Devil in the detail: Why ethics processes for evaluation must be revisited

March 2017

Formal ethics approval processes designed to protect study participants are often causing their own unintended harms in the context of program evaluation.

This is the somewhat controversial message, Principal Consultants Sue Leahy and Jade Maloney, gave to a full Australasian Evaluation Society (NSW) forum, hot on the heels of their presentation at last year’s AES conference in Perth.

They don’t deny that ethical practice is critical to evaluation, just that formal ethics approval processes are always needed or always result in an ethical evaluation. 

“It’s our experience that the rules around ethics approval are often applied differently across government and that the requirement for external approval can mean the voice of the ’vulnerable’ people accessing the service is not heard in the evaluation because of the timeframes or because the consent process is overwhelming,” Jade says.

When it comes to consulting with Aboriginal communities in NSW, it gets even more difficult.

“While the principles around ensuring Aboriginal communities have ownership of the research in their communities are right,” Sue says, “We question the characterisation of all Aboriginal people as vulnerable. We also find the timeframes for approval through the Aboriginal Health and Medical Research Council can mean that consultation with Aboriginal communities is squeezed out of the evaluation timeframe.

The main problem seems to be that ethics processes were set up to approve clinical trials, but evaluations are not interventions. That’s why ARTD is driving a discussion in the evaluation community about options to improve the process.

AES members at the forum recognised that ethics approval processes bring significant benefits to the evaluation process, but they agreed change is needed. Over the coming months, ARTD hopes to explore options with colleagues, and to work on guidelines to help governments identify when they need formal ethics approval processes.