Ethics in International Program Evaluation

Hilary Leav, Student and Manager of Research and Evaluation at Rotary International

My initial reaction to American University's class in Professional Ethics and Project Leadership was surprise. "Of course I'm an ethical person. Why do I need to take a whole class on it?" Although I began my career during the financial crisis—a time of ethical turmoil in the business world—ethics was not something I had given much thought. Even as stricter laws regulating business practices went into place in many industries, I was never impacted directly.

During my career, I've worked in a variety of fields and have been confronted by a variety of ethical dilemmas. However, I never really processed these dilemmas and how they impacted my views of my career, the business environment, and the world around me. As I've been promoted into a leadership position, I have become acutely aware of the intersection between ethics and leadership in a way that I hadn't previously considered.

Ethical Self-Examination

The course asked us to consider our values, ethical leanings, and leadership style as a way to better understand who we are and how to be a more effective leader. Understanding that I value integrity and transparency led to "a-ha" moments about how I approach my work as a program evaluator. Understanding how my values played into my preferred leadership style shed light on how I manage my team, and even how I make decisions about the ethical trade-offs we must make in our work.

As researchers and evaluators, we are taught to concern ourselves with understanding others—especially those who may not otherwise have a voice. We work diligently to find and represent different perspectives, dig deep to understand a situation, and strive to be aware of our own unconscious bias and how it impacts our work. Each one of these can present its own ethical challenge.

In order to face these challenges, we carefully create research designs that account for these issues and provide us with the representative and fair approaches to capturing the truth of an issue. In most cases, we can be confident that we have done our best and put the best approach forward.

Coming to Terms With Ethical Dilemmas in Program Evaluation

What became clear to me throughout this class is that we rarely talk about the real ethical dilemma of evaluation: The amount of power we, as evaluators, hold over those we work with. It's important that we examine the trade-offs we make in our evaluations to meet time, budget, or political constraints.

In my professional work, these issues were not something I had ever discussed with my boss, my team, or my organization, and that fact alone prompted a lot of self-reflection. As an evaluator, I must acknowledge the amount of power I have in whether a program survives.

I can put forth a strong proposal and research design that I believe is fair and will capture the true outcome of a program. I can even conduct perfect field research. But in the end, I can't control what the data says. I also can't control whether participants are truly honest with me, how the data is interpreted by stakeholders, or what decisions are ultimately made about a program with my data. This can be disheartening, even in the best of situations.

Ethics-Informed Leadership

In this class, I learned that by maintaining my focus on integrity and my image as an ethical researcher and leader, I am better able to guide my team and be a strong evaluator. Moreover, because I have now considered my own ethical leanings, I am better able to understand professional setbacks while still maintaining my own ethical standards.

In the end, the benefit of the class was more than just theoretical. The class discussed practical aspects of ethical leadership and decision-making, and asked us to consider our responses to real and hypothetical challenges.

Course assignments, such as stakeholder and SWOT analyses, taught us how to use tools to support ethical leadership today. These concepts became more than just best practices we discuss but never use; they are now part of my leadership toolkit, and part of the work my team and I complete as we plan, implement, and report each evaluation project.

About the Author

Hilary Leav is the Manager of Research and Evaluation at Rotary International and a student in American University's online Masters in Measurement and Evaluation program. Her work—a mix of market research and program evaluation with a little bit of big data thrown in—spans the 190 countries where Rotary operates.

Prior to moving into research and evaluation, Hilary's experience included strategic planning, process improvement, and program management. She holds a B.A. in Cultural Anthropology and History of Art from the University of Michigan.

To learn more about American University's online MS in Measurement and Evaluation or Graduate Certificate in Project Monitoring and Evaluation, you can request more information or contact an admissions adviser at 855-725-7614.