Version 2: 7 May 2020 (PDF version)

 

  • When the adoption agency or fostering service is planning to hold virtual meetings, either by phone or video conferencing, it will need to ensure both the quality of the system set-up and the security of the process. 
  • Support for panel Chairs in developing their skills when chairing a virtual panel, and guidance for panel members about managing their conduct and interaction in the virtual meeting space. 
  • Technology that is suitable to ensure that all participants in the virtual meeting are properly connected and remain so throughout. In some localities, this will include checks on the reliable broadband speeds available to all participants to avoid “drop out” and poor sound transmission. 
  • Security issues, including a secure space from which each participant in the meeting “logs in”, and which remains secure and uninterrupted throughout any panel discussion. 
  • Technical support staff available on site to support the virtual meeting process. This includes security clearance of IT support staff, and if they are present during the virtual meeting, that there are clear arrangements regarding confidentiality. 
  • Compliance with the agency’s data governance policy and procedures to ensure that information discussed remains secure and confidential to the meeting. Compliance issues may need to be discussed with the Data Protection Officer. 
  • Offering choice to prospective adopters, foster carer applicants or foster carers being reviewed, and providing practical and emotional support to ensure that their experience of a virtual meeting does not compromise their involvement in the panel’s decision-making process. 

Which online or teleconferencing platform to use? 

From the responses we have received to date about how agencies are enabling virtual panels, agencies are opting for: 

  • a video conferencing facility, using applications like Skype, Microsoft Teams or Zoom; 
  • a teleconferencing option, using BT teleconferencing or other options; or 
  • a hybrid of both facilities to meet the individual circumstances of panel members, social workers and applicants’ ability or confidence in using the technology. 

Video conferencing has the advantage of all the participants being able to see each other and giving panel members a better sense of applicants whom they have not met previously, but where the technology has not allowed such meetings to take place or has proved problematic, then panels have still been able to achieve panel business through teleconference facilities. 

Feedback suggests that those agencies that have held a virtual panel have been able to conduct panel business using one of these methods, albeit with a steep learning curve! CoramBAAF would not support panel business being conducted through an email exchange, as this would not meet the requirements and expectations for a meeting to be held where all parties are able to participate. 

The decision on which option to use will be determined by the technology available to the agency, panel members, social workers and applicants. 

AFA Scotland, in its recent practice guidance, has noted that: 

Many of the options work well (Zoom, MS Teams, Skype and GoToMeetings have been used so far, but there are several other options), but they require people to familiarise themselves with the process in advance. The connection process is generally not complex but everyone involved in a panel needs the opportunity to test the system prior to any meeting and be sure that they have reliable broadband that will allow them to remain properly connected throughout with satisfactory sound and video quality. They will also need to test in advance that their device – PC, laptop, tablet or phone – will make a satisfactory connection. One or two panel members have joined meetings using audio only – this has proved adequate but noticeably less helpful than having the video link as well. 

With most professionals or panel members working from home, the technology needed to enable online panels must be planned for, and that includes reliable wireless connections. 

Ensuring all parties have access to the panel meeting 

When arranging a virtual panel, it is important to have identified both a “Plan A” and a “Plan B”. There may be considerable work involved in setting up an online panel, including a period of testing and identifying what works well and what doesn’t. For some panel members, that might mean arranging an individual tutorial, either from the agency’s IT team, from the panel adviser, or another panel member who is more confident with the technology. There are also online tutorials that can be shared with participants. It is helpful to arrange a “dry run” before the panel meeting with panel members – preferably at least a day before so that there is an opportunity to sort out any hitches that emerge. This should also be done separately with social workers and prospective adopters or foster carers. 

Online working is different, and panel members will need to familiarise themselves with the specific arrangements and provide feedback about what works and what doesn’t work for them. For some, that may mean moving towards a Plan B. Identifying these issues during and after the first virtual panel experience is important as people adapt to this different way of working. 

If any applicants/foster carers or workers are struggling with the technology or cannot access it in their local area, then consideration should be given to letting them join the meeting through a telephone conference call, with the panel adviser putting them on speaker mode so that they can be heard by all panel members. 

The new requirements for a minimum quoracy of three panel members will assist agencies when the availability of members is restricted because of current public health measures or technical issues. However, this should not be seen as the “new norm”, as this would not provide the rich discussion that is achieved by having the full participation of the panel members as was required under the full regulations. 

Cumbria County Council notes, in their guidance for panel members on holding a telephone conference meeting, that: 

This is a non-visual way of communicating but everyone should be able to hear each other. It is important that we try to ensure that only one person speaks at a time during the conference call and if anyone logs out unexpectedly, the Chair requests a pause in panel business so that the panel adviser or panel administrator can try to make contact with them to ask them to log back in. 

Confidentiality/data protection

There have been issues raised about the security provisions of different online platforms, and providers are continuing to introduce new security measures in response. It will be important that agencies liaise with their IT teams to ensure that all security issues have been considered and addressed as a key part of planning. The use of “waiting rooms” which can be managed by the meeting host and passwords or personalised invitations to access the virtual meeting room should be in place. 

Most agencies have already introduced paperless panels, and panel members and social workers will have access to the papers they need through this route. Where paperwork is being sent through the post, panel members will not have the opportunity to return their papers at the panel meeting, and it is important that papers are securely stored until such time as they can be returned to the agency for shredding or are destroyed if panel members have the ability to do that in a way that preserves confidentiality. 

All paperwork held electronically should be deleted in accordance with usual protocols – usually after the final minutes have been agreed. Any notes written on the day during the meeting should be kept securely until they can be safely disposed of. 

All participants taking part in the meetings, whether through conference calls or video conferencing, should ensure that the conference is held confidentially – where possible, using headphones. Where individuals are participating from home, other members of the household should be asked to avoid making contact while the meeting is in progress. Where there are children in the home, this will need to be considered especially if there is no one else available to care for them during the meeting. 

Where video conferencing is being used, participants should be aware of what can be seen of their surroundings while they are on screen. Some programmes allow people to blur their background to give greater privacy. 

Next: Managing the panel process