Grants managers say they need their own DATA Act to address compliance woes

Though the Digital Accountability and Transparency Act was designed to usher in a new era of detailed and public federal spending information, grants managers see the need for another piece of major legislation to help them solve their own standardization woes.

The Grant Reporting Efficiency and Assistance Transparency (GREAT) Act, which Rep. Virginia Foxx (R-N.C.) first announced late last year, would help agencies better track hundreds of billions of dollars a year in federal grants.

“It’s looking at the performance [and] data elements across the government, [to] try to standardize them the same way that we did for the financial elements and the DATA Act [and] looking to see if we can provide a structured data set for performance reporting,” Andrea Brandon, deputy assistant secretary for the Office of Grants and Acquisition Policy and Accountability at the Health and Human Services Department, said Wednesday at REI Systems’ grants management forum at George Washington University. “You have various programs, but let’s find that overarching set that can be used across all of the federal program agencies across the entire government.”

The legislation will be a time-saver, Foxx said when she first unveiled the bill, because it will let grant recipients focus on running their programs, and it’ll let grants managers devote their attention to measuring and managing those programs and their performance.

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After all, REI Systems, George Washington University and the National Grants Management Association surveyed 159 grants managers from federal, state, local and non-governmental organizations.

A majority of those grants managers said they spend most of their time on compliance matters — rather than determining how those programs can improve.

Creating new standards and broader, overarching grants management systems may also alleviate another concern for the grants management community. According to the REI Systems survey, 72 percent of grants managers cited budget uncertainty as one of their most significant challenges in 2017 — a 24 percent jump over the previous year’s results.

For Brandon, the GREAT Act would be a game-changer for the more than 300 different grants programs that she currently manages.

“It’s really a broad lift,” she said of the legislation. “We are very excited to get on board with it, and we’re looking forward to it.”

Foxx hasn’t officially introduced the bill yet, but Jeff Myers, senior director for REI Systems, said the grants management community is hopeful the bill will pick up traction in Congress this year.

The DATA Act required a two-part pilot that took about three years. But Brandon predicts that reconciling financial data standards for $600 billion in federal grants across 26 agencies will take even longer.

“We’re going to have to pull some new players to the table,” she added. “We’re going to have to pull the programmatic offices and the people who actually provide the funding opportunity announcements and actually have the resources to look at those data systems that they currently have in place.”

Rhea Hubbard, a policy analyst with the Office of Management and Budget isn’t surprised by grant managers’ struggles to keep up with both compliance and performance standards.

“We have this continuous struggle between … preventing the possibility of waste, fraud and abuse but we also want to ensure program success,” she said. “Over the years the way the compliance structure has evolved is that we’ve heavily focused on preventive measures. That’s for a very good reason.”

Instead, grant managers should attempt to strike the right balance between compliance and helping their programs succeed and improve, Hubbard said. They should also look more closely at the Uniform Administrative Requirements, Cost Principles and Audit Requirements for Federal Awards, which OMB originally published back in 2013 and updated with a final rule in 2014.

“Agencies aren’t taking advantage of some of the flexibilities built into the Uniform Guidance,” Hubbard said. “For instance, there’s a provision in there to allow fixed amount of awards. We know that agencies aren’t taking advantage as much of that opportunity. Instead of focusing on the cost-accounting traditionally associated with an award or detailed budget, there’s actually an opportunity to issue fixed-amount awards that focus more on performance.”

Brandon and other grants managers agreed: their agencies also have too many disparate grants management systems. Grant recipients often have to fill out multiple applications from several different agencies to receive one kind of specific funding.

Recipients and managers have too many places to go to search for grant information. USASpending.gov details how and where agencies are spending their appropriations, while Grants.gov lists funding opportunity announcements, applications and other information.

Meanwhile, Brandon said HHS is beginning to look at more innovative technology, like artificial intelligence and automation, as a way to simplify the grants reporting process and prevent both recipients and managers from having to repeatedly share the same data sets with each other.

“It’s hitting from both directions,” she said. “It’s us taking a look across the board, where we need to streamline down to one or several systems and eliminate the other systems that either are less technologically advanced than some of the newer systems, or we just need to not duplicate. We’re looking at that.”