Grants.gov:

Additional Action Needed to Address Persistent Governance and Funding Challenges

GAO-11-478: Published: May 6, 2011. Publicly Released: May 6, 2011.

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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, deployed Grants.gov as the central grant identification and application portal for federal grant programs in 2003 and named the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) its managing partner. As a result of funding and governance challenges-- such as untimely contributions, a lack of performance metrics, unclear lines of authority, and confusion over roles and responsibilities among Grants.gov's governance bodies-- that have adversely affected operations, GAO is required to examine (1) key factors HHS should consider when proposing a funding model for Grants.gov, and (2) how the Grants.gov governance bodies could address Grants.gov's previously identified governance challenges. To do this, GAO analyzed agency documents and interviewed officials at HHS, OMB, the Grants Executive Board (GEB), three case study agencies that manage similar E-Gov initiatives and three Grants.gov partner agencies.

In keeping with OMB's expectation to move toward a fee-for-service model, starting with the fiscal year 2010 budget, the Grants.gov contribution calculation changed to better reflect agencies' use of Grants.gov's services. However, GAO found that the calculation results in different contribution amounts for agencies with similar usage profiles because the calculation includes a measure of agency size that does not correlate well with an agency's use of Grants.gov. For example, usage data for the fiscal year 2011 contributions indicates that the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD, a large agency) posted 40 grant opportunities and received 4,817 applications through the Grants.gov Web site while the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH, a small agency) posted 42 opportunities and received 4,577 applications. However, HUD's contribution is $414,422 while NEH's is $155,159. In addition, GAO found that the Grants.gov Program Management Office (PMO) does not track and report on certain key costs, limiting partner agencies' ability to understand the relationship between services received and amounts paid for that service. Grants.gov also does not charge partner agencies for all known costs, which can result in some agencies subsidizing other agencies' use of the system. Finally, Grants.gov continues to suffer from untimely agency contributions. While the other EGov initiatives GAO spoke with report similar challenges, some take mitigating steps that aid them in managing delays. They are: (1) depositing partner fees/contributions into multiyear appropriation accounts and (2) receiving some form of funds from their managing partners until partner agency contributions become available. Accountability and responsibility for Grants.gov performance among its governance bodies--the PMO, GEB and HHS's Office of the Chief Information Officer (OCIO)--remains unclear. Since GAO first reported on these issues in July 2009, some progress has been made clarifying roles and responsibilities, developing performance measures to track important aspects of system performance, and providing partner agencies with key performance and cost information. However, although the GEB and the OCIO continue to share responsibility for approving major changes to, and funding for, the Grants.gov system, there remains little evidence that the GEB-approved funding for Grants.gov is considered in HHS's review of Grants.gov as an IT investment as required by OMB guidance. In addition, Grants.gov's performance measures have not changed since GAO reported on them and still do not provide a clear picture of system performance. Finally, Grants.gov does not communicate some key performance and activity cost information with its partner agencies. A new federal grants governance model under OMB review would merge various Grants.gov governance entities and serve as the federal grants advisory body responsible for establishing the direction for and coordinating all governmentwide grants initiatives, including Grants.gov. As a preliminary, concept document, it is understandable that it contains few implementation details; however, the proposal lacks even an overview of several critical elements, such as how grants initiatives would be managed as IT investments. GAO is making four recommendations to HHS aimed at improving Grants.gov's funding calculation, cost tracking, and annual and strategic plan; and knowledgesharing with other E-Gov initiatives. HHS generally agreed with our findings and recommendations.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Open

