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Padraig O'Morain: Drumm and Harney are to blame for the rotten, secretive culture of HSE

Emily O'Reilly's rage at secrecy in the HSE will draw three cheers from everyone else who is also outraged by its behaviour.

There will be no cheers, though, from the HSE, which yesterday repeated its long- held belief that everything is alright and people who condemn its actions are being unfair.

But everything is not alright.

The HSE works for us, but that's only in theory.

Its hospitals, child protection services and its many, many other agencies, sub-agencies, sections and sub-sections get things wrong, sometimes appallingly wrong.

That is to be expected, even in the best-run organisations.

But the problem is that the HSE refuses to admit, for as long as it possibly can, that it ever gets things wrong.

And when somebody like our Ombudsman goes looking for answers the response of the HSE, all too often, is to send her on what she called an "Alice in Wonderland" trip to try to stop information getting out.

It's not just her.

Other bodies acting in the public interest also get the runaround from the HSE.

These, she pointed out when launching her annual report, include the Minister for Children Barry Andrews TD and the Government.

The secrecy of the HSE is routinely condemned by the news media to no effect whatsoever.


And it is clearly getting to the Ombudsman. She has shown herself to be a tough and determined woman, well able to stand up to the likes of the HSE.

So have her staff of public servants, who work unseen and unheard and who have engaged in hand-to-hand combat with big bureaucracies for years.

But everyone has a breaking point, and when the Ombudsman suggests the HSE is living in a parallel universe you realise that perhaps she is getting to the limits of what even she can tolerate.

The old health boards were bad enough when it came to keeping information away from people and putting their own interests ahead of those of the public.

But at least there were, for most of their history, eight of them so they were smaller and to that extent a little easier to deal with.

And they had elected representatives overseeing them -- a pretty useless bunch in all honesty, but at least now and then you could get information out of them or you could get them to ask a question.

As one union officer told me, "I used to know who to talk to but now they're so far away I haven't a clue".

I sometimes wonder if anybody in the HSE has a clue what is going on?

Perhaps the machine is so complicated it's out of control? Perhaps the only thing it knows is that, whatever is happening, it doesn't want to tell anybody about it?

Professor Brendan Drumm, as its chief executive, must bear much of the responsibility for the culture of secrecy which was so strongly condemned by Ms O'Reilly.

One memo from him could shatter the foundations of that culture of secrecy, assuming it didn't get lost somewhere in the system.

Surely he has realised by now that the old 'tell them nothing' attitude just doesn't work any more.

And couldn't Mary Harney have done something about it, too?

Couldn't she, too, have, complained about the obstacles the HSE puts in front of the Ombudsman and of her own department (the Minister for Children and his office are part of the Department of Health)?


Couldn't she do it still? It wouldn't cost anything and transparency may be the only way left to improve the system.

The HSE says it's very disappointed by all this.

In a statement which may have made Emily O'Reilly choke on her boiled egg over breakfast, it insists that it makes every effort to be as transparent as possible in all areas.

Alice in Wonderland, indeed.