In late January, grants experts from around the country came together to analyze the results of the 2017 Annual Grants Management Survey, sponsored by The George Washington University, the National Grants Management Association and REI Systems. One observation that ran through this year’s gathering at GWU was that many grant managers face the same challenges.
The good news is that grant managers from federal, state, local and non-profit organizations for the most part feel well-equipped to succeed. This continues a trend seen in the 2016 Survey results. Another positive finding was that more than 56 percent of survey respondents indicated they thought federal laws and directives have been helpful, while just 9 percent perceived a negative effect and 35 percent were neutral. These mandates include the Uniform Grant Guidance, the 2014 Digital Accountability and Transparency Act, the 2016 Grants Oversight and New Efficiency Act, and OMB Circular A-123 updates.
In addition, panelists felt the recently-introduced bi-partisan Grant Reporting Efficiency and Assistance Transparency Act would improve program impacts and could reduce the burden and costs of grant administration.
Nonetheless, key challenges remain, including:
Information sharing. Attendees overwhelmingly said there is a need for better (and automated) information sharing between states and federal agencies. This was the single most strongly supported priority, with 95 percent of respondents answering “yes” to the question “Should state governments and federal agencies share data and automate interactions more than they do today?” Just 3 percent answered, “Not at all.”
Funding uncertainty. Another area of widespread concern centered around “funding uncertainty and susceptibility to politics,” with 72 percent of survey respondents saying that was a top challenge—a significant 21-point increase from the 48 percent of respondents who indicated that same topic as a top challenge in 2016.
Time spent on compliance. Grant managers report focusing too much time on compliance as opposed to helping grantees strengthen program performance and impact. They said the largest single focus of their time and energy—more than 45 percent of their time—is focused on monitoring requirements (financial and non-financial). Surprisingly, panelists and survey respondents seemed to agree that ranking grantees’ performance is not a priority. Few—16 percent—report that they publicly recognize outstanding grantees “to a great extent” or “a lot.”
Skills and education. Panelists noted that more federal money is spent via grants than through contracting and procurement. Consequently, more grant management expertise and education is needed, which could be achieved through degree programs or certifications, continuing education, and revisions to position descriptions.
Agency coordination. Panelists and audience members noted that standardized data may make it easier to identify where cross-agency coordination is needed, although some already occurs. For example, homelessness is addressed through grant programs at the Health and Human Services, Housing and Urban Development and Veterans Affairs departments, as well as other agencies. The same not always true for water quality, where the Environmental Protection Agency, the Bureau of Reclamation, and the Army Corps of Engineers all play roles. This interconnection of mission and operations can leave grantees confused and frustrated by requirements from multiple federal agencies. Without effective collaboration on priorities, methods, and outcome measures across federal grantors and state and local agencies, this frustration will persist.
Grant managers are tasked with extremely difficult responsibilities, with no real how-to guide. This year’s forum served as a valuable meetup for grant managers to learn, share, network and discover ways to improve effectiveness. In addition, the NGMA Network offers a platform to share ideas, challenges, and solutions in a virtual community. It also allows members to post questions, answers and other advice, write or respond to blog posts, and search for other NGMA members.
Jeff Myers is a Senior Director at REI Systems with 30 years’ experience advising government agencies on strategy and efficiency improvement. Jenata Spencer is a Business Analyst at REI Systems with expertise in data standards and analysis around grants management. Her current work primarily supports state and local government. Shelly Slebrch is Executive Director of the National Grants Management Association.