Essex is United – Gavin Jones report to the Audit, Governance and Standards Committee

On April 15th 2024 at 10am, there will be a meeting of the Audit, Governance and Standards Committee to discuss a report on over £1 million of public money being wasted on Facebook groups and pages in the past 6 years.

As with any public meeting the reports are published a week before the meeting, it is those reports that I will be talking about in this blog post. Well that report, there are two but the second part is not available to the public because it talks about individuals. I am not particularly happy about that as it’s public money and if individuals are to blame, we should be told. That said, the law is the law and they have to do that part in private.

Link to the meeting and all of the documents here:

https://cmis.essex.gov.uk/essexcmis5/CalendarofMeetings/tabid/73/ctl/ViewMeetingPublic/mid/410/Meeting/5418/Committee/161/SelectedTab/Documents/Default.aspx

The report was authored by Gavin Jones, the CEO of Essex County Council.

I will also be referencing the internal evaluation conducted by Essex County Council regarding Essex Coronavirus Action, that can be accessed here:

https://data.essex.gov.uk/dataset/29q3y/facilitating-supportive-digital-communities-essex-coronavirus-action-support-ecas?s=01

What shocks me the most is the amount of don’t know’s in the report. They don’t know how selection was made, they don’t know if it was competitive, there doesn’t appear to be in-depth contracts and in short it’s a shambles.

It is important that I start with the facts, which are that the whole Facebook thing is a complete waste of money and has failed to actually achieve anything much. I don’t need to provide tables or stats or involve any analysis, it’s just commonsense.

They are still saying it’s a novel approach. Facebook has been around for almost 20 years and nobody before had come up with this. Why? because it’s pointless. It is literally a series of Facebook pages which are sharing each others posts to boost engagement.

Essex County Council are insistent that Essex Coronavirus Action changed behaviours and delivered information during the pandemic, in a novel approach. The truth is actually pretty simple, none of the information on the page, or group, was unique. We were told to stay at home, I am extremely confident that nobody found out that information from Essex Coronavirus Action. For those that were told to shield they found out through letters and text messages. I found out, not from ECA, that I could still provide care for my Mum and I my children could still be transported to their father’s residence for visits.

I stuck to the rules, as did so many others without the need for Essex Coronavirus Action. It was not a novel approach, it just further shared information that was already available. The research that points to people changing their behaviours because of ECA cannot possibly be accurate. We changed our behaviours because we were told to and because it was the right thing to do to keep those who were vulnerable safe. Not to mention that it was actually illegal to break the Covid restrictions.

When it came to masks I wore one without fail, as did every single member of my family, none of us ever saw anything about that on Essex Coronavirus action. Indeed, if you count ‘us’ as myself, my children, their Father, and my Mum, which was my family unit and those who I had contact with, I am the only person who is on Facebook. My Mum had no social media accounts, and the rest were on the more popular platforms, Twitter, Discord, Tik Tok etc.

This is an Emperors new clothes situation, ECC and everyone associated with the project are insistent that the digital communities project did a lot of good, changed behaviours, and saved lives during the pandemic. Meanwhile those of us not involved can clearly see it was a waste of money and just yet another Facebook page and group, nothing special.

All of the evaluations rely on having changed behaviours with no evidence that it was only ECA that were responsible. I’ve looked at some of the information on there that was posted during the pandemic and it is good information, it was the exact same good information that was available in so many other places.

Every single evaluation of the whole Facebook thing is flawed as there is no proof that it made any difference during or after the pandemic. There was no information available on any of the pages/groups that were not available elsewhere and more publicised that on the pages/groups. The Government was using social media ads to get the latest information to the public, as well as daily press conferences. Every single session I spent on Facebook I would see at least one Government ad that outlined what the current situation was and what the public had to do. Interviewees for the ECC evaluation were asked if the information on the page/group had changed their behaviour, but given the same information was available everywhere else, it’s invalid.

For the Case Study done by ECC in 2020 on the effectiveness of the group/page they recruited people from the group/page, almost exclusively women. They did also do a survey for those who were not in the group/page but there were not enough participants. Likely because if you haven’t heard of it, how are you going to come across a survey about it?

