Most agencies have either temporarily suspended panels or greatly restricted the business that is to be prioritised. AFA Scotland has had discussions with some agencies about running panels remotely using video conferencing type services (eg, GoToMeetings, Zoom, Skype etc.) and will share information about how well this works as soon as possible.
While virtual meetings bring additional challenges and should not become the norm in the longer term, with the outlook so uncertain, there is a real danger that plans for children will be indefinitely stalled as a result of the current crisis, and virtual meetings offer a possible route for dealing with the most urgent situations. If your agency is considering this, AFA Scotland’s advice would be to think carefully about a number of keys issues.
Technology: many of the options work well (we are mostly using GoToMeetings but there are several 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.
Managing the meeting: managing the process and interaction in the virtual meeting space places extra demands on the chair. Again, the opportunity for panels to test this out before launching into their first virtual panel is strongly advised. As well as testing out the technicalities of the process, panel members and other participants will also need to confirm that they have a space from which they will join the meeting that will remain secure and uninterrupted throughout.
Security and data protection: while most of the systems have the functionality to ensure that the meeting is properly secure, this does rely on the person hosting the meeting (eg, panel co-ordinator or panel chair) being sufficiently familiar with the system to ensure that the privacy functions are operating (i.e.switched on!). If agencies decide to have technical support available to participants, they will also need to consider the security clearance of these IT support staff. Agencies may want to check with their Data Protection Officer about compliance, their data governance policy and procedures.
Support to participants: The approach will be unfamiliar for most participants whether they are social works, foster carers, prospective adopters or birth parents. They will need the same support and opportunity to test the system in advance as other panel members.
Clearly it is very early days in the possible use of approaches such as virtual panels, but if you do use this approach please tell us how you got on so that we can share the information as widely as possible. We are rapidly developing our own skills in this area, so do also get in touch directly if you want some support in relation to doing something similar in your agency.