Grants Go Online

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Imagine you're a grants administrator at a large university. Your school is going to submit 1,700 proposals for funding to the federal government this year. Your biggest headache is dealing with all the different agencies, departments, and offices whose funding you're seeking. Each one's application process has its own idiosyncrasies and specifications. Your dream would be a common grants application, one that is used by all the federal programs with which you deal.

Your dream could come true if a pilot project being tested at the Department of Transportation is expanded governmentwide.

The Electronic Grants Project, headed by the Federal Railroad Administration's Brad Smith, is a comprehensive plan to create a one-stop shop on the World Wide Web for state and local governments, universities, corporations, and non-profit organizations to enter their organizations' information into government databases and apply for grants online.

The project, whose partners already include the Departments of Education, Energy and Interior, the Environmental Protection Agency, the U.S. Coast Guard, and the Small Business Administration, could become the standard way grants recipients apply for federal funds, replacing the present paper-based system. The project would create a single, governmentwide federal grants Web site, connecting more than 25,000 federal grants recipients to all the agencies that oversee the roughly $300 billion in federal funds awarded each year.

Grant seekers would use an application appearing in their Web browser window to submit proposals. While the application would rely on governmentwide standards so that agencies could share data, agencies could also add program-specific questions into the application.

Once they've entered all their information, grants applicants would safely submit their data using a digital signature. With one click of the mouse, applicants could send their proposals to as many grant programs as they want.

Furthermore, if law requires grants recipients to meet certain qualifications, the program could run a check on them through government databases as the applicants are filling out their information. The program would alert applicants if they don't meet the grant's criteria.

To accommodate large institutions that rely on electronic data interchange (EDI), the standard method of electronic commerce, the central grants Web site would also allow EDI users to use the common application. Typically EDI is conducted over private networks by large organizations and universities. Those organizations are wary of scrapping the investments they have made in expensive but secure EDI technologies. A recent Department of Energy pilot project demonstrated the ability to conduct EDI over the Internet. The Electronic Grants Project will build on Energy's breakthrough by building EDI standards into its application.

To avoid the fate of other government information technology initiatives that have relied on technologies that are obsolete by the time the initiatives become fully operational, the Electronic Grants Project uses "bleeding-edge technologies," according to Smith, including the Java programming language and information brokers, which cart data across the Internet more efficiently than hypertext transfer protocol (HTTP), the present Web standard.

One problem facing the project is that agencies have been slow to upgrade their software and hardware to be able to handle newer technologies like Java. Smith says new software products and software upgrades will allow more people to take advantage of those technologies in the future.

"What we're doing is anticipating that most people will have moved on by the time this thing is squared away, maybe in a year or so," Smith said.

Another concern is funding. While a special Information Technology Innovation Fund paid for the first phase of the pilot project and a computer security fund is paying for adding encryption and digital signatures to the electronic application, the Government Information Technology Services (GITS) Board is reviewing Transportation's proposal for funding to complete the project.

A good sign for the project was its inclusion in Vice President Al Gore's "Access America" report, which called on the GITS board to expand the project beyond its present member agencies.

GITS Board Chairman James Flyzik says in the future government customers will interact with "virtual agencies," or Internet sites focused on specific functions of government, like grant awards or entitlements.

"The GITS model is 'Let's look at all of our projects from the point of view of the customer and define what we call business lines . . . that can create a single face to the customer of government,'" Flyzik says. The Electronic Grants Project's managers are trying to involve more federal agencies in its plan to create one interface for federal grants seekers.

Ann Fisher, the coordinator of the Intergovernmental Electronic Grants Partnership, says agencies can save themselves money by becoming partners in the Electronic Grants Project.

"Rather than reinvent the wheel, they can build on what we've done," Fisher says. The project could also serve as a business model for agencies as they find ways to pool resources and centralize their customer services. "It could be used not just for grants, it could also be applied to any other business line," Fisher says.

Depending on funding, the Electronic Grants Project could be completed as early as next year.

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