A new interagency council aims to improve financial assistance programs

The White House recently established a new interagency council. It's called COFFA, the Council on Federal Financial Assistance. It will consist of grant-making ...

The White House recently established a new interagency council. It’s called COFFA, the Council on Federal Financial Assistance. It will consist of grant-making agencies with the aim of making financial assistance more accountable and equitable. For more,  Federal Drive with Tom Temin spoke with Deidre Harrison, the Deputy Controller at the Office of Management and Budget.

Interview Transcript: 

Tom Temin And this council is modeled after councils that have been going on almost since time immemorial. Fair to say?

Deidre Harrison Absolutely. I actually have the privilege of chairing two of those councils, the CFO Council and the Federal Real Property Council.

Tom Temin And my first question concerns the announcement, said grant making agencies, and that covers a lot of territory and financial assistance. By that, you’re not referring to, say, grants that go to scientific research at colleges and universities, but maybe like the block grants for the different benefits programs that go to the states.

Deidre Harrison They’re actually going to cover all of it. Where we’re going to start is to make sure that we’re bringing together all agencies that provide federal financial assistance and are sharing best practices with each other. So ultimately, this council will include all sorts of federal financial assistance. So both of your examples that you mentioned.

Tom Temin Because virtually every agency provides financial assistance in some form.

Deidre Harrison That’s right. And to that end, our council will include an individual that’s been identified by the deputy secretary for each of the 24 CFO Act agencies. So all of those large department and agencies that you all probably talk about a lot, as well as a representative from the small agency council to make sure that we’re getting good coverage across the federal government.

Tom Temin Yes, because you also have the large components of the big departments that make big grant dollars also like [Department of Health and Human Services (HHS)] has [National Institutes of Health (NIH)], for example.

Deidre Harrison That’s right. And an important part of this council is to make sure that agencies are internally busting their silos. So today, sometimes inside those agencies, across those components, they don’t have as much consistency as we would like. And so this council will make sure that the representative for each agency can represent all of the components, as well as speak on behalf of the agency and then come together and share across agencies that more coordinated messaging.

Tom Temin And grant making is a highly regulated function, and each agency has criteria for the grants it will make. So what’s the issue here? What is it you’re trying to solve?

Deidre Harrison Sure, it’s even more complicated than that, actually. It’s not just each agency, but each program has its own underlying statutory authority. That being said, for entirely too long we’ve been focused on all of the differences across programs, rather than trying to identify where we have similarities. So what this council will do is make sure that we are working together to identify opportunities to reduce burden on applicants or recipients. We are improving our program effectiveness by ensuring efficient delivery, and we are sharing best practices across the board. So we’re not going to just continue to focus on those differences, but instead identify where in fact we can and should be learning from each other.

Tom Temin So, for example, if one agency has a really good streamlined process of having people apply and receive grants, maybe that could be replicated in places where there’s 1700 pages of forms.

Deidre Harrison That’s exactly right. So, for example, today, Health and Human Services, HHS does a lot of grantmaking, and they have been very actively working on improving their NOFO’s, their notice of funding opportunities. We want to make sure that those lessons are learned across the board one time, not make each agency or each component of an agency learn those lessons again. We want to have a forum by which to share, and that’s what this council will provide for us.

Tom Temin I mean, the issue then is not really identifying great practices. People can show those, but it’s getting the other people to say, Yeah, I’ll try that because every agency can justify its bureaucratic ways for some reason or another.

Deidre Harrison Sure, absolutely. But it’s also making sure that agencies are aware because, for example, when things are moving very quickly, you may not know that there is a better way to do things. And this council will make sure that you are hearing what others are working on. So right now I’m actually in the process of meeting one on one with each of the agency representatives and asking them what is it that your agency does particularly well that you think you should be sharing with the other agencies that they might not know? And it’s been great to hear myself, and I can’t wait to bring together the whole group and have them share with each other, those really important lessons or important ways that each agency is working to improve their grant making processes.

Tom Temin We’re speaking with Deidre Harrison. She’s deputy controller at the Office of Management and Budget and also chairing this new Council on Federal Financial Assistance. And are there any things you can think of right now that have come to light that you might say, Golly, we could all try that.

Deidre Harrison Sure. So there’s a lot of them. One of the areas I’m most excited about is your listeners may have heard that last week OMB issued proposed changes to our uniform grants guidance. It’s basically the common denominator for all the administrative requirements for grants across the board. Well, we’ve rewritten it and we’ve proposed a large number of changes that in the coming months we hope to make final. I will tell you, in the past, the government hasn’t done as good of a job coordinating on implementing those changes in a way that recipients really felt that all at the same time, all in the same way. So in all of these meetings I’m having with folks, they can’t wait to roll up their sleeves and get to the ground running on how to implement these changes in a unified and consistent way so that recipients, at the same time, in the same way, can be applying to programs more consistently and effectively.