For the qualitative research they interviewed 7 people for about an hour each. Given there are over 1 million adults in Essex I do believe that at this point we can totally discard that so called bit of research. In fact pointing and laughing at it might be more appropriate.

That kind of research might be useful for other projects, but when we are talking about that research being used to justify throwing £500k at a project, that is when the pointing and laughing become appropriate. This isn’t for free, this is a lot of public money

I’m not going to go in depth into the research that was done into the page/group because it can, and should be totally discarded, even the research done by other institutions. A huge flaw in all of the research is the questions asked, or more to the point, the questions not asked. The following academic table shows what happens when you don’t ask the right questions.

The following is the financial aspect of the project from the research done by ECC, despite ECC now claiming they didn’t look into whether the project was value for money.

This proves that they did and that at the time they patted themselves on the back for the huge amount of money they were saving.

Essex County Council laying it out for us. £0.01 per head, compared to what the Cabinet Office spent, that is £1.01 of public health campaign for free! I actually don’t know what else to say about this. The reach of ECAS was artificially inflated by sponsored posts and spamming, by sharing posts on many different pages in the network. It’s just been completely fabricated to make the project look like it’s value for money, not only value for money but the project is so good that it costs only 1% of the government campaign.

It is based on those who had posts presented to them on their Facebook Newsfeed, given that at the timeframe the evaluation covers the page was using sponsored posts which artificially inflated the reach of the page, that 3 million should not have been taken into account.

Who in their right mind took this seriously? For so many self explanatory reasons. It’s clearly been fabricated using data that is not relevant to value for money so that the ECAS project could continue with more funding.

That is a complete load of rubbish and I can’t even take it seriously, the whole thing has just been made up. I estimate that this blog makes a saving of £200,000 per year as it’s written by one person with an attitude problem for free, instead of employing a whole group of people with an attitude problem at a cost of £200,000. If i’d been paying a team of people with an attitude problem £200k per year to write this blog and then fired them and decided to write it myself that would be a saving, but to just pluck figures out of the air with no real world happening of that is just ridiculous.

The following link is to the Local Government Association, which gives us all the information we need as to why there were so many impressions on the ECAS page:

https://www.local.gov.uk/case-studies/essex-county-council-evaluating-supportive-digital-communities-during-covid-19

The most important information on the page regarding the success of ECAS is this

£30k of Facebook ads, no wonder there were so many impressions, of course the small fortune that Facebook gave them in ads is never mentioned in conjunction with the amount of impressions/engagement, it’s almost as if they want people to think it was the content that led to the impressions and not that you were more likely to see it as an ad in your newsfeed.

The above screenshot was published on the 25th March 2021, so over 3 years ago. It states that an in-depth cost analysis was being conducted, yet in his report, Gavin Jones has stated that they “have not been able to find any evidence of value for money assessment”. So what happened to the cost analysis? Did the figures show that it was not cost effective and was wasting a huge amount of public money? Where is that assessment and why can’t Gavin Jones find it? Has he looked behind his guitars? Behind the sofa? Behind his huge ego?

The ECC evaluation was clearly put together by those whose in best interests it was for the project to look good, and for it to be extended with as much money as they could possibly get thrown at it. The other pieces of research are focused on it purely being a vessel for giving out information during the pandemic. There is absolute no research into the page/group after the pandemic, yet ECC were more than happy to continue to throw money at it.

I have covered Simon’s statement to the committee in my next blog post which is here:

It needed to be started quickly? Why did it need to be started at all? There was plenty of other places where information was available during the pandemic, plenty of places where you could ask questions, why are the committee not being presented with a question about whether it should have been started at all. Everything went crazy, especially at the very beginning of the pandemic, was this really the best time to start a brand new never before tested project?

If the council wanted extra reach, they could have gotten that through existing social media accounts, and if they wanted to reach as many people as possible why didn’t the project extend over other social media platforms? Why was it just Facebook?

