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Spending on digital community engagement in the pandemic, 2020 onwards

We have received a number of questions from people concerning payments to contractors during the pandemic and subsequently for community engagement via social media, other activities relating to work commissioned through the Public Health team, as well as requests under the Freedom of Information Act 2000.

In order to be as transparent as possible, we have drawn together all of those questions into one place, together with answers in so far as we are able to supply them.

It should be noted that the previous Head of the council’s Strengthening Communities (HoSC) team left the council in March 2022, and their email account was deleted shortly afterwards, in line with our standard policies. This has limited the information available and therefore some of the answers we are able to provide.

Essex County Council is one of the country’s largest councils, covering one of the largest geographical areas. It has around 1.5m residents who live in diverse communities in towns and villages from inside the M25 to Saffron Walden and to the port of Harwich, as well as a large coastal area.

We have noted the points raised about a number of people via social media and we have provided information about:

  • Simon Harris
  • Jon Morter
  • Emmy McCarthy
  • Johnny Searle Consulting Limited
  • Neel Mookherjee
  • Rob Pilley
  • Jake Searl
  • Central Law CIC
  • Better Divorce Course
  • The Prince of Wales Pub in Stow Maries


The people included here are people we have been asked questions about. They are either businesses (including sole traders) who have received funding for social media activity, or are other businesses or organisations who received payments from us for things unrelated to social media.   

Many of the payments have already been published within the spend data on this website, but we are providing more information and context.  It should be noted that we are publishing information on the basis of being asked to provide information. Inclusion in the spreadsheet does not imply any suggestion of any inappropriate behaviour or wrongdoing of any nature whatsoever.  We are just being as transparent as possible to respond to questions which have been asked.

Many of the enquiries relate to commissioning external people to produce and curate social media content and build networks.  Our paid for use of this started in a small scale in July 2019 and increased substantially during the national emergency of the coronavirus pandemic and continued throughout the pandemic.  It was expanded to cover other subjects where social media could help get messages to our residents. 

Simon Harris

Prior to the pandemic, we sought to use social media (primarily Facebook) to reach people who were not engaging with the council, by developing a network of local administrators who would amplify the council’s campaign messages, thus bringing them to a wider audience than would otherwise be possible. Simon Harris helped provide a small amount of content and did some other work for which he was paid.   

When was Simon Harris first used?

Mr Harris was first contracted to the council in July 2019 when he did work for United in Kind, a social movement in Essex which aims to prevent loneliness. 

What was Mr Harris’s role during the pandemic?

It was quickly realised that communication on public health messages to encourage compliance with lockdown regulations during the pandemic would be of paramount importance and would require intense activity, far in excess of what the council’s own resources would enable. Lockdown restrictions meant that social media became one of the council’s primary channels for reaching residents and businesses, alongside the professional media and channels such as direct mail and on-street advertising. At that point, social media work from Mr Harris was commissioned.

Did he approach the council or did the council approach him? 

He was known to the council as a person who was able to generate engagement on social media. It is understood that the then Head of Strengthening Communities became acquainted with Mr Harris at events relating to social media.  The former Head saw how it could be harnessed to amplify messages.

Was any contract tendered?

No. No tendering or competitive process took place.  The amounts paid in 2019 were low enough so no competitive process would have been expected under our rules.

Once the pandemic started, it was considered imperative that the work to create a network to support the community was given to someone with strong, established connections to local Facebook groups.  Mr Harris undeniably had these links. It was important to set things up quickly to amplify critical messages to all residents, especially the vulnerable and those in need of support, and to recruit those able to support through volunteering. The first payments during the pandemic were for £15,000 and £20,000.

It Is important to remember that the first payments over £10,000 were during the very early stages of the pandemic when, like all local authorities, the county council was under pressure, dealing with delivering essential care services for the vulnerable and re-shaping its other services so that as many of them as possible could carry on, while dealing with additional government requirements regarding the lockdown and social distancing. This placed our resources under a lot of pressure.

None of the contracts were required by law to be tendered.  None of the contracts referred to in this spreadsheet were over the EU tender limit. (The UK left the EU on 31 January 2020, but was in a transitional period until 31 December 2020 and the EU procurement rules remained in force in the UK throughout the period this content refers to.)

