OMB to ‘tame’ past performance data to improve grants process

The government keeps fairly meticulous records on the past performance of contractors so that agencies can decide whether those firms should be trusted with future work. That’s not exactly the case with respect to the $600 billion in grant funding that leaves federal coffers each year, and the Office of Management and Budget would like to change that.

Most of the funding is awarded on a competitive basis and virtually all goes to nonprofit organizations and state and local governments, which promise to use the money to advance the specific goals of any of the hundreds of grant programs administered by dozens of federal agencies.

But at the moment, there is no way to assess whether a particular grantee has a governmentwide track record of effective stewardship of federal funds, something OMB wants to address as part of a much broader agenda to tighten-up management of grant outlays.

“When a program manager needs to make a decision as to who should get a grant, they’re flooded with applications and there’s a suite of criteria that every program identifies about which grantees best meet the needs of the program, but we do not have any governmentwide use of data to inform a lot of those pre-award decisions,” said Karen Lee, the chief of OMB’s federal financial systems branch. “The past performance information is not just what happened with an agency’s previous awards, but it could be broader federal spending data that tells us the extent to which those recipients received significant amounts of federal funding and how they used it. In a lot of cases, there may be some questions about how they’ve used their grants.”

As of now, individual agencies have plenty of opportunities to ask and answer those questions: all awards of more than $750,000 are audited in order to determine whether the funds were used for the purpose for which the grant program was intended and whether the recipient engaged in waste, fraud or abuse.

But Lee said such information is not widely accessible across the community of government officials who make grant decisions. Instead, it’s usually collected and reported on a one-off basis by the agency that issued the grant in question.

“That data is very important; it has a lot of value to a program officer because it can inform decisions,” she told an audience at AFCEA Bethesda’s annual data symposium.

In an ideal world – the one envisioned by the backers of last year’s Digital Accountability and Transparency Act (DATA Act) – grant officers also would have access to a wealth of information that is routinely collected by various arms of the federal government, but is not stored in a common format, routinely shared nor made searchable across agency boundaries.

“Under the broader umbrella of just organizing all of our data sets, we need to dig into specific areas of focus like weather, health, governmentwide grants management or otherwise and identify the value propositions at the business process stage for all of our agencies’ work,” Lee said. “Data has utility. That’s the work we’re doing governmentwide – trying to make sure that data isn’t something that’s nice to have, but it’s part and parcel of how we manage across the government.”

OMB has not yet announced the development of any specific new system to manage grantees’ past performance, but Lee said the effort is part of a push to transform the way the government both collects and reports data, partially as a response to the DATA Act.

Lee painted the government’s current data transparency push as part of a long arc that began in 1990 with the passage of the CFO act, when Congress first told agencies to improve the fidelity of their spending data so they could produce annual financial statements, and later, to publish the details on their spending via laws such as the 2006 Federal Funding Accountability and Transparency Act (FFATA).

She said agencies have churned out a lot of data during the intervening years, but that not much of it is actually used to make business decisions even within the agencies that produce it.

So the current philosophy within OMB is centered on the notion that agencies should produce information that’s consumable by the public at large and not just organizations with deep-seated interests in the activities of the federal government. She said the objective is to create an “empathic government” that alters its services according to the expressed needs of its citizens.

“Right now, we’re just publishing the data behind what we already did. It’s an information dump, ‘Here’s our science fair poster board of the results of our experiments.’ Imagine if we actually provided information that could service a next generation of assistance, interventions, what have you,” she said. “Imagine if we could — through federal spending information — let people identify what recipients of federal funds are providing certain types of services in a given area. If I lived in that area and was trying to find assistance for my elderly parents, I could find out that there are several nonprofit organizations around me who provide that service, or that there are several grantees in my school district’s immediate jurisdiction that can assist with my child’s special needs. The way we deliver government services right now is extremely technocratic. There’s an opportunity with all the data we have to turn the tables and go back to the first principles of what it means to provide public service.”

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