Since I’ve been employed as a social worker one of the constants in my working week has been the presence and existence of ‘panels’ in many different forms. There was a brief stage when we were told not to refer to them as ‘panels’ but rather meetings but it’s all the same thing at least, in the setting in which I’ve been working. They are groups of managers and professionals of a variety of provenances making funding decisions on behalf of the local authority or health service. Of course sometimes they say it is about joint decision making (which is why the word ‘panel’ is frowned upon now) but that’s really a facade. I make recommendations but I have little authority over funding decisions.
Different local authorities often have different mechanisms so my explanations of the panels that I might attend come with the proviso that things are arranged and organised in a variety of ways.
We have panels which primarily make decisions about packages of care that exceed a particular baseline cost. That baseline has changed a variety of times but generally managers in each team are given a certain ‘threshold’ to which they can approve funding requests but above that and any application for funding for residential or nursing respite or long term care have to navigate a ‘panel’.
We have separate panels for high cost personal budget packages which would be provided for care at home and those which approve residential and nursing care/respite and continuing health care (which authorise applications for long term payment for care by the NHS )
Going to panel generally involves the transfer of reams of paperwork. I’d probably say it’s the most obvious way though that I provide the function of advocating for a particular service user or family member when I ‘present’ the situation to those who make the ultimate funding decisions.
Contrary to what some people might think, I have absolutely no vested interest in the local authority or NHS ‘saving’ money by not agreeing to a particular package – indeed, I won’t tend to bring something to the panel if I don’t wholeheartedly agree with it myself. I am a great advocate of money being spent where it is needed. I have a general wish to see public money well-spent of course and I understand the need to ration resources but if I bring something to the panel and authorise an assessment, it is because I believe that that is what is needed according to my professional judgement and as far as that’s concerned, balancing the rest of the local authority’s budget is not an issue I consider (which is obviously why these panels exist!).
Similarly with the Continuing Health Care Panels I cannot conceive of a situation where I would bring someone to that panel if I didn’t absolutely want and believe that they should get that funding. If I attend and collate a report it is because I and the multi-disciplinary team behind the report, believe in it. I absolutely want people to get what they are entitled to and have no ‘secret instructions’ to try and deny the funding. The rules though are not altogether clear but it suits the funding parties and the governments to keep the rules complicated and unclear. There’s a lot of money at stake.
The panels are open to service users and carers but for me, personally, it’s very rare that service users or carers attend with me.
I have more often had family members attend Continuing Health Care Panels with me and found it is a much better way of working as it allows a lot more transparency and removes one of those bars between me trying to put the words of others in my mouth.
By now, I know the people who sit on the panels and they know me. That’s a massive advantage in being able to persuade and cajole. It makes me realise how useful it is to have built up links and a reputation among the more senior management. I like to think that a trust develops.
Panels used to scare me because I’d be questioned, often in detail about the proposals that would have a substantial monetary implication for the local authority. My paperwork and assessments are examined in great detail and a level of scrutiny applied. Now that I’m more confident, I tend to take pride in presenting my reports and welcome the questioning as I know what to prepare, what to highlight and what to expect.
I’ve had panels where paperwork alone is assessed and where we are not required to attend in person. I prefer being there ‘in person’ especially when there are any question marks that I feel I can clarify.
One of my favourite tasks in my work is feeling that I am genuinely able to advocate and navigate a person or family through the muddy mired waters of local authority funding streams and decisions. I wouldn’t say I enjoy the panel process although there is a satisfaction in having something approved especially if it is something you feel might be hanging in the balance, but I don’t dread them as much as I used to.
As for now though, it’s just another part of the process of seeing a paper ‘plan’ through to fruition. I know they work differently in different areas – indeed, I’ve seen them in different forms in the local authorities I’d work for – but that’s how they work – whether they are called meetings or panels, the effect is the same.
And that’s the explanation of what the panels are – the other side of each discussion I have and each decision that is made by the faceless ‘management’ that I sit in front are that they are desperately important decisions to each person who is reliant on the authorisation of that funding to allow them to life their lives more fully, to allow their family to have access to respite services. My job as I see it, is to bring the paperwork and paper assessments ‘to life’. I am not only writing about a person on a pro forma, but I’m able to flesh out the requested questions and documents with a person, with a family, with relationships.
That’s why I don’t mind attending these panels as much as I used to. I’m not frightened of them anymore. I see them as an opportunity to take a crucially important role in someone’s life and to speak for them and not just about them.