Agencies have been trying to streamline and improve the grants process for decades. There have been laws, administration initiatives and even grassroots efforts, but progress has been slow.
But now Tom Cooley, chairman of the Chief Financial Officer’s Council’s Grants Policy Committee, says there is more hope than ever that significant changes are coming to the processes that hand out more than $500 billion a year federal grants.
The policy committee developed a strategic plan in late fiscal 2008 and came out with an implementation plan a few months later.
Cooley, who also is the National Science Foundation’s chief financial officer, says these two plans are setting the agenda of where agencies are going in the short, medium and long terms.
“The implementation plan is where the rubber meets road,” he says. “We have products we are working on and we have a timetable to get to them. We will get many of the short-term ones done and out the door in the next year or two.”
The implementation plan focuses on two main areas: streamlining the pre-award, post-award and audit processes, and improving overall grant stewardship.
Some of the short-term goals include establishing governmentwide guidance for grants payment standards, and developing uniform format for reporting performance on federally funded research projects.
The committee’s mid-term goals include establishing governmentwide standards for format and content of grant and cooperative agreements as well as standards for audits of state and local governments and non-profits.
Long-term goals include developing a governmentwide grants management certification program, and a grants management workforce database, which captures and tracks employees performance and training.
Cooley says mid-term goals are 3-to-5 years out and long-term goals will take more than five years.
Cooley says the committee is trying to get the word out about their goals several ways, including Web seminars and through federal demonstration partnerships.
“Many of the federal science agencies participate with subset of academic community,” he says. “There are about a 100 or so who work through common cause issues. We do a lot of outreach through them and we ask them to pilot certain things to work the bugs out.”
There are several other federal initiatives going on as well, including the Grants Line of Business effort that focuses on the back end administrative issues, and the Grants.gov e-government project that focuses on the front end application process.
Cooley says there has been a lot of activity over how do agencies monitor subrecipients of grants-there where a grant gives some of its federal money to another organization to work on a specific part of the project.
“It is simple to track and audit in the first tier,” he says. “We are trying to identify expectations of people submitting awards for what we will expect should they get an award in terms of monitoring subawards to make sure money going for purposes of money intended.”
The committee also is focusing on post-award audits.
Cooley says once a year awardees must submit a performance progress report to agency that awarded the grant to indicate the progress they are making in past year.
“Performance progress reports all have been developed differently by each agency,” Cooley says. “We are trying to bring all the science agencies together to develop a single format. That is just about ready to go final.”
He adds that the committee also will work on a standard performance progress report for all major agencies like the departments of Housing and Urban Development, Education, and Defense.
“The goal here is once you get these things in an electronic environment, the forms can be prepopulated with information,” Cooley says. “So all you would have to do is answer some specific questions.”
Cooley says priorities could change with the new administration, but there have been several successes over the last decade.
“We’ve made a lot of progress in the last 5-6 years, and the only criticism is we get, is the progress is not fast enough,” he says. “It is a fair criticism.”