Even if they had been over the tender limit, it is important to remember that the pandemic was a time when we needed to buy things urgently.  Like many public authorities, we had to make use of regulation 33 of the Public Contracts Regulations 2015 during this time. The need for widespread procurement outside the normal rules was recognised by the UK Cabinet Office as well as the European Union, of which the UK was then a member. Read ‘Guidance from the European Commission on using the public procurement framework in the emergency situation related to the COVID-19 crisis’.

These contracts needed to be awarded and continued urgently.  Payments continued during the pandemic when our services and resources continued to be under great pressure in managing the response to the pandemic.

What were the internal rules for competitive procurement?

Our procurement rules do not require any competitive process for spend up to £10,000.  Between £10,000 and £100,000 it’s expected that quotes will be obtained. Over £100,000 a tender process is expected.  These processes do not apply where a ‘waiver’ is granted.  We also need to award in compliance with a procedure authorised by the Public Contracts Regulations 2015 if the spend is over the relevant threshold. None of the contracts were above the relevant threshold. 

Were internal processes followed for the spend?

A procurement waiver was granted informally by a Head of Procurement for the initial expenditure during the pandemic. Other payments were not covered by procurement waivers when they should have been. 

Some processes were not followed relating to procurement waivers and declarations of interest.

Was any of the spend unlawful or illegal?

We are not aware of any aspect of spending which could, under the rules, be considered to have been illegal or unlawful.

Would you repeat the spending?

In the pandemic things were different and the circumstances were exceptional.  All services supporting communications and spending were extremely busy.  Key services took on additional staff.  The council and our residents did benefit from the services provided by Mr Harris though increased levels of engagement.  Since the pandemic, work to engage via social media has continued on some projects but at a reduced level.

There were significant benefits to our residents, so we definitely can’t say we wouldn’t spend money on social media engagement in this way again.  We have obviously learnt from our experiences and would apply that learning in future activity.

Did the services represent good value for money?

Given the wider pressures of pandemic communications, it was not possible to find the capacity internally to support this work, and there was not really a clear market price for work of this specific type (facilitating engagement and amplifying messages through working with Facebook administrators) which was a new area of ‘paid for’ activity for us. It was also considered helpful to have independent amplification of our messages by a non-local authority voice.

On the one hand, it is our view that we achieved more engagement than would have otherwise been the case , and it was a novel approach, utilising a ‘non-local government’ tone of voice and frequent posting, which was valued by our residents and cited in national case studies.  It certainly helped engagement within the covid restrictions and it helped influence behaviour by giving people information in an engaging way.  On the other hand, it is entirely understandable that people will regard the sums concerned as a lot of money to spend on Facebook promotions, particularly viewed 18 months after the end of the pandemic crisis and during a cost-of-living crisis. Opinions will differ on this.

Where did the money come from?

There were a number of sources of funding.

Much of it came from government grants rather than the council tax, including emergency covid grants which could only be spent on certain things.  Some came from Mid Essex Hospital Trust for the ‘This is Your Life Campaign’.

The minority of money came from the council’s general funds which are ultimately paid for from Council Tax.

Can we see documentation on the decision and award of contracts?

There are a number of contracts and grant agreements with Mr Harris.  These are being published with this note, redacted to remove personal details. These cover most of the expenditure as noted in the spreadsheet. 

There were three formal decisions taken by Councillors: 

  1. One taken by the then Leader of the County Council on 24 December 2020, allocating £60k to be spent on Essex Coronavirus Action. 
  2. Taken by the Cabinet on 8 June 2021: authorising £100k to be spent on Essex Coronavirus Action (streamed on YouTube) and £50k to be spent on a coronavirus campaign for gypsies and travellers, and £100k for Chelmsford CAB which was for the Central Law Group. The £500k for Coronavirus Campaigns was for the corporate communications team who were undertaking significant activity in communicating to our residents.  ECVA supplemented this work.
  3. Taken by the Cabinet Member for Finance on 21 December 2021: allocating money for Essex is Green.

Why are some contracts not signed by both parties?

 Our records from this period are incomplete. However if a contract is sent to someone, and they carry out the requirements and are paid, the law considers that a contract has been created because each party has performed their obligations.

Why did we pay Mr Harris as an individual? 

We have always paid Mr Harris as an individual as with respect to this work he was a sole trader.

There’s nothing unusual about paying sole traders. Some payments were made to Mr Harris on the understanding that he would pass them on to others. This was done as an expedience during the pandemic – see later.

Was Mr Harris on an approved list or procurement framework? 

