Committee launches Web portal for federal grants

After years of work, a key government committee has developed a Web portal that provides online access to federal grant information. The Federal Commons Web portal will provide "one-stop shopping" for the entire federal grant application process, said officials with the Inter-Agency Electronic Grants Committee, which launched the site in December. The site will eventually allow applicants to submit and track their grant applications online. At present, users can search a General Services Administration catalog of federal grant programs on the site. "This is a first step," said Eleni Martin, a spokeswoman for the General Services Administration. "[The committee] envisions that users will be able to submit all [grant] applications online in the future." The Inter-Agency Electronic Grants Committee is made up of members from 23 grant-making agencies who are working to streamline the grant application process. Applicants for federal grants have long bemoaned the different grant systems and applications used across the government. Agencies award roughly $300 billion in federal grants to 30,000 organizations each year. The committee itself is the byproduct of an earlier Department of Transportation pilot project to create a governmentwide grants site, the Electronic Grants Project. Lauded by Vice President Al Gore's National Partnership for Reinventing Government, the Electronic Grants Project died when Congress refused to fund it in 1999. "Eventually, [the Electronic Grants Project] ran out of money," said Brad Stanford, co-chair of the committee. "But in the meantime, everybody got interested in working together to do electronic grants and formed the committee." The committee has tapped into the interagency funds of the Chief Financial Officer's Council to finance the Federal Commons site for the next fiscal year. Currently, the site relies on agencies to "pass the hat" for funding, according to Stanford. The committee also plans to request funding from the Bush administration's proposed "e-government fund" for the Federal Commons site, he said. The Bush budget earmarks $100 million over three years to support federal e-government initiatives. While Federal Commons currently allows applicants to browse a database of federal grant programs, the site plans to unveil a searchable database of new grant announcements for live testing this summer. "That will be our first major innovation," said Stanford. "The usefulness will be depend on which agencies agree to place annoucements there." The Office of Naval Research has a web template for grant announcements that it will make available to other agencies, Stanford said. The Federal Commons initiative was aided by the 1999 Federal Financial Assistance Management Improvement Act, which set a November 2002 deadline for agencies to begin accepting grant applications electronically. After the law was passed, the committee pitched the Federal Commons project to the Office of Management and Budget as a way of achieving governmentwide compliance with the act. OMB threw its support behind the project, in part because it promised to develop a common electronic grant application form. "It made sense to use one electronic system for the grantee community," Stanford said. "If each agency [created] their own electronic forms, it would perpetuate the difference between different programs." The Federal Commons site was designed by Paul Markovitz, a computer expert at the National Institutes of Health. The committee eventually hopes to create a separate federal office to administer the site. Another governmentwide Web portal, Firstgov.gov, opened an office in GSA in January.
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