The burden of grants administration needs to be reduced and here’s how

Four experts explain how agencies can lessen the administrative cost of grants on grantees by taking a few simple steps.

Grants touch nearly every aspect of our lives. They help pay for services at community health centers. They are integral to funding public school programs. Grants fund the arts, bolster transportation projects and support law enforcement agencies.

A May 2019 Congressional Research Service report says the federal government will award approximately $750 billion in grants in FY 19. It goes on: “Federal grants account for about one-third of total state government funding, and more than half of state government funding for health care and public assistance.”

Yet only part of those grant dollars goes toward their intended purpose. A significant and growing part goes to administrative compliance. According to the Annual Grants Management Survey, conducted by REI Systems, the National Grants Management Association, and The George Washington University, grant managers spend more time monitoring compliance than anything else.

Primary roadblocks included inconsistency in data standards across federal and state agencies, and the prohibitive cost of grant management software.

Grant managers want to be accountable, and they need a smoother data sharing and automation process between federal and state agencies.

Those topics were the subject of a focus group with 24 grant recipients participating in NGMA’s annual meeting in April. Three of those participants presented their findings at the Grants Management Breakfast Forum in May. The Forum, “What is Grant Burden, and How to Reduce It?” was hosted by REI Systems and the George Washington University’s Trachtenberg School of Public Policy and Public Administration (For a complete discussion, click here).

First, good news

Grants have a real, beneficial mission in the community. Nancy Newton, manager of grants and special projects for WellSpan Health, discussed how grants allow WellSpan to innovate and serve patients dealing with substance abuse, including opioid addition.

“I know people whose lives we have saved lives as a result of this grant,” she said.

Several government agencies already do well in some areas, panelists said. The Department of Health and Human Services website provides useful information for grantees, and the Department of Housing and Urban Development has answered questions quickly and thoroughly.

In contrast to one potential misconception, grantees aren’t afraid of performance accountability. In fact, they want to be transparent. The group agreed that performance data should be presented in accessible locations so grantees can compare outcomes with others who operate similar programs. Grant managers said this transparency would also strengthen program accountability across the board.

But that’s where the challenge comes in

Maher explained it’s difficult to be accountable if the grantee doesn’t know the expectations and performance targets until after a grant is awarded. Maher prefers that performance targets be outlined in opportunity announcements so applicants can determine before they apply whether they can achieve the expected level of performance.

Sometimes grantees aren’t told what data to collect up-front, but learn what data must be reported well after a grant program is underway. Then the grantee needs to back track to find that data. Other times, data requests from the grantor come without sufficiently clear instructions for which data to gather. Grantees want data specifications in advance, to better understand expectations.

Maher and Hoban said consistent performance measures should be adopted across multiple grant-making agencies. Take the example of a state receiving awards from multiple agencies, Hoban said. There should be easier ways for a grantee — the state — to provide reports to the multiple grantors. It’s also burdensome, she said, when a single federal agency has different processes for the different grant programs it oversees. “It’s very confusing,” Hoban said.

Time is of the essence

Newton said that at times, she has gone months waiting for a response to an inquiry from a grantor. But grantors often want answers from her in just a day or two.

Panelists suggested establishing standards for grantors to respond to questions, perhaps 30 days maximum.

Grantees also want time to prepare in advance of meetings with grantors. While acknowledging that program officers likely have full caseloads, last minute data requests and subsequent judgments based on that data can lead recipients to feel unprepared and vulnerable to a negative evaluation.

Technology is needed with federal guidance, funding

Even in this technology-rich age, some information involving grants is still calculated manually and on paper. Some grantees must work with multiple IT systems used by their multiple grantors and sometimes applicants have to input the same information separately into each of those multiple platforms. Reporting seems to be the most prominent area of concern.

The panel agreed, grantors should permit IT line items in the grant budget. The federal government should provide IT to grantees rather than expecting each of them to choose, pay for, install and operate its own systems. Whenever possible, reporting forms should be pre-populated with grant-specific information, streamlining the process.

Peer support and optimism

Grantees want to collaborate. They want a network of grantees, virtual and in-person forums and to operate beyond current silos. They want to exchange ideas and discuss best practices. Many grantees want the federal government to do more to sustain platforms for collaboration among funders and grantees.

Despite these issues, panelists expressed optimism, noting that some projects have had clear technical assistance and guidance. Support from well-funded agencies is great, and the online experience is improving. They remain dedicated to ensuring grants play a pivotal role in bettering society.

Jessica Hoban is chief of policy and communications for the Office of the Chief Information Officer within the state of Nevada’s Department of Administration

Lisa Maher is director of grants and contracts for the Children’s Aid Society of Alabama

Nancy Newton is manager of grants and special projects for WellSpan Health

Jeff Myers is senior director for REI Systems, Inc.

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