Grant law renewal uncertain

For the past eight years, the Federal Financial Assistance Management Improvement Act of 1999 has been the basis for many changes and improvements in the federal grants management process, including Grants.gov and the governmentwide Grants Management Line of Business, policy experts say.

Now lawmakers must decide whether to renew the law. Industry and agency officials are divided in their views about whether agencies have institutionalized the law's requirements so well that renewing it might be unnecessary.

The act expires Nov. 20, and so far the law's authors and Bush administration officials have put forth little effort to renew it.

Most of the law's provisions have been institutionalized, said Michael Curtis, director of the Grants Center of Excellence at the Health and Human Services Department's Administration for Children and Families. 'There is a lot of public-facing work going on, and a lot of foundational work has been completed,' he said.

However, others say more can be done to improve the federal grant-making process. The National Grants Partnership, a public/private group, said it would issue a report describing how the executive branch has fallen short of meeting the law's intent.

The National Grants Partnership will report that many of the law's goals have not been met, including the development of a unified grant policy, the need to solicit private-sector input and the creation of a common grant-reporting system, said David Cassidy, a vice president at Turner Consulting Group and a member of the partnership. Cassidy said he is uncertain whether streamlining changes have occurred in more than a few pockets within agencies.

'Congress told agencies this was for their own good and mandated the changes, but without the mandate, would agencies continue? I don't know,' Cassidy said.

Sen. George Voinovich (R-Ohio) sponsored the grants legislation in 1999, but he is undecided about whether he will seek an extension of the law, a Voinovich spokeswoman said.

The Office of Management and Budget would not comment on whether it would support the law's renewal.

Meanwhile, members of the federal Grants Policy Committee, which OMB charged with implementing the law, appear to be preparing for life without it. The committee is seeking comments from the private sector, Cassidy said.

OMB has urged agencies to shift to a common grant-reporting system under its Grants Management Line of Business. After OMB named three grant-reporting system providers in February 2006, agencies have slowly begun making the transition to a common system, Curtis said. Nine other agencies, including three outside HHS, now use the Administration for Children and Families' grant-reporting system.

A recent memo from Karen Evans, OMB's administrator for e-government and information technology, states that agencies must sign an agreement with one of the three providers by Dec. 31. Agencies that cannot do so can appeal. OMB, in coordination with the program management office for the Grants Management Line of Business, will issue a template and guidance for any agency wishing to appeal, Evans' memo states.

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