Grants.gov enters final test phase

Grants.gov

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Officials at the Department of Health and Human Services are putting the finishing touches on Grants.gov, a portal for information on federal grants available governmentwide, scheduled to be unveiled in October.

Grants.gov officials rolled out the final pilot version earlier this month, allowing users to submit sample applications to test the completed system. It marks the first time applicants have used the real system, said Charles Havekost, Grants.gov project manager at HHS, which is the lead agency for the effort.

Grants.gov, one of the 24 e-government initiatives, is a one-stop portal for applicants seeking funding from about 900 federal programs.

Project officials recently completed a "test the edges" pilot program, calling on about 100 grant applicants and 15 agencies for a Grants.gov test run. Applicants who requested grants last year reapplied using online forms. They were then asked to provide feedback to program managers, who are completing the initiative. Applicants determined if the electronic form matches the paper version and if it is easy to use and understand.

"Since they were recent awardees, we weren't putting live applications at risk," Havekost said. "We can do an apples-to-apples comparison."

The project team has been working with focus groups of agency officials and applicants to measure the expectations of an online grants system and gather feedback about how to best approach such a project. They have also conducted tests to determine the best way to find grants across the federal government and how to apply for them.

"There was an acceptance," Havekost said of the electronic version. "The value proposition is they save the price of printing and postage, and they have the prospect of perhaps faster cycle time."

Applicants submitting paper forms are likely opening an electronic version on their computers, which they fill out before printing and mailing it, he said.

To accommodate this habit, officials created a fillable form, which enables applicants to download the forms and fill them in off-line. The forms have an Extensible Markup Language underpinning, Havekost said, which facilitates returning the application to Grants.gov.

HHS contracted with Northrop Grumman Information Technology, the lead vendor on the effort, to implement the grants portal. Officials chose Northrop Grumman IT's fillable form solution because it allows applicants to download the form and work on it off-line, said Mike Atassi, the company's Grants.gov program manager. They can route the application through their organization and submit it to Grants.gov when complete.

"We proposed a solution that does not require 24/7 connectivity to the Internet," Atassi said. "A lot of grant applicants don't have constant connectivity, especially in remote areas."

This feature was important for many counties that will soon rely on the portal for grant applications, said Bert Jarreau, chief technology officer for the National Association of Counties. Smaller counties without high-speed Internet access needed to be able to download the forms.

The system, based on Northrop Grumman's InflowSuite product, accepts and validates applications, responds to users through e-mail and packages the application for submission to the agency, Atassi said. Northrop Grumman validates submitted applications, scans for viruses or empty data fields, and sends the applications to the appropriate agency.

"It's pretty exciting," Atassi said of the initiative. "This Grants.gov is a little ahead of the game in a lot of its operation procedures, and we're hoping we can establish lessons learned and a good track record for other e-gov initiatives."

Until the launch, officials are ironing out their own lessons learned, based on test runs of the system's functions.

Jarreau, who assisted several counties that participated in the pilot programs, said the response to the portal has been positive. "The good news is it's exactly the same. They've basically automated something they already know," he said, referring to a standardized form for grant applications.

In results released this month of a pilot project testing the application function, many grantees thought Grants.gov was an improvement over the current system. The report, compiled by Rockbridge Associates Inc., offered feedback from 16 grantors and 21 grantees.

"It's the difference between e-mail and snail mail," said Ron Cook, spokesman for Kentucky's Department for Local Government. "If you like that, you're going to love this."

Some surveyed users, however, said providing the same forms electronically wasn't enough and Grants.gov officials should expand the program. For example, users suggested that Grants.gov incorporate question-and-answer forms for a more interactive experience, according to the report. Jarreau said that would be an ideal system but may not be feasible for the first rollout.

Once the system is polished, applicants will see the benefit of combining grant opportunities under one portal, Havekost said, particularly those organizations that lack the staff to scour for grant postings.

"Today, agencies announce grant opportunities in a lot of different ways and different places," he said. "It's hard to find all the opportunities. This is a way we can take what previously was a very fragmented way and [unify] it."

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