Users' Panels

Users' panels are a system of regular contact between service providers and patients, carers and communities. They are used to obtain feedback from service users about their experiences and expectations, which can then be used in service planning and review.

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How to do it

  • Panels are recruited from service users, e.g. people with a particular long-term condition, or those who use a specific service or facility. You might approach directly people from services' lists of their patients, or you might wish to consider using one or more of the following bodies, among others, as a user group or as a source from which to recruit members of a users' group: hospitals' patient councils; patient participation groups attached to GP services; patient and carer groups.
  • There are no limits on the number of people on a panel, other than the practicalities of the organiser's circumstances. Panels comprising several hundred people are common. Every effort should be made to recruit members of groups who are marginalised or not usually listened to.
  • Membership of the panel should be changed regularly and systematically – typically one third replaced each year – to allow people to drop out and to bring in 'new blood' so that the feedback it provides remains relevant.
  • The full panel can be the respondent group for large-scale surveys.
  • Alternatively, people drawn from the panel can be invited to participate in smaller group discussions and other consultation events, the feedback from which is fed into the service's decision-making process.
  • If appropriate, panels can be drawn together comprising specific user groups, for example people with disabilities, ethnic minorities, young people.
  • A users' panel can also be a source of delegates for conferences or other forms of participation.
  • A users' panel could be operated as a district-wide customer panel, in partnership with other organisations, using postal questionnaires and thereby consulting a few times per year on a combined basis.
  • Feedback should be provided to participants on the outcome of each exercise.

Pros

  • Users' panels provide early indication of emerging concerns and difficulties.
  • They are a good way to establish ongoing, two-way dialogue between service providers and users.
  • This is a flexible method which can be adapted to different circumstances.
  • They are a good way to sound out new ideas or proposals.
  • There is the opportunity for partnership working with other organisations.
  • Once established, a users' panel is a quick and inexpensive method of gathering information and produces a high response rate to questionnaires.

Cons

  • Care needs to be taken over how the panel is recruited to ensure that it includes a wide range of groups within the population, but it is unlikely to be completely representative of the population. This method is unlikely to lend itself to participation by people with literacy or language problems.
  • Since panels are recruited from service users, they do not take account of the needs of people who have not yet accessed the service.
  • Because of the flexibility of this tool, panels may be overused to the point where participants suffer from 'respondent fatigue'.
  • There is a risk that over time panel members will come to identify with the organisation and therefore become less critical.
  • There is a risk that over time service providers will come to rely on this as their only method for involving service users.

Resources

  • Staff time for recruitment of panel members, maintaining and updating the database of panel members, questionnaire preparation/administration/analysis/report writing
  • Facilitation of discussion meetings, either by in-house staff or external facilitators
  • Venue and catering
  • Reimbursement of out-of-pocket expenses of lay participants.

Top Tip

  • Panel consultation can be used as a stand-alone exercise or used jointly with other approaches.

Sources and further information

Some of this information was first published in:

  • COSLA (1998) Focusing on Citizens: A guide to approaches and methods. CoSLA: Edinburgh