Version 2: 7 May 2020 (PDF version)
Agencies will already have a clear process for managing their panel meetings, and CoramBAAF is aware from training events and practice forums that whilst these processes tend to follow a similar pattern, there are also agency variations. In considering the process for holding a virtual panel, agencies have needed to revisit and refine their panel processes to allow for the differences in holding a virtual meeting to be addressed. There are a few overarching messages which have been shared with us that are worth considering:
- There is considerable planning needed prior to holding your first virtual panel – these cannot be set up quickly, and it is better to get the planning right to ensure as good an experience as possible for all concerned.
- There are bound to be some technical difficulties – many panel members may be doing this for the first time and learning as they go along, so it is important to stay calm, be patient and try to keep a sense of humour when things do not quite work as planned.
- Virtual panels require a lot of concentration, and in video conferencing, looking at a screen for long periods of time will be tiring for all involved, so it is important to factor in reasonable breaks for panel members, advisers and minute-takers who are involved in the meeting.
The following suggestions are intended as a guide only, and can be adapted to suit each agency’s requirements.
Setting the agenda
- Set a realistic agenda, particularly for the first panel, that allows for technical hitches, reasonable breaks for panel members and that gives time for reflection on the learning between cases and at the end of the panel meeting.
- Allow extra time for all cases being heard, particularly if applicants and carers are participating.
- Allow breaks between each case to allow panel members to take a comfort break, get a drink and have time away from the screen/phone.
Before the panel
- Paperwork sent to panel members electronically or by post should be received at least five working days in advance of the meeting. NB: Royal Mail has stated that timescales for Special Delivery have been altered, and there may be some delays in postal delivery as the Covid-19 measures progress, so this needs to be taken into account when setting timescales. Discussion will be needed about how to manage any additional paperwork that becomes available or is requested after this time so it can be sent to panel members securely in advance of the meeting.
- To assist the panel Chair in preparing for the meeting, some agencies have been asking panel members to prepare their views on the applicants’ strengths and their questions in advance of the meeting, and to send them to the Chair. This practice has been used by the IRM panels and is efficient in reducing the amount of time needed for panel discussion on the day. It can be helpful to set a limit to the number of strengths, issues or questions being sent by each panel member. Panel Chairs will then be in a position to prepare a list of strengths and questions to ensure that the panel is focused on the key issues prior to the meeting. It can be helpful to note which panel members contributed to the questions, to evidence the participation of panel members.
- If applicants/carers have chosen not to attend the virtual panel, then the panel adviser or administrator could ensure that the strengths and questions are sent to the social worker so that they can share the applicant’s/carer’s responses at the meeting.
- Panel members and others attending the meeting should be reminded of the need to charge their laptops, tablets or phones prior to the meeting, if they cannot be used while plugged in.
The panel meeting
- Panel members should be advised to log in 10 minutes before the panel is due to start to allow time for the panel adviser, panel administrator or panel member to resolve any “hitches”.
- The panel Chair will then either collect the strengths and questions from panel members, if these have not been submitted before the panel, or go through the prepared list of questions from those submitted in advance, inviting any significant amendments or additions.
- There should be consideration of how the details for the conference call or video conference will be shared with the applicants (and social workers) so that they do not join before the panel discussion has been completed. Usually, the panel adviser would take responsibility for the panel operation (unless IT help has been made available) and would invite them to join or contact them and advise them when the panel is ready for them to join.
- When applicants and/or social workers join the virtual panel, the Chair should invite each panel member to introduce themselves and their role. Where the facility is available, panel members would then be asked to mute their audio feed while questions are asked. Some panels have also found it helpful on video conferences for panel members’ video feeds to also be switched off so all involved can focus on the primary speakers – the Chair, social worker, applicants/carers and, if required, the panel adviser. (Experience has shown that people will, without realising it, be fidgeting, moving about or looking around, which can be distracting to others.)
- Although most panels would usually have panel members asking questions of the social worker, applicants or carers, most agencies have reported that for virtual panels, it is more straightforward for the Chair to ask all the questions of the applicants and social workers, as agreed with panel members.
- Some conference facilities include the option to record the meeting. This can be a helpful back-up for the minute-taker, but all participants in the meeting should be made aware that the meeting is being recorded and should give their consent. A protocol should be put in place for the recording to be deleted once the minutes have been completed.
