Human Subjects Protections
Human subjects protections are a set of federal regulations to prevent unethical conduct in research involving people. In most cases, program evaluation is excluded from these regulations because it is not considered "research" per se—program evaluation typically is only relevant to the program itself, and not a wider audience. An exception may be if you are collaborating with a local university or other academic institution that may view the work as research. In this case, it may need to go through their Institutional Review Board (IRB) procedures (see sidebar, "Institutional Review Board").
Institutional Review Board (IRB)
When you design your program evaluation, it is important to figure out whether you need to contact an Institutional Review Board (IRB). In an effort to ensure that everyone who participates in research is treated with the highest levels of respect, the US government has adopted regulations to protect research subjects. An IRB is a committee of people who review proposed studies to ensure they meet regulations. IRBs are found at most universities, as well as other large organizations that receive federal funding, such as hospitals, research institutes, and public health departments.
It is a fine line between evaluation and research, so be sure to consider human subject protections every time your evaluation involves observing people, conducting interviews or surveys, or collecting people's personal health information. In general, if 1) your evaluation involves getting information from or about people, 2) your institution or any of your collaborators receive federal funds, and/or 3) you hope your evaluation findings can inform other programs, then it is best to consult an IRB. The IRB will help you determine whether—according to federal regulations—you are doing research, whether your research actually involves human subjects, and whether your research may be exempt because you are not putting participants at risk.