User Panels are regular meetings of service users about the quality of a service or other related topics. They help to identify the concerns and priorities of service users and can lead to the early identification of problems or ideas for improvements.
User Panels usually take the form of a workshop and it is important to outline a clear purpose and the time required for participants' involvement right from the beginning. There also needs to be very clear lines of feedback between the Panel members and the decision-makers.
You should use User Panels when:
- You are working with people who are not usually heard, for example those with learning disabilities, children, and the elderly
- You want to establish a two-way dialogue between service providers and users,
- You want to set up a sounding board for new approaches or proposals relating to services
- As a way of identifying emerging problems
You should not use User Panels when service providers and planners do not support the work and are unwilling to provide feedback or if you are using the Panels as the only way of getting user feedback.
- A User Panel should be relatively small to allow quality interaction between participants. Some organisations recruit a large pool of users so that they can draw out smaller groups to be consulted on a particular issue.
- Groups can be targeted to reflect certain subgroups of users, such as people with disabilities, or ethnic minorities - it is best to include a diverse range of users in the Panel.
- Panel members should not remain on the panel indefinitely, after a while participants tend to become too knowledgeable about the service delivery organisation and may come to identify with it and so lose credibility with other users.
- It is hard to assess the costs of running a Panel as it depends greatly on whether or not you have in-house facilitation skills, where the groups meets, how large it is and how often it meets.
- Panel members should at least receive expenses.
- Arranging free transport to and from meetings can be appropriate, especially if the service users are the elderly or health care users.
Approximate time expense
- User Panels are usually ongoing (with participants being replaced as time goes on).
- A member of staff will need to provide support for the Panel.
- The accountability and credibility of the Panel can be increased if you allow time for representatives to refer back to wider user groups.
- Changes can be tracked over time
- Solution focused
- The Panel members are well informed on the issues
- Time consuming/long-term commitment
- The Panel is not necessarily representative
- A small number of people may dominate the group
- May not take into account relevant needs of non-users of services
- The panels will not deliver statistical information
The panels have evolved from tools like focus groups and the spread of policy targets, such as 'Best Value'. These have increased the appreciation of the benefits of getting users involved in the planning and delivery of the services they use.
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