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Agencies In the Dark About Performance of Their Grants, Survey Shows

Funding uncertainty, administrative burden on recipients continue as challenges.

Agencies that hand out close to $700 billion in federal grants every year are unclear about their impact and performance, a new survey of grant professionals found.

Grant managers and recipients also report they are spending the greatest share of their time monitoring federal compliance requirements and less on program policy and design, according the 2018 Annual Grants Management Survey results previewed on Tuesday.

The survey sponsored by REI Systems, the National Grants Management Association, and the Trachtenberg School of Public Policy and Public Administration at The George Washington University was offered to 5,000 grants professionals in November. About 440 full responses came back from state, local and federal sources, some 75 of them federal.

“No one has a good picture of the administrative burden,” Jeff Myers, senior director of REI Systems, told a breakfast panel in Washington to present the results. State and local respondents see progress in improving performance, he said, but among federal managers, a surprising 43 percent said they can’t measure outcomes or do not know the state of progress. Only 21 percent said performance is improving.

The goal of reducing the reporting burden is eighth among the Trump administration’s current cross-agency priority goals, Myers noted. But neither the Government Accountability Office nor the Office of Management and Budget have surveys that measure grant performance, so the survey he and his partners just released is an effort to fill that gap.

Many of the federal requirements in laws such as the Government Performance and Results Act and the Digital Accountability and Transparency Act address financial metrics, but not policy performance, Myers said.

The biggest overall challenge for the grant community is funding uncertainty, the survey showed, though that concern shrunk from 72 percent last year to 62 percent citing it. Respondents would like more automated data sharing to ease interaction with federal agencies, the survey showed. Satisfaction rates have been lowered by concerns over the cost of technology needed for compliance.

Self-reported quarterly data is the most common source of feedback to agencies on how grants are performing. Most is given in annual reports, according to 79 percent of respondents, while 60 percent also used email and 35 percent also asked questions by telephone. The grants community defines success as having a quality staff, technical assistance and good performance oversight, according to the survey.

Two federal grants officials spoke on how their agencies are tackling the challenges of heavy paperwork.

Ryan Smith, research and technical assistance coordinator at the Commerce Department’s Economic Development Administration, said the clearest obstacle is “duplicate data entry” requirements on the pre-award checklist, which his team is attempting to streamline.

Stanley Gimont, deputy assistant secretary for grants programs at the Housing and Urban Development Department (speaking on his own behalf), said his team has already made effort to review the administrative burden on recipients “at the front end.” But there’s also “a variety of statutory constraints that have built up over the past 20-30 years.”