    Comments: In October 2014, officials from the HHS Grants.gov's Program Management Office (PMO) reported that the governance body for Grants.gov now consists of The Council on Financial Assistance Reform (COFAR)and the Financial Assistance Committee for eGov (FACE). Quarterly meetings are typically held with COFAR, where issues, challenges, and opportunities are discussed as well as recommendations on policies and actions to improve grant administration. Monthly meetings are typically held with FACE to provide budget overviews and discuss program priorities and plans. The Grants.gov funding algorithm is updated and reviewed with FACE. The funding algorithm is also reviewed and discussed with partner agencies annually. After the review, agencies are asked to provide their concurrence with the calculated contribution amounts for their respective agency. All 26 agencies concurred with the Fiscal Year (FY) 2016 contribution amounts. However, during the FY 2016 funding contribution review, several partner agencies expressed some concerns about the current algorithm. In response, the FACE Chair invited partner agencies to join a working group under FACE that will discuss and review other potential options for revising the FY 2017 funding algorithm. The working group will vote on proposed changes to the algorithm and the final algorithm will be determined based on majority consensus. The first meeting for this review is being planned for calendar year 2015.

    Recommendation: To improve economic efficiency and support effective management of the Grants.gov system, the Secretary of Health and Human Services should work with the Grants Executive Board--or similar organization should the governance structure change--to improve the allocation of costs among users by developing and implementing a calculation that more clearly links agency contributions to their system use.

    Agency Affected: Department of Health and Human Services

  2. Status: Open

    Comments: In October 2014, officials from the HHS Grants.gov Program Management Office (PMO) reported that in response to this recommendation the PMO hired a Communications and Outreach manager to provide regular updates to the applicant user community and partner agencies. Quarterly meetings are held with partner agencies, where planned system enhancements and other program updates are provided. These meetings help agencies understand where funding is being used to improve the system, and they provide agencies with the opportunity to give input into system enhancements. In addition, the governance body for Grants.gov now consists of The Council on Financial Assistance Reform (COFAR)and the Financial Assistance Committee for eGov (FACE). FACE has established a working group with partner agencies to review and discuss potential modifications to the funding algorithm. Any proposed modifications by the working group will be presented to FACE and to the partner agencies to gain consensus and approve any changes. The first planned meeting for this review will be in calendar year 2015.

    Recommendation: To improve economic efficiency and support effective management of the Grants.gov system, the Secretary of Health and Human Services should build on and use its existing cost-tracking capabilities to expand its cost information and communicate that information to partner agencies in greater detail. This includes capturing, charging for, and reporting on all Grants.gov services provided to partner agencies.

    Agency Affected: Department of Health and Human Services

  3. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In response to our recommendation, in April 2013 the Grants.gov PMO released a strategic planning document that identifies specific goals and objectives, stakeholder benefits for each goal, and lead individuals who are responsible. The document also lays out a high-level implementation plan, mapping goal "focus areas" by fiscal year and identifying areas of accomplishment. The plan also identifies the status of a number of recommended system improvements and links those improvements to related costs.

    Recommendation: To improve economic efficiency and support effective management of the Grants.gov system, the Secretary of Health and Human Services should link its strategic plan to an annual operating plan that links costs and spending to performance goals and milestones, and includes progress against goals and system initiatives.

    Agency Affected: Department of Health and Human Services

  4. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: Grants.gov PMO officials report that they reach out to and share knowledge with managing partners (MPs) of other E-Gov initiatives in a variety of ways. First, MP agencies for E-Gov initiatives are members of Grants.gov's User Group. This group was recently reinvigorated, and met quarterly in FY 2013. PMO officials reported that these agencies often share information during these meetings from their perspective as e-Gov MPs. In addition, the Grants.gov PMO participates in the recently-formed Grants and Loans Committee for e-Government (GLCE). These meetings include information sharing from other federal grant- and loan-making agencies who are also managers of other e-Gov initiatives. Finally, PMO officials stated that they also interact less formally with E-Gov MPs on an on-going basis.

    Recommendation: To improve economic efficiency and support effective management of the Grants.gov system, the Secretary of Health and Human Services should build on its recent outreach efforts and engage in knowledge sharing with the managing partners of other E-Gov initiatives.

    Agency Affected: Department of Health and Human Services

 

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