- Once the questions have been asked, the Chair would ask applicants/carers to leave the meeting. Some agencies ask social workers to also leave at this point; others invite them to stay and hear panel deliberations.
- Panel members can then re-join the meeting via video and audio, and the panel Chair will facilitate a discussion leading to the making of a panel recommendation.
- Some agencies then invite applicants/carers to re-join the meeting, while others ask the panel Chair, panel adviser or social worker to contact them and share the panel recommendation and reasons.
Adoption Counts has set out their expectations of how a video conferencing meeting will run, which are shared in their information leaflets for social workers, applicants and panel members.
Video conference etiquette
- Be aware of your surroundings. If in a shared space, please use headphones to maintain confidentiality. Do not have any confidential or inappropriate items visible to the camera.
- Panel discussion will be managed in the same way as present; however, there are some additional disciplines to ensure that everything runs smoothly.
- When speaking, please be aware that people will be listening via headphones, so state your name and speak clearly and slowly. This will assist other people on the call, particularly the minute-taker.
- Please avoid speaking when someone else is speaking. If you have any additional questions or comments, wait for an appropriate break in speech to speak.
- The Chair will call you by name to introduce yourself.
- The Chair will call on each panel member individually to give their strengths, vulnerabilities and questions. Questions will be submitted prior to the panel, but the Chair will check in with panel members to ensure there is nothing extra to add. The Chair will ask questions on behalf of the panel.
- The Chair will then call on each panel member one by one to give their view of the match and reasons.
After the panel
- Time should be allowed at the end of the meeting for reflection and a debrief for panel members, and the panel adviser should also seek feedback from the presenting social workers, and applicants/carers.
- Minutes should be circulated and approved in the usual way and signed off by the Chair for consideration by the agency decision-maker.
- Whilst panel members will not have any travel expenses, some may incur costs for use of telephone conferencing, which they should be able to claim for.
- The panel Chair and panel adviser should consider whether any changes need to be made to the process as a result of the feedback.
Fostering Network has published a helpful blog from a panel Chair after her first virtual panel, which may be of interest.
Involving applicants in a virtual panel
- The social worker for the applicants and/or panel adviser should discuss with applicants and carers how they want to be involved in the meeting. Where possible, this would be helped by having an information leaflet that can be shared with them, setting out both the process and the practicalities of the method being used to host the meeting. As the feedback below shows, some applicants/carers will want to be involved; others may prefer their social worker to represent them.
We did offer to include the adopters, but I think they were stressed enough already and were confident that the social workers could represent them well.
We completed an approval with the applicants on the call (that bit was good but not brilliant, but they were pleased to still be involved).
The positive was that the adopters/applicants still felt that they were part of the process. Not sure how the applicants would be supported if it was a more difficult application or match.
One foster carer, who doesn't like talking in groups, found the experience difficult. The support and skills of her supervising social worker were important in helping her find her voice.
The carers were connected persons who, whilst doing well in caring for their grandson, didn't feel confident in being part of panel discussions using this medium (teleconferencing). Their social worker rang them beforehand to gather any views they wanted to put forward and presented these.
The following reflections from foster carers and a prospective foster carer who recently attended a virtual panel highlight what helped them to have a positive experience, despite the technical hitches:
We both agreed that the virtual panel was a success; although we had some difficulty logging on to begin with, once it was up and running the whole process ran quite smoothly. The joining instructions could have been a little clearer but other than that no further comments.
My personal feedback from the virtual panel was excellent, but I think this was led by the preparation beforehand to underpin the confidence which I felt sitting in the comforts of my own home. Secondly, I believe the Chair was excellent in that he projected confidence and an air of calm which helped me to relax; he did not seem judgemental or intimidating. Therefore, I believe the key to future virtual panels is preparation and confidence in the equipment that you possess and the panel appearing non-judgemental and reducing the fear and anxiety that could exist. I think the feedback from the Chair was very helpful and the conduct is a skill and comes from experience, I suppose. I also believe that the fact that only one person asked the questions but there was an awareness of the source of the questions was important.
As I had been in the process for such a length of time, I was more aware of processes and information. I was prepared for the panel because I ensured that I read and understood my report and its contents. I think making notes of the panel members and who they were was helpful because you have an awareness of their background and possibly why they would be asking such questions.
This is a learning situation for all involved, and we continue to welcome further feedback from agencies about what has worked well or what challenges those involved have encountered and resolved. Contact Elaine Dibben on firstname.lastname@example.org to share your experience.