Version 3: 9 December 2020 (PDF version)
Elaine Dibben, CoramBAAF Adoption Consultant
It seems likely that over the winter months in 2020–2021, there could be a pattern of changing regulations and restrictions based on a tier system or levels of lockdown being put in place in response to changing levels of risk from Covid 19. Whilst in most of these situations there are exceptions allowed for work purposes, there is still a requirement to work from home where possible and, where this is not possible, to ensure a safe working environment and to take account and risk assess the implications for all staff, panel members and applicants and carers who would be asked to attend a panel. For this reason, we understand that most agencies are planning to continue holding virtual panels whilst ongoing restrictions are in place.
Factors to consider when setting up a virtual panel
- When the adoption agency or fostering service is holding virtual panel meetings, either by phone conferencing or video conferencing, it will need to ensure both the quality of the system set-up and the security of the process.
- Support should be available for panel Chairs when chairing a virtual panel and guidance for panel members about managing their conduct and interaction in the virtual meeting space.
- Technology should be used 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. Some panel advisers or administrators have attended panel from their workplace to ensure access to better technology.
- Security issues must be considered, 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 should be 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.
- There should be 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.
- Choice should be offered 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 information shared at practice forums about how agencies are enabling virtual panels, we understand that 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 were initially able to achieve panel business through teleconference facilities. However, our understanding is that, wherever possible, they have now moved to using video conferencing, which allows for greater participation in the meeting.
Our feedback suggests that the use of virtual panels has ensured that agencies have been able to conduct panel business using one of these methods, albeit with an initial steep learning curve and ongoing challenges with technology and quality of signal, etc! The decision on which option to use has been determined by the technology available to the agency, panel members, social workers and applicants. It will be important for agencies to keep open a dialogue with their IT teams so that they are made aware of systems being updated which would improve the experience of panel members and those attending.
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.
Whilst panel members have now become familiar with how to join and engage with a virtual panel, there may still be technical issues which arise before or during a panel, and it is important that they are aware of where they can source support and what the back-up plan will be to enable their ongoing participation and ensure quoracy is maintained.
It is helpful to arrange a “dry run” before the panel meeting with applicants or carers and social workers– preferably at least a day before so that there is an opportunity to sort out any hitches that emerge. 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 them joining the meeting by phoning in or through a telephone conference call, with the panel adviser putting them on speaker mode so that they can be heard by all panel members.
Cumbria County Council noted in their guidance for panel members when they were 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.
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 virtual 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. Where these are not available, agencies are using separate invitations for each agenda item to ensure the virtual meeting is kept secure. Where participants are joining by phone, workers should check who is joining by phone and whether the surroundings are appropriate to maintain the confidentiality of the call.
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. For agencies who have yet to introduce paperless panels the CoramBAAF Practice Note 56 Paperless fostering and adoption panels on the subject is a useful resource.
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. In some circumstances, that might require 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.
When panel meetings are being recorded to provide a backup for the minute-taker, all participants should be aware and agree to the recording and aware of the arrangements for managing and deleting that recording.