No. We did not have an approved list or framework for this type of work at the start of the pandemic. 

Who signed off payments?

This is shown on the spreadsheets.  This would be by approving a purchase order or by authorising a payment.

What documentation do you have about Mr Harris’s qualifications or suitability to provide services?

Some of Mr Harris’s work was evaluated after it was delivered and it was considered to be of a suitable standard.  There is no documentation relating to qualification/suitability to provide services.

What services were provided?

See the contracts and spreadsheet. However, Mr Harris provided content and engagement activity over a number of Facebook pages, including Essex Coronavirus Action, Essex is Green, pages for Essex Veterans, content aimed at suicide prevention and dementia support, amongst others, alongside supporting non-digital activity

What documentation is there relating to why services were necessary?

The work was purchased at speed, largely during a pandemic.  No detailed documentation was prepared about why services were necessary.  It was important for our residents to be engaged with the messages issued by our Director of Public Health and from the council corporately, especially as these pertained to changes of rules at different stages of the pandemic.  It is clear that Essex Coronavirus Action helped with this by ensuring that messages were well distributed, and more accessible in that they were shared within and by online communities, not just the council itself.

Was all the money retained by Mr Harris?

We understand from records given to us recently by Mr Harris that he passed on at least £163,190.95 to others involved in the campaign.  These may be regarded as sub-contractors.  There was no legal obligation on Mr Harris to tell us about who he was using or why or how much he was paying.

Why was this arrangement used?

We have no record as to why this happened. It frequently appears to have been to support content production, including by fellow influencers.  Some of it was used to pay people who were helping to co-ordinate and onboard volunteers at vaccination centres.  It appears that it was done this way to facilitate payments more quickly than could have been achieved by the council’s internal recruitment processes.  We are ensuring that HMRC are aware of this situation.

Why was this work given to Mr Harris rather than the council’s communications team?

The council’s corporate communications team was at full stretch with the development and dissemination of council messages via its own channels during the pandemic, alongside targeted campaigns encouraging different audiences including young people, the vulnerable and the disengaged to follow rules, get vaccinated or volunteer. The primary role of the council’s communications team was the production and initial dissemination of messages, via its own channels, to the professional media and via the council’s corporate social media channels. It was undoubtedly the case that Mr Harris was connected to lots of local  Facebook groups and was able to benefit from established links with administrators; he was therefore able to amplify those messages. This meant that he could use his pre-existing networks to help messages sent out by the council reach a wider audience.  He was also able to develop messages issued by government and the council to make them more accessible, often by using humour which may have been inappropriate for the council to use. 

Essex Coronavirus Action was not ‘owned’ by the council, not withstanding that it was funded by the council, and was therefore able to offer independent amplification of messages.

How much was paid to Mr Harris for Coronavirus Action Support/Essex is United?

The total payments were £349,975 of which it appears c£135k was paid to others for services including c£16,000 for co-ordinators to support vaccination centre volunteers.

For example, of the £100,000 paid in August 2021 to run the page for a further year, it appears that £65,000 was paid to others.

What was the rest of the money paid to Mr Harris for?

The remaining money was paid for other campaigns such as those to support veterans, Essex is Green, suicide prevention, the ‘This Is Your Life’ campaign and various public health campaigns as set out in the spreadsheet.

Did the council’s communications team have a role in commissioning social media before the pandemic?

The council’s communications and marketing team is responsible for the management of the council’s corporate social media channels. This includes content creation, campaign activity, paid for social media advertising and evaluation and analytics.  This was the case prior to the pandemic, and continues to be the case. They did manage, and continue to manage, the council’s social media channels and as part of campaigning activity, commission advertising on Facebook and other channels. The department did not have a role in managing relationships with, or commissioning third party Facebook groups or admins.  

Did the council’s communication team have a role in advising on the benefits of using an external Facebook support, on managing Facebook admins or on advising on what fees were appropriate?

No. The work was devised, delivered and scaled up by the Public Health team. The council’s Communications team were not consulted but were aware of the activity. They were not aware of  the size or nature of the payments and therefore they didn’t raise any concerns.

Did the council’s communications team have any role in evaluating the value of the use of Mr Harris, compared to the value they could have added themselves or in assessing whether any increased engagement was caused by the pandemic situation rather than the efforts of Mr Harris?

No. The council’s communications team was not asked to do this. The evaluation of the activity was carried out independently.

How can you demonstrate value for money in the services provided?

