they have the right to refuse to complete any part of the evaluation including refusing to answer any specific questions in an interview for example.


So the word informed and the phrase informed consent is important. In addition to choosing whether or not to participate in the evaluation at all, people have a right to understand all the implications of participating. So to ensure that potential participants can make an informed decision regarding their involvement, there are a couple of things to keep in mind.


It's important to provide potential participants with information about the evaluation. This can include why it's being done, what you're asking them to do, how you will use the information, and how long it will take just to name a few. You should also describe both the potential benefits of participation as well as any foreseeable risks sort of like what we discussed earlier.


Including possible discomfort that they might encounter as a result of participation. It's important to share this information using language that all participants can understand, this is where cultural competency comes in key. And it's important to avoid jargon and to translate into participants the language that they're most comfortable speaking if that is needed depending on the population you're working with.


And then you should of course allow the participant the opportunity to ask any questions they might have about the evaluation so that they have a clear idea of what to expect. There are some key issues involved with working with youth under the age of 18 that have to do with consent.


The key issue being that parental consent might be required to work with children under the age of 18. So certainly in addition to asking the children's parents, the children should be asked themselves for their assent to participate. Even if they've been given permission from their parents to participate, they can still declined to participate themselves if if they want.


And then of course the people over 18 don't require parental consent to participate in an evaluation. Some sort of logistical things to keep in mind when thinking about informed consent especially for minors is that participants might need to sign a consent form. If you want to include children or others who can't provide their own consent as we've discussed, you might want to obtain a consent form from a parent or guardian.


Or if you're planning to collect a really personal or sensitive information, it might be good to have a signed consent form. If you want to use the results of the evaluation for reasons other than the improvement of the program, for example if you plan to publish the results or use them in training activities.


Or if you wanna use them to participate in a larger research project, you might want to get program participants signed consent. If you wanna gather information about participants from other third parties as opposed to directly from themselves such as program staff who they work with or other folks involved.


And then if you require significant time or effort on the part of participants, it might be good to have their signature to a center participation just so everyone is aware of what is to be expected. Another broad issue that sort of involves informed consent is confidentiality in a program evaluation.


So it's not always possible for evaluations to be conducted anonymously without collecting identifying information like a participants name or even social security number, that sort of thing. An effort should be made to gather information and keep it confidential and not share with others inappropriately. And so there are a few strategies that can be used to ensure confidentiality in a program evaluation.


You can try collecting data in a private location, where surveys and the like can't be seen and interviews can't be overheard. It's important not to discuss information about individual participants with other people who aren't privy to that information as a result of their role in the evaluation. Findings should be discussed at an aggregate level or with identifying information removed or disguised.


It's important to keep copies of completed surveys and interviews in a secure location, if they're paper, in a locked file cabinet, if they're electronic, password protected. And then to securely dispose of completed materials when they're no longer needed just to make sure that nothing's lying around that shouldn't be.


You might encounter situations in which you believe it's important to disclose confidential information though. So this is sort of a caveat in cases where it might be due to a legal requirement. If a law in the jurisdiction you're in requires a program evaluator or similar person to report child abuse or something like that.


In other cases you might learn as a result of the evaluation that someone is intending to cause harm to themselves or others is at risk of harm from others. To the extent possible, you might wanna consider in advance the types of disclosures that might be needed and then to develop a plan to handle these situations.


And you'll want to provide information about possible disclosure of confidential information when you obtain consent from your program participants. And the final issue we'll talk about is ensuring the safety of participants. In some cases you might have concerns for the safety of your participants depending on what kind of program you're evaluating.


So you wanna be thoughtful about participants needs and take care to protect participants as much as possible. In the course of collecting information, you might learn that one of your participants is abusing drugs or living in an unsafe situation for example. And so your ability to intervene might be limited depending on the level of risk that the participant is experiencing.


But you wanna keep in mind that it might be appropriate for you, or for the evaluation staff. Or the program staff themselves to be prepared with information about how to refer participants for assistance if it's obvious that they need it. So these are some broad areas of ethical concerns to keep in mind when conducting a program evaluation.


Just to recap we talked about a consideration of risks and benefits. We talked about informed consent. We covered confidentiality. And then concluded with ensuring the safety of your participants in a program evaluation. So I hope this was useful and until next time, we'll sign off now.

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