Grants Management:

Grants.gov Has Systematic Weaknesses That Require Attention

GAO-09-589: Published: Jul 15, 2009. Publicly Released: Jul 15, 2009.

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In response to the Federal Financial Assistance Management Improvement Act of 1999, the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), among other things, developed Grants.gov as the central grant identification and application portal for federal grant programs. OMB oversees the initiative and named the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) its managing partner. Grants.gov officials have acknowledged noticeably degraded system performance, and grantees have reported difficulties submitting applications that have in some cases led to late or incomplete submissions and lost opportunities for both grantees and populations served. Through analysis of agency documents, a Web-based survey of federal grant-making officials, and interviews with agency officials and grantee associations, this requested report examines (1) the benefits of Grants.gov and applicant experiences with submitting applications, (2) the governance structure of Grants.gov, and (3) the range of agency policies for processing Grants.gov applications.

Grants.gov has made it easier for applicants to find grant opportunities and grantors to process applications faster, but applicants continue to describe difficulties registering with and using Grants.gov, which sometimes result in late submissions. Grants.gov customer service staff do not always resolve these issues, especially during off-peak hours and peak submission periods. Clear roles and responsibilities for the Grants.gov oversight entities and coordination among them are critical, yet insufficient, and there are no written policies for how these entities are to work with each other. HHS's Chief Information Officer and the Grants Executive Board (GEB) share responsibility for approving major initiatives and funding for Grants.gov, but there is little evidence that GEB-approved funding for Grants.gov is considered in HHS's review of Grants.gov as an IT investment. This created a disconnect between the services Grants.gov is to provide and the funding needed to purchase them. Untimely payment by the 26 agencies that fund Grants.gov also negatively affects system performance. After informing agencies that it was unable to pay its vendors, the Grants.gov Project Management Office (PMO) developed a system shutdown plan and implemented the first step--it eliminated Web site updates and moved all notices to the Grants.gov blog. Grants.gov also lacks performance measures for important aspects of the system. Finally, grantees lack a structured forum for input on the Grants.gov system and standardized governmentwide grant application policies, limiting grantees' ability to affect a system designed, in part, to streamline the grants application process and ease applicant burden. Disparate agency policies on important aspects of processing applications--such as the criteria for granting appeals for late or incomplete applications and for what constitutes a timely application--burden applicants and sometimes puts applications submitted through Grants.gov at a disadvantage compared to applications submitted through other means, such as other electronic systems or the USPS.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: HHS and OMB have taken a number of steps over the past several years that, collectively, address this recommendation. In October 2011, OMB announced the creation of the Council on Financial Assistance Reform (COFAR) replacing the GEB and GPC. A January 2013 document on COFAR's priorities for FY2013 - 2015 highlights a number of challenges including: overlapping and complex guidance, over 700 distinct grant related forms, and inefficient use of recipient and Federal resources to comply with guidance. Each challenge is aligned with a set of deliverables to address the issue. According to COFAR documents, COFAR's next steps include finalizing business process and data standards for award notice, closeout, and certification.

    Recommendation: To increase the effectiveness and long-term viability of Grants.gov, OMB should work with HHS, the Grants Policy Committee, and other stakeholders as appropriate to identify and implement, to the extent permissible by law, governmentwide policies for processing grant applications, with the goals of minimizing applicant confusion and burden and creating a level playing field for all application submissions, no matter the submission method. These policies could address (1) criteria for what constitutes a timely and complete application; (2) notifications grantor agencies provide applicants when an application has been received or been deemed late or incomplete; (3) criteria for granting appeals for applications deemed late or incomplete; and (4) the Grants.gov registration process.

    Agency Affected: Executive Office of the President: Office of Management and Budget

  2. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: Grants.gov has undertaken a number of steps over the past several years to provide grantee opportunities for input. HHS reports that in fiscal year 2012 the Grants.gov PMO hired a lead for Outreach and Communications, whose responsibilities include outreach to the various grantee communities. Grants.gov also obtains grantee user input through (1) an on-line evaluation forms, using a software called ForeSee and (2) quarterly meetings with the Federal Demonstration Partnership (FDP), a grantee association representing academic research institutions and others. Finally, the PMO reported that Grants.gov performs a number of system enhancement releases during each fiscal year. All stakeholders, including the FDP acting as a representative voice of the applicants and Federal grants management owners, are now included in planning for enhancement activities.