Tom Temin Is there any sense of how many entities might be eligible or trying to apply for more than one grant program? In other words, if I’m a labor agency or a employment agency at the state and I’m going to apply for unemployment. I mean, they get grants for unemployment expenditure every year, that’s one thing. But I’m probably not going to try to get a scientific study to look at the arachnids in my region and how to eradicate them. How much commonality is there across the different programs? And at what point does the program requirement diverge from the operation of grants mechanism?

Deidre Harrison Sure. It’s a great question and one that we are studying and hope to learn more about. So today, if you are a recipient of federal funding above a certain threshold, right now it’s $750,000. In our proposed changes it’ll be $1,000,000. If you’re a large recipient, you have to undergo what’s called a single audit. So that is one way where we can identify these recipients that have funding streams from multiple agencies or multiple programs. What we need to do is a better job at identifying the full universe. But there are thousands of these recipients out there. But some of it really comes down to how do you define a recipient? So, for example, the state may have lots and lots of funding coming in, but it’s their Department of Health or the Department of Transportation. Is that really the same recipient in some states? Maybe, in other states definitely not. And so really understanding those things is one of the areas where this council will be very effective at bringing together the right folks to have those conversations and make sure that we are treating recipients similarly when they are similarly situated and not when they shouldn’t be.

Tom Temin Yes, because at the state level you might have multiple departments within a state and they all have a stovepiped system and some systems are really secure, they have really good anti-fraud mechanisms. Others might just be kind of a spigot of money that they don’t know where it goes.

Deidre Harrison Sure. And that is why we need to create that common denominator across all programs. It shouldn’t be the case that our requirements, whether they be reporting requirements or security requirements, are all that fundamentally different. You may need to go above and beyond, but you should be making sure that all of your programs have the same base set of requirements. And that’s what this council is going to help to make sure we’re doing, again, not just across agencies, but also inside agencies, across their own programs.

Tom Temin Sure. And will part of the council’s work be making sure that anti-fraud programs, I keep thinking of what happened during the pandemic relief. And, you know, charitably, 30% of it went to fraud, waste and abuse. We don’t really know the extent yet. And that can’t keep happening even with new programs or existing programs. So is part of the rulemaking that you described and part of the council’s work ensuring just accountability of money that the government has been so great on all the time?

Deidre Harrison Absolutely. While we do not yet know what the extent of the fraud, waste and abuse was during the pandemic. I think everyone can agree that it was absolutely too much, and we are doing a lot and this council will help us to do even more. Probably the most important new initiative we’ve undertaken on the fraud, waste and abuse part, what has become known as joint review meetings. Where effectively we bring together the program staff with their agency IG, with me and my team at OMB, with the White House team, before the program starts to issue funding to really talk about what’s working and not working, where are the possibilities for fraud? What are the reporting requirements and making sure that we are sharing those lessons before those programs are being administered. I have no doubt that the COFFA are going to help us to do even more of that with the existing programs. And some sense with all of these new programs, it’s been easy to identify who we get ahead of. However, we also need to make sure we’re identifying the programs across the board that need to have a little bit more of a reevaluation. And that’s what this council will help us to do.

Tom Temin And how does the council itself meet? Will you have physical, in-person meetings? Sounds like it would be an all day affair to be able to really hash things out.

Deidre Harrison Sure. So we have not yet had our first meeting. Our agency’s had until a few weeks ago to identify their senior accountable officials, which they all have done. We are in the process right now of setting up our first conversation, hopefully for later this month. I do hope that it will be entirely or very much primarily in-person, and that first couple of sessions that we have will be to really establish the framework to make sure that we can continue to deliver on all of the success that individually we know we want to have this council to have.

Tom Temin And by the way, the senior accountable officials, do they tend to be the CFO type of channels or program people in general?

Deidre Harrison It’s a great question. And I will tell you, it varies by agency. And it’s one of the things that we are working on with our agency partners, because the critical piece is that the individual is senior enough that they are able to talk on behalf of their agency. But there are also in the financial assistance space, so they know enough about grants management that when we get in the room and have those conversations, we can be really problem solving. And so I will tell you, it is a mixed bag. I have both procurement, CFO and program folks all that are joining and can’t wait to hit the ground running.

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