Harris County, Texas – In a unanimous September 14 vote, the Harris County Commissioners Court agreed to terminate an $11 million contract meant to set up a community outreach campaign to encourage vaccination against COVID-19.
The contract was approved in a 4 – 1 vote in early June and partnered the county with Elevate Strategies, a private firm that performs strategic planning and analytics. The agreement entailed a full year of targeted community outreach that would focus on neighborhoods most affected by COVID-19 and would engage residents through calls, texts, mail, face-to-face canvassing, and social media.
Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo began pushing for an independent contractor to run an outreach campaign in March 2021, prompting the county to publish a request for proposals. Four organizations submitted proposals for the contract and Hidalgo assembled a five-person committee to score them and select the best fit. The selection of Elevate Strategies has since come under scrutiny.
Commissioners Tom Ramsey and Jack Cagle were both wary of the contract’s cost at the time of its approval, though only Ramsey voted against it. They have since then been voicing concerns about Elevate Strategies being a partisan entity and that the process that led to its contract was unfair and politically motivated. They claim that Hidalgo pushed to sign with Elevate Strategies for the purpose of funneling money to political cronies and have also raised fears that under Elevate Strategies the outreach would be used by the Democratic Party to obtain information on Harris County voters.
Hidalgo has adamantly defended the process and maintained that there were no ulterior motives in play. Framing the attack on her and the proposal as a partisan hit job, Hidalgo pointed to the county having employed Elevate Strategies during the 2020 Census as precedent for the selection and claimed to have expected that the Federal Emergency Management Agency would reimburse some of the high cost.
Much of the scrutiny of the selection process is focused on the fact that the Elevate Strategies proposal did not receive the highest score and did not have the lowest price tag. A proposal from University of Texas Health Science Center scored higher and was approximately $4 million cheaper, prompting accusations of foul play during the selection process.
The scoring committee was made up of two members of the county health department and three members of Hidalgo’s office, including her chief of staff. It is being alleged that this created an arbitrary majority for the process and vote and that committee members changed some language in the selection criteria to make Elevate Strategies look more qualified than it was.
On the same day of the vote to terminate, Harris County Purchasing Agent DeWight Dopslauf affirmed that the Elevate Strategies contract was handled the same way as all contracts that commissioners approve or reject. Hidalgo also pointed out that Ramsey and Cagle appeared to have reviewed the proposal before voting and did not have these concerns at the time, implying further evidence of their actions being a calculated political attack.
Hidalgo voted with the other four council members to terminate the contract and had been voicing her intentions to do so for at least a week prior to the vote. As a basis for her actions, she claims that the matter had become so politicized that it was beginning to undermine Harris County residents’ trust in the county’s efforts and was becoming counterproductive.
The county has paid over $500,000 to Elevate Strategies since the contract began in early July. The cancellation will become effective on September 24, and the future of the vaccine outreach program remains unclear.