    Recommendation: To increase the effectiveness and long-term viability of Grants.gov, OMB should work with HHS and other stakeholders as appropriate to identify and implement a Grants.gov "applicant user group" or other systematic, periodic approaches for obtaining grantees' input on changes and improvements to Grants.gov system.

    Agency Affected: Executive Office of the President: Office of Management and Budget

  3. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: HHS and OMB have taken a number of steps over the past several years that, collectively, address this recommendation. In August 2013, HHS provided evidence that the HHS CPIC process documentation contains information on the approved budget for Grants.gov. In October 2011, OMB issued memo M-12-01 on the creation of the Council on Financial Assistance Reform (COFAR), replacing the GEB and the Grants Policy Committee. HHS is a co-chair on COFAR and other HHS staff participate in COFAR working groups. In addition, HHS reported strong communication with COFAR. COFAR meeting minutes show progress made on various items related to the spirit of our recommendation. For example, August 2012 COFAR minutes highlight Grants.gov governance as an initial priority area for FY2013 - FY2015, and COFAR meeting minutes from November and December 2012 include an update on GSA's System for Award Management (SASM) demonstrating coordination and highlighting a long term goal to establish a new governance structure for SAM that will more explicitly include the grants community.

    Recommendation: To increase the effectiveness and long-term viability of Grants.gov, OMB should work with HHS to develop guidance that (1) ensures that the Grants.gov budget and funding model adopted by the GEB adequately supports the package of Grants.gov IT services approved through the HHS CPIC process; (2) clearly defines the roles and responsibilities of the GEB, HHS OCIO and Grants.gov PMO with respect to Grants.gov, including how these entities are to coordinate with each other to resolve Grants.gov system issues; and (3) addresses GSA's role and specific responsibilities in developing approaches for longer-term Grants.gov solutions.

    Agency Affected: Executive Office of the President: Office of Management and Budget

  4. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: HHS and OMB have taken a number of steps over the past several years that, collectively, address this recommendation. According to information provided in August 2013 in response to our recommendation, in FY 2011 the Grants.gov PMO implemented Foglight to monitor the Grants.gov system and provide real-time reporting and metrics on service availability, system performance, and system utilization. The PMO reports that it monitors and reviews Foglight and the performance metrics on a monthly basis. In addition, the PMO established performance thresholds that comply with Grants.gov/partner agency service level agreements and sends notifications when performance falls below these thresholds. As of August 2013, five metrics from the Foglight report are included on a quarterly basis in the OMB Exhibit 300 update.

    Recommendation: To increase the effectiveness and long-term viability of Grants.gov, OMB should (1) work with HHS to develop performance measures related to system availability, usability, and data integrity and (2) direct HHS and the Grants.gov PMO to review performance results on a regular and recurring basis and communicate decisions based on performance information to show that performance information is reviewed and acted upon.

    Agency Affected: Executive Office of the President: Office of Management and Budget

  5. Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: In October 2011, OMB issued memo M-12-01 on the creation of the Council on Financial Assistance Reform (COFAR) replacing the Grants Executive Board and the Grants Policy Committee. In that memo, OMB stated that the Council will work with key stakeholders on a number of initiatives, but does not note whether grantees, specifically, are included. COFAR meeting minutes detail the council's outreach to the Federal grants community, including semi-annual town hall meetings, a public-facing web page, and the circulation of draft policies for input prior to becoming final. However, there is no indication that grantees are included. OMB did not respond to requests for clarification or provide updates in 2012 and 2013; therefore, absent evidence regarding grantee inclusion, we are closing this recommendation as not implemented.

    Recommendation: To increase the effectiveness and long-term viability of Grants.gov, OMB should also ensure that grantees have a structured, ongoing means to provide input on the development and implementation of governmentwide grant application policies and procedures.

    Agency Affected: Executive Office of the President: Office of Management and Budget

 

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