HHS Grants Official Calls Shift to Uniform Guidance a Heavy Lift

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The Obama administration’s nearly two-year-old push to pull the veil off grants spending and demonstrate results “is a very positive change” but also a “heavy lift” that will require time and a “change in culture,” a key Health and Human Services Department official said on Thursday.

“It’s a new day in grants and data transparency,” Amy Haseltine, deputy assistant secretary for the HHS Office of Grants and Acquisition Policy and Accountability, told federal employees and students at a breakfast co-sponsored by REI Systems and The George Washington University Trachtenberg School of Public Policy and Public Administration.

Haseltine noted that HHS’ $400 billion-a-year grants program comes in “32 flavors” that go to 75,000 to 85,000 recipients of services under programs that touch nearly every American, such as Medicare and Medicaid, mental health treatment and health centers.

What is different today, she said, is tougher demands for clarity, consistency and performance measures as laid out by the Office of Management and Budget in its December 2013 uniform grants guidance. The steps required of all 26 grantmaking agencies are aimed at reducing the administrative burden for both agencies and recipients as well as curbing the risk of waste, fraud and abuse.

Examples of the new requirements—which were subject to a one-year comment period-- are posting grant announcements generally 60 days before the application deadline and requiring applicants to disclose potential conflicts of interest early in the process. “It is the most sincere and thoughtful” circular she’s seen in 25 years, Haseltine said of the December 2013 document. “It forces us to have a conversation of how to drive performance.”

That means focusing not just on inputs, such as how many water permits are granted, but on results, such as water quality, she said. “We’re not in a static environment,” she added. The guidance steers agency grant portfolio managers to seek efficiency and “collaborate and navigate personal relationships with our stakeholder partners” in the nonprofit worlds, academia and state government. And, “we have to do it so people who are not in our world can understand,” a reference to congressional appropriators and the American taxpayers.

When a grant recipient fails to show progress or turn in reports, Haseltine said, “we need to make sure we help them and collect data.

Implementing the uniform guidance “is slow and tedious, but OMB wanted to make sure we didn’t lose momentum,” Haseltine said.

Agencies also have new responsibilities to help maintain the centralized Federal Awardee Performance and Integrated Information Systems database to track contractor misconduct. “It does change the landscape,” Haseltine said, and will “ultimately change the relationships and discussions as we will have higher expectations for data that tells a story.”

The uniform grant guidance, she added, has itself been “turned on its head” by the 2014 Digital Accountability and Transparency Act, which requires agencies to achieve consistent data elements and definitions not just in the financial arena but on all lines of business. “It’s a fairly large push for the federal community.”

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