Applicants for thousands of separately designed grant offerings from hundreds of federal agencies may be encouraged that a simpler world is drawing near.
The movement for standardizing data across programs, says a survey of 30 grants management leaders in government and industry, “is on the cusp of a major transformation” that will move government from a “document-based system to a data-centric” one.
The report released on June 21 from the Data Foundation and MorganFranklin Consulting, said, “The potential benefits range from improving grantees’ bottom lines, allowing grantor agencies the ability to manage programs with a data-driven approach, and providing for tax-funded grant programs to be managed more efficiently to the benefit of the American people.”
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Hudson Hollister, president of the Data Foundation, said “the government’s current system of grant reporting creates challenges for grantor agencies, grantees and the populations they serve. Grantees must fill out complicated document-based forms to report on their receipt and use of grant funds. Moving to a standardized, open data format for grant reporting will improve accountability, efficiency and transparency, greatly improving on the outdated, burdensome system that currently is in place.”
The two chief benefits of standardization, added Frank Landefeld, public sector market lead at MorganFranklin Consulting, are allowing grantees to automate their reporting processes, which reduces compliance costs, and allowing “the federal government to aggregate information reported by grantees in new ways, agency-wide and even governmentwide.”
Grants reform has been on the national agenda for years, most recently in the Trump administration’s President’s Management Agenda, which sets as a Cross Agency Priority Goal compiling and standardizing data elements to help establish an overarching taxonomy for core grant information. Also pending is a House bill–the Grant Reporting Efficiency and Agreements Transparency (GREAT) Act (H.R. 4887) – introduced by Reps. Virginia Foxx, R-N.C., and Jimmy Gomez, D-Calif., to require the Office of Management and Budget and a partner agency to create data standards for federal grants to reduce reporting burdens and improve oversight.
But the obstacles to standardization are many, as noted both by respondents in the report and specialists at agencies and the private sector. “Most grants have unique reporting requirements that are often hard to standardize,” the survey analysis noted. “Our interviewees specifically noted that these unique requirements often allowed grantees to share narrative details and tell the story of their work, making them feel unique, but also boosting their chances for continued funding. Additionally, trying to compare requirements across programs, which may have completely different goals and areas of focus, was likened to trying to compare apples to oranges by one interviewee.”
Also, smaller organizations that seek grants often lack the expertise for the lengthy applications. And potential applicants fear a breach of privacy. “We heard some concerns around privacy associated with the open data aspects of the GREAT Act,” the report noted. “Native American tribes deal with a unique history and set of circumstances that gives them good reason to be hesitant about the potential impact of the release of certain details about their interaction with the federal grant system.”
Finally, as the grants priority goal team at the Education Department noted, “There is not yet consensus on a long-term ‘home’ for data standards and no one agency has stepped up to take leadership of the overall federal grant-making process” moving forward.
“There’s a big difference between administrative or financial data and program-specific data,” Jeff Myers, the senior director at REI Systems who pushes data reforms, told Government Executive. “A point that gets glossed over” in what otherwise is a fine report, he said, is that “many people clearly expect better grantee outcomes and values for grant money, but that won't come from standards or data purely around administrative or financial effort. That needs to come from some data about programs." Given the dozens of “separate laws for separate grant programs,” he added, an effort to standardize what is asked of recipients for program data—a larger portion of the numbers agencies wrestle with--might require a “superseding law.”
Myers’s colleague, Rujuta Waknis, an REI grants program manager, cited the importance of “change management--grantees need to be consulted a bit more and stay engaged on how they will benefit,” she said.
One federal unit where the standardization process has been pursued for more than a decade is the GrantsSolutions office in the Administration for Children and Families at the Health and Human Services Department. It is a shared service center that works across 10 departments and handles $80 billion in grant money yearly. Its director, Michael Curtis, contributed to the Data Coalition report.
Software specialists in this office work with partners to consolidate and integrate best practices from 40 individual discretionary and mandatory grant systems into a common, configurable, cloud-based platform that enables organic development of governmentwide best practices, it notes on its website.
“I agree the move toward standard data is huge opportunity,” Paul Hasz, director of the unit’s System and Support Services Division, told Government Executive. “It will not only reduce the burden on grantees, but also improve program outcomes, it will help grantors move way from more compliant-based approaches to outcomes, so programs get better results.”
Some of the sticking points, however, stem from the fact that HHS administers a whopping 1,500 grant programs. Medical research for the Centers for Disease Control is hardly the same as data collection on federal railways, Hasz noted. “What is common among all specific programs in government is more prevalent on the financial side—what money is spent,” he said. “When you get to the actual outcomes and the use of what was done, each program is very different.”
In pursuing common data standards, he said he finds it helpful to “look at the history and find out what happened that prevented past initiatives from being successful. Some of those people may no longer be there,” he noted. He also recommended working in small focus groups and bringing the technology specialists in to meet grants management employees, and people on different programs who may not know each other, to “look for areas of commonality.” He added: “What we’re hearing from the federal chief information officer is about reducing the burden on taxpayers and becoming more citizen-focused, to come together on the easy things.”
To meet that goal, grants data collection standardization must “get to the point where we think in terms of more quantitative data versus qualitative data,” Hasz added. The former lends itself to narrative, and is harder to get metrics around. Quantitative data, which is more like yes-or-no, questions or picking A-B-C or D, is “easier to drive outcomes around.” Qualitative data written in more subjective paragraphs, he stressed, often requires bringing in expertise. GrantSolutions is aiming to combine prose narrative with precise metrics.
David Martens, GrantSolutions’s director of strategic initiatives, added that the team has long heard people at agencies say “all our programs are too unique, but that’s not really true. “You can’t compare data on the amount of track laid on high-speed rail in California to the number of vaccines at CDC, Martens added. “But there are things in common that could be helpful. You really can create a platform where there’s commonality if the technology is designed in a configuration that’s more flexible” so it can be adapted, he said.
Martens estimated that the software can accommodate as much as 80 percent of what exists in a program’s data, and he encouraged managers to use elements that are already in agency libraries.
Grantees, he added, “spend too much time on the tasks associated with a grant, and the grantors spend too much time on compliance and oversight as in quarterly progress reports,” he said. “If we can make the process easier, we can spend more time and energy” on the mission.