bleakstar/Shutterstock.com

Rethinking Federal Grants Management: From Oversight to Insight

Taxpayers should get a better return on their $600 billion annual investment.

Grants are among the most important tools the federal government uses to accomplish its objectives. At $600 billion, they comprise over 15 percent of annual outlays, forty percent higher than federal contract spending.

Sadly, the way federal grants are managed gets woefully little attention. To achieve higher returns on the taxpayer’s dollar, that needs to change. Both the mindset and the skill sets of federal grant managers need to evolve from primarily thinking about “conducting oversight” to figuring out instead how to generate insights that help grantees and others learn from experience and find new ways to improve performance along multiple dimensions, including outcomes, cost-effectiveness, customer experience (or, for regulated parties, interaction and transaction quality), fairness and unwanted side effects. That is not to suggest that persistently weak grantee performance is acceptable, but rather that attention to improvement should be the priority.

Last month, the Volcker Alliance joined with three other organizations – an evidence-based policy advocate, a policy area expert, and a grantees’ network – to urge changes in the way one federal grant program, Head Start, collects, analyzes, reports, shares, and uses performance and other data grantees submit. These recommendations, grounded in lessons from both the public and private sectors, should be embraced not just by Head Start but by federal grant programs generally. 

Both the private and public sectors offer valuable lessons about data collection, analysis, dissemination, and, as I described in a previous blog, measured trials. For example, the United Parcel Service (UPS), as reported on public radio, regularly uses data and tests new practices to increase, continually, its productivity, profits, driver pay, and safety levels. Analyzing data from drivers, their handheld devices, and their trucks helps drivers find faster routes, anticipate dangerous dogs and avoid lost packages. In addition, UPS constantly observes, brainstorms and then tests to find better equipment and practices such as smart key fobs, redesigned doors and adjustments to driving practice.

The Annie E. Casey Foundation has similarly worked to improve data systems and data used to help children in foster care. Reaching out to frontline social workers and state program managers to understand their information needs and work problems, it saw a problem ripe for fixing. Caseworkers often write out their case notes in notebooks; if they move on, the notebooks go with them and their successors are left without the child’s case history. Even when caseworkers stay, though, the state cannot look across caseworkers’ notes to detect serious or common problems or find promising practices worth testing and promoting for broader adoption. Working closely with frontline workers as well as state program managers in Indiana, the Foundation launched Case Commons to design, test and refine an electronic notebook and data system that caseworkers like and that also generates information useful to supervisors, program managers and, eventually, researchers and policy makers.

The harsh reality is that federal grants programs tend to give insufficient attention to data system design, data use, and data users. Programs tend to focus on compliance rather than helping people across the delivery system get good information they can use to make better decisions and take smarter actions that improve performance. The lack of attention to making data useful has long been the real impediment to progress, not data cost.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration demonstrated decades ago the value of emphasizing improvement over compliance, long before Moore’s Law kicked into logarithmic overdrive, slashing the costs of generating, analyzing and sharing information. NHTSA built an outcomes-focused data system and routinely analyzes and broadly shares traffic fatality information, with root cause analysis, in various formats that anyone interested can easily find and use. It also helps frontline workers and others learn from their own and others’ experience (regarding safety belt use, for example); test new practices to achieve unprecedented performance gains (such as to reduce distracted driving); and sometimes even supplies “campaign” materials that help grantees adopt and adapt effectively replicated high-return practices.  

Former Justice Louis D. Brandeis’s opinion referring to states as the “laboratories of democracy” is often quoted. Yet state, local, and non-profit grantee laboratories can generate little value if no one studies the lessons from them. It is time for federal grant managers to assume a much stronger leadership role encouraging better data collection, analysis and dissemination as well as the creation of networks that regularly bring frontline workers and others in the delivery system together with strong researchers and policy makers to learn from experience and discover new paths for improvement.

Shelley H. Metzenbaum is senior advisor at the Volcker Alliance. She served as associate director for performance and personnel management at the Office of Management and Budget during the first term of the Obama administration.

(Image via bleakstar/Shutterstock.com)

X
This website uses cookies to enhance user experience and to analyze performance and traffic on our website. We also share information about your use of our site with our social media, advertising and analytics partners. Learn More / Do Not Sell My Personal Information
Accept Cookies
X
Cookie Preferences Cookie List

Do Not Sell My Personal Information

When you visit our website, we store cookies on your browser to collect information. The information collected might relate to you, your preferences or your device, and is mostly used to make the site work as you expect it to and to provide a more personalized web experience. However, you can choose not to allow certain types of cookies, which may impact your experience of the site and the services we are able to offer. Click on the different category headings to find out more and change our default settings according to your preference. You cannot opt-out of our First Party Strictly Necessary Cookies as they are deployed in order to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting the cookie banner and remembering your settings, to log into your account, to redirect you when you log out, etc.). For more information about the First and Third Party Cookies used please follow this link.

Allow All Cookies

Manage Consent Preferences

Strictly Necessary Cookies - Always Active

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Sale of Personal Data, Targeting & Social Media Cookies

Under the California Consumer Privacy Act, you have the right to opt-out of the sale of your personal information to third parties. These cookies collect information for analytics and to personalize your experience with targeted ads. You may exercise your right to opt out of the sale of personal information by using this toggle switch. If you opt out we will not be able to offer you personalised ads and will not hand over your personal information to any third parties. Additionally, you may contact our legal department for further clarification about your rights as a California consumer by using this Exercise My Rights link

If you have enabled privacy controls on your browser (such as a plugin), we have to take that as a valid request to opt-out. Therefore we would not be able to track your activity through the web. This may affect our ability to personalize ads according to your preferences.

Targeting cookies may be set through our site by our advertising partners. They may be used by those companies to build a profile of your interests and show you relevant adverts on other sites. They do not store directly personal information, but are based on uniquely identifying your browser and internet device. If you do not allow these cookies, you will experience less targeted advertising.

Social media cookies are set by a range of social media services that we have added to the site to enable you to share our content with your friends and networks. They are capable of tracking your browser across other sites and building up a profile of your interests. This may impact the content and messages you see on other websites you visit. If you do not allow these cookies you may not be able to use or see these sharing tools.

If you want to opt out of all of our lead reports and lists, please submit a privacy request at our Do Not Sell page.

Save Settings
Cookie Preferences Cookie List

Cookie List

A cookie is a small piece of data (text file) that a website – when visited by a user – asks your browser to store on your device in order to remember information about you, such as your language preference or login information. Those cookies are set by us and called first-party cookies. We also use third-party cookies – which are cookies from a domain different than the domain of the website you are visiting – for our advertising and marketing efforts. More specifically, we use cookies and other tracking technologies for the following purposes:

Strictly Necessary Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Functional Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Performance Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Sale of Personal Data

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.

Social Media Cookies

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.

Targeting Cookies

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.