What isn’t in the report is also interesting. During the full council meeting on 13th February 2024, there were questions raised about who owned the Facebook page and group, and that is not covered in Gavin Jones report. I covered this issue in a previous blog where I came to the conclusion that as Simon Harris created the group, he in effect owned it, the same with the page, although ultimately Facebook own both.

This was proven to be correct as Simon Harris is now using both the page and the group for his own project, it is my opinion that he will monetise both the page and group at some point given that is what he is attempting to do on his own profile and his Man behaving dadly page.

This should not have been allowed to happen, it should have been made clear at the beginning of the project who owned the page/group. Given that ECC were paying all costs for the page/group, it should have been written into a contract that it belonged to ECC and they would regain full control in the event that the contract ended.

Essex is United has been verified by Meta, which means it has a blue tick. This is to show the public that the page/group can be trusted as Meta have seen paperwork that proves the information contained in the page/group is from a trusted source. A blue tick also means that posts get boosted so are more likely to be seen in users news feed.

The page was verified by meta because they were associated with Essex County Council, this is confirmed in some of the documentation.

As the page/group was associated with Essex County Council it was more trusted, this is something that ECC have bragged about all the way through so this is something they already know. That would mean that users of the page and group expect a certain standard when it comes to the future of the page/group, especially with regards to their private information.

In the group during the pandemic there is lots of personal information posted by a lot of people. In a group anything you post is posted under your profile name and most people use their real names. There is now an anonymous post feature in Facebook groups but this was not available when most of the group posts submitted by the public were published.

So much personal information was shared by people who felt safer posting because the local authority was involved with the group. Posts where users have shared that they have made police reports about neighbours breaking covid restrictions, there are quite a few of those. Posts from people who are talking about highly personal mental and physical health problems, all of it under their real names, all who were given a false sense of security that the group was owned by the local authority and as such, they were afforded a certain amount of security.

I’m not talking about that nobody would ever find it, but that the admins would proactively work to keep members safe, there are no guarantees of that now. Simon Harris enjoys mocking people who post on Facebook groups. There are countless examples of him mocking people for posting things such as “Delete this if not allowed”. He openly mocks people who have poor writing and spelling skills, to the point that he set up a tea towel printing business with slogans on them that mock people with poor writing skills.

The group has gone from where the public feel as safe as you can feel on a Facebook group as the local authority is involved, to having an internet prankster in charge who on his personal account takes a great deal of pleasure in mocking people who post in Facebook groups.

Not to mention that the page and group can be monetised, and given that Simon Harris is trying to get his followers on his own personal page, and his Man Behaving Dadly page to use his affiliate links to make himself money, it’s not a stretch to be concerned that he will do the same with the Essex is United page and group.

It is incredibly troubling that Essex County Council has allowed this to happen, to the point that the loss of the group and page is not included in the report to the committee. While Simon Harris set up the page and group and therefore he ‘owns’ them, they were set up on behalf of Essex County Council using money given to Simon Harris to use to set them up. They were verified because they were associated with Essex County Council. £500k of public money has been thrown at the page and group over the past 4 years, and ECC don’t even feel they are worth a mention in the meeting discussing them.

I am not a legal expert, but surely there is something that ECC could do? I know that Simon Harris can in effect transfer the group and page to ECC. With the group he just has to appoint someone from ECC as admin, and then remove himself as admin, the other admins and moderators can then be removed leaving the group in the full control of ECC. Unsure of how to go about it with a page, but there must be a way to do roughly the same.

While Simon Harris did announce that Essex County Council were no longer involved in running the page/group, the majority of people likely missed that and are still under the impression it is run by ECC, not a good look. The name hasn’t even changed, if they change the name then the verified by meta thing gets looked at again and they could lose it, and given that is something they do not want to do, they will likely keep the name the same.

I’d like to know ECC’s thoughts on this, whether they are going to attempt to do something about it legally, surely they could get Simon Harris to stop using branding and a name that for years has identified the page/group as being a part of ECC. ECC has millions of £’s at their disposal, although not to support carers, but with an inhouse legal team surely they can do something about the page/group that cost the public £500k