There was clearly value in the services provided. South Bank University confirmed that the campaign had been effective.

The reporting data provided at the time shows the use of digital communities had great benefit for us during the pandemic. We were able to inform and reassure a large number of residents, some of whom we would not ordinarily have had the ability to reach. We were also able to build a trusted channel and achieve good levels of salience. The risk of not communicating with our Essex population, particularly those who were vulnerable, was not one we could take.  It is hard to place a value on this.

It should be noted that the report considered by Cabinet in June 2021 also included £500,000 for the communications and marketing team to spend on covid campaigns.

Essex Coronavirus Action Facebook page is reported to have had 3-5 million Facebook impressions a month at the height of the Pandemic. What is the figure for page impressions now?

The page was later re-branded as ‘Essex is United’ following the pandemic. We do not ‘own’ the page, however fresh information was given to the Council in April 2024 which is published here: 


Similarly, we don’t have access to information about the historical number of followers that a page had on a particular day or time.  We don’t run these pages.  The only information we have is in the spreadsheets and in the evaluation reports which have been published.

Who was Simon Harris accountable to?

He was and is accountable to Essex County Council. He had regular contact with those commissioning him, which varies depending the category of work. 

The spreadsheet shows who was responsible for each commission. 

Was the previous Head of Strengthening Communities involved in decisions? 

Yes, as can be seen from the spreadsheet.

What were Cabinet Members told?

Cabinet Members were very busy with many things during the pandemic.  We explain above how some money was allocated by cabinet members, but they did not allocate all the money and they weren’t involved in the decisions to spend money.   It’s likely that they many of them would have seen the activities resulting from the work. 

Why were Cabinet Members only involved in making decisions for spending some of the money?

Heads of Service at the council have authority to spend £500,000 (around 0.02% of the council’s overall spend) without involving Cabinet Members.  Their authority would not have been necessary for any of the spending decisions.  They were involved when the spend was part of a larger programme of spending authorisation or authorising spending to come from reserves.

Has the relationship with Mr Harris ceased?

The last contracts will end on 31 March 2024. Some of these are the expiry of three-year agreements. 

Who else was paid by ECC for work on social media campaigns during the pandemic?

Other individuals and companies were paid 

  • Anna Harris 
  • Emmy McCarthy
  • Neel Mookherjee
  • Jon Morter
  • Rob Pilley
  • Johnny Searl Consulting
  • Jake Searl

Please see separate spreadsheets. 

Who else is on the spreadsheets?

The following other organisations are also listed on the spreadsheets.  These had nothing to do with social media, but we have received questions relating to funding they have received

  1. The Prince of Wales Pub in Stow Maries.  This pub was given funding to run a community meals service during the pandemic where meals were distributed to vulnerable people in the surrounding area. In addition, when care homes were unable to operate their kitchens owing to sickness or self-isolation requirements, the Prince of Wales pub delivered food to the care homes to ensure that residents were fed.  The latter work was commissioned by Social Services.
  2. The Better Divorce Course who provide face to face and online training to help people through the separation process.
  3. Central Law CIC, a not-for-profit company which provides affordable or low-cost legal advice which has its origins in the Chelmsford CAB.  Its registered office is at the same premises as the Chelmsford Citizens’ Advice Bureau and its directors include former City Councillors and the former CAB Chief Executive. 

None of this funding was tendered. The funding for the CIC was clearly in the nature of a grant rather than the council buying services.  It wouldn’t have been expected that this was subject to competitive procurement.

Were any relationships or potential conflicts declared?

We have identified that there was not full compliance with the declaration of interest process but we are unable to disclose details of who should have declared or what.  This is because it would amount to a breach of the first data protection principle which requires that data should be processed fairly and lawfully.

What governance policies were used in relation to the payments to Mr Harris?

The usual policies applied. These are set out in the code of governance.

Did they differ from normal pre-pandemic governance arrangements? If so in what way? 

No. While many local authorities increased the powers of officers during the pandemic, our councillors chose not to.  We did have to make more use of urgent decision-making processes than normal but councillors were involved as much as possible.  It is the case that there was a lot of activity at a much faster pace than normal. 

Was any breach of the declarations of interest policy identified, were any employees subject to any action and what was the outcome of that action?

We are unable to comment on this as commenting either way would involve the disclosure of personal data about current or former employees which would not be fair to anyone whose information might be released which would therefore be a breach of the first data protection principle.