Giving Grants.gov a dot-com touch

Grants.gov

A start-up is a start-up, whether it's a government initiative or a high-tech company. It is the freedom to define the future that has driven Charles Havekost to his current post as program manager of the Grants.gov e-government initiative.

Havekost came to the Department of Health and Human Services to lead Grants.gov from one of the many dot-com companies that crashed in the 2001 aftermath of the Internet boom. He acknowledges that he was "fleeing back to the warm embrace of federal service."

His tenure with the private sector was his first time at a start-up, but in reality he has been asked to define and meet new needs for more than a decade, starting at the National Institutes of Health.

Havekost began his career in federal government as a junior fellow at the research agency. The grants-making and management expertise he gained during his time at NIH is critical to his work on Grants.gov, which serves as the starting point and reason for, at times, major changes in how agencies approach their grants programs. In fact, his knowledge of the needs of agencies and users has helped him anticipate more than one problem, he said.

"They can't say, 'Our users don't want that,' because I've already talked to the users. They can't say, 'It can't be done,'" Havekost said.

However, he ended up in a leadership position with one of the e-government initiatives because of the knowledge he gained when Internet and e-mail access were being instituted at NIH.

In 1993, e-mail changed from a novelty to a tool, and Havekost became responsible for user service inside the agency. There had never been any such position before, so he almost had free rein — basically a desk, a chair and orders to figure out what to do.

That freedom multiplied when he decided to try his luck in the dot-com economy. At the beginning, it seemed like a whole new world. The building was different, there were more technology toys and people. But in the end, he was once again told to set his own goals and define his own vision of what a technology user support department should provide.

So when Havekost did return to government in 2001 to lead what was then the e-Grants initiative, he was well acquainted with what was necessary to move people and a project toward an unknown end purpose.

For the Grants.gov initiative — renamed because of the proliferation of systems and programs throughout the public and private sectors using the generic name — that meant starting out with a specific vision. The federal government awards more than $300 billion in grants every year to government and private-sector organizations through more than 500 programs at 26 agencies. Grants.gov is intended to provide a single point where agencies can announce all those grants, citizens can search through the list electronically to apply for them and awards can be made — even though the processing will be done by the individual programs.

Havekost walked into the February 2002 meeting with the Office of Management and Budget and the initiative's partners with a diagram that split the electronic grants announcement, application and management process into component parts. A line drawn through the middle clearly defined what processes are the initiative's responsibility and what processes are the responsibilities of agencies.

That diagram hasn't changed. And Havekost said that is one of the primary reasons for the initiative's success up to this point.

"I just keep bringing people back to it," he said, pointing to the poster-sized copy of the vision diagram that is one of the few things on his office wall — placed for easy reference and gesturing during meetings.

The details of bringing that vision to life have created some interesting challenges, but they are concerns that every start-up faces, such as how to make sure that the initiative moves ahead smoothly when people are coming and going and how to whittle down the investment expenses and costs to determine what funds are needed to continue the initiative at an operational level.

The challenges that come when a program hasn't been in place for decades are what make the job interesting, he said, but one of the other reasons he came back to government after his short term in the private sector was his need to feel that those new programs and services were making a difference.

It's a cliche, but it is altogether different to have the mission statement be grounded in "turning out the best possible product for people to buy" or focused on making people's lives better, he said. The chance Grants.gov has to bring federal funds to people and researchers who normally wouldn't even know about them is one of those opportunities.

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The Charles Havekost file

Title: Program manager for the Grants.gov e-government initiative and senior technical adviser to the assistant secretary for administration and management at the Department of Health and Human Services.

Federal career: Served in several positions at the National Institutes of Health, including 17 years in the Division of Computer and Research Technology. Named chief of the Information Resource and Technology Management Branch in 1998. Returned to HHS in 2001 to lead the e-Grants initiative.

What he's most satisfied about: Developing a program that agencies and users want to get involved in and want to be among the first to use.

Goal for the future of the Grants.gov initiative: Transforming the program into a sustainable service that is embedded in agency grants-making processes and based on a standard funding mechanism.

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