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Guidance could ‘silence’ HSE board members

Official HSE guidance issued to board members states they should reflect the organisation’s “agreed” position when publicly discussing “health- or care-related topics” even if it diverges from their personal view, the Medical Independent (MI) can report.

The document, ‘Public Communication and Commentary: Guidance Document for HSE Board and Board Committee Members’ (July 2020), was released to MI following a Freedom of Information (FoI) request to the HSE.

However, in an email on a “draft media policy” developed by HSE Communications, board member Mr Brendan Lenihan cautioned that many members were appointed to boards due to their standing as “advocates” and that guidance should not result in “silencing these voices”. The email, which was sent to fellow HSE board members in June, was released via FoI.

According to the finalised HSE guidance document: “While discussing health- or care-related topics in public, there is an onus on the member, in as much as is practicable, to reflect HSE agreed policy and/or its position on the matter.” “This should happen even if the agreed policy and/or position is at divergence with the member’s personal view. Otherwise the board member should avoid commenting on the matter at all.”

When a board member is engaged in any public commentary “on other persons or bodies” they must be “mindful to ensure that comments, either of criticism or endorsement, are not viewed as representing the HSE’s position, unless by agreement of the chairperson”. All media approaches “including attempts to get off the record briefings” should be referred to HSE Communications via the HSE board secretary for “processing and support if required”, according to the guidance document.

In his email on 25 June regarding a “draft media policy”, Mr Lenihan informed colleagues on the HSE board: “There is a danger in trying to regulate all commentary made by board members on all issues.” “Many members are placed on the boards of organisations because they are advocates in their own right and they are there to provide a continuing voice for elements of society whose voices are unheard today.

“While there needs to be a transition to collective responsibility, guidance in this area ought not to end up silencing these voices. Our board members generally wear a large number of hats in other public bodies and private, charitable and voluntary organisations.”

Mr Lenihan, a former President of Chartered Accountants Ireland, stated that any approach regarding board member communications must be based on firm obligations, such as the statutory requirement regarding confidentiality; the fiduciary duties of the board member to the HSE; and the collective responsibility of the board under the ‘Code of Practice for the Governance of State Bodies’.

Mr Lenihan also suggested consideration of adopting some broader principles (eg, Seven Principles of Public Life/Nolan Principles which “would guide the nature and tone of commentary”.

More widely, Mr Lenihan said the extent to which the HSE “is as publicly open as possible” about all decisions and actions “significantly reduces the risk of many of the potential misunderstandings and mishaps that are referred to in the paper”.

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