Conducting virtual panel meetings

Conducting fostering panels is essential but with the lockdown firmly in place, it can be challenging. Many services are now looking to virtual fostering panels as a way forward. Helen, a panel chair for Rochdale Borough Council, conducted her first virtual fostering panel recently and here tells us how it went.

On average it was about two thirds as long as a normal panel. We used Skype for business and it worked fine, although one or two people had problems with sound initially, so headphones are important.

It felt slightly unsatisfactory not to be able to see foster carers and applicants but all the fostering social workers and children’s social workers who attended were able to join in via audio. We are working on the video link for next time and on alternative ways of including everyone in the video conference.

Try to ensure the room where the panel is taking place doesn’t echo too much. We had hard surfaces everywhere and it would have been even more difficult if we hadn’t had a spider mic. We had someone from our IT department on hand to do the initial set up and we made sure he had signed a confidentiality agreement.     

We did have a couple of dummy runs, prior to the actual panel, which taught us a lot about using the technology. We had a slight problem that we hadn’t expected - the virtual private network (VPN) kicked us out after a specified length of time, so make sure the mobile numbers of all panel members and social workers are easily at hand. We had to phone a couple of people when connectivity was being sorted out.

The pro forma worked fine but we are now working on timescales – when papers are sent out, when panel questions are submitted, how long stakeholders have to respond to the questions, etc. 

The recommendation making process was pretty robust and conducted as normal with every panel member giving their views with reasons. 

Other tips on virtual panel meetings

We reached out to another panel chair who has been running virtual panels for a little while. Her top tips are:

1. Ensure a little extra time for each case and keep a sense of humour and perspective. You will find that the internet crashes etc. but it will come back. Don’t worry if you lose everyone, you'll find them again!

2. Make sure that you know who is on the line; otherwise the carers might still be there when discussing them! Make sure panel members are not chatting while waiting for carers to join the call and don’t forget to introduce everyone to whoever joins you on the call.

3. Chair tightly. I ask all the questions after the panel’s discussion. Get panel members to have their questions sorted beforehand although recognise discussion can change things.

4. I tell the panel they can’t speak unless I invite them to as these are difficult to manage. I then go round each one to ensure they’ve had a voice. It works remarkably well!

5. Be aware of what your computer screen is showing the world! Your washing on view isn’t good!

6. Try and make sure that your panel members are computer savvy. We have built up a core group of people who are confident in doing this. If people get sick we can bring in others.

7. Remember it is MUCH harder chairing this way so be mindful of that and be kind to yourself. It's a challenge for all but we will all get used to it.

Visit our website to find out more information about the principles and some things to consider if you are considering setting up a virtual panel.

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