The bidding process for the Ministry of Justice’s Transforming Rehabilitation programme was "very chaotic and confused" and the department seemed to be "making things up as it went along", voluntary sector organisations that failed to win bids to run contracts have said.
The criticisms are contained in a write-up of a discussion, organised by the think tank NPC, involving six large voluntary sector organisations that unsuccessfully bid for major contracts for the programme. The document says that some felt they were being used as "bid candy" and the process was too rushed.
The Transforming Rehabilitation programme involved subcontracting out the responsibility for supervising medium and low-risk offenders to 21 local community rehabilitation companies. The organisations taking part in the discussion were all bidding to play a part in running one or more of those 21 CRCs.
NPC’s report says the organisations felt the MoJ did not appear to have the capacity to run or support an effective tendering process. It says they found the bidding process "very chaotic and confused, with questions unresolved, deadlines and key aspects changing right up to the later stages of the competition".
It adds: "Bidders who passed the pre-qualification questionnaire stage received around four days of support from officials, but our participants estimated they needed three or four times that to resolve all issues and questions they had.
"The calibre and experience of officials supporting the bidders was described as ‘inconsistent’; some did not seem to understand their own processes and our participants cited examples of contradictory information being given by different officials."
The report also says the participants in the discussion found the process more complex than it needed to be and the pace of reform was too swift.
"Underlying the perceived failure of the tendering process is the key point that there was not enough time to do it in," the report says. "While 20 months may seem like a long time, it is a relatively short period for such a fundamental reform and to award contracts that will run for many years.
"The effect of this was a rushed process that lacked genuine consultation and failed to reflect the complexity of the criminal justice system.
"Moreover, the MoJ appeared to lack the capacity or expertise to deliver the process within such a short timeframe, contributing to the problems highlighted above."
One participant said: "The MoJ seemed to be making things up as it went along. It careered across different issues in an unseemly way. Overall it seemed highly disconnected and uncoordinated."
Another said: "We suspected from the beginning that we were bid candy, that our involvement was politically expedient and nothing more."
Asked to comment on the report, a spokesman for the MoJ said in a statement: "Reoffending has been too high for too long, which is why we are reforming the way offenders are managed in the community. Working with the voluntary, third and private sectors, we are helping offenders turn away from crime. The reforms also ensure for the first time that those sentenced to less than 12 months receive support on release."
NPC’s write-up says it had agreed with participants, which were all well-established organisations with experience of running large public sector contracts, that their identities would not be revealed in order to promote honest discussion.