Taking nothing for e-granted

Federal agencies responsible for distributing about $300 billion in grants annually may be able to use a governmentwide portal for grant information that is being created to help agencies meet a May deadline for having an electronic grant system.

A working group of the federal Chief Financial Officers Council is creating a standards-based framework for agency grant systems and is designing a Web portal called the Federal Commons (www.fedcommons.gov).

At the same time, companies such as FreeBalance Inc. are pitch--ing their own Web-based e-grant products to federal agencies and their grantees. Those products emphasize streamlined back-office labor in managing and tracking grant applications, assessments, awards and payments. The Electronic Workgroup of the CFO Council's Grants Management Committee will release a draft plan for the Federal Commons portal and its framework this month. Comments will be due on the draft plan — which will be posted in the Federal Register — by late February, and a final plan will be submitted to Congress in May.

The group's work toward the Federal Commons is a response to the Federal Financial Assistance Management Improvement Act of 1999, which criticized hundreds of federal grant systems for being "duplicative, burdensome or conflicting, thus impeding cost-effective delivery of services at the local level."

The law, signed in November 1999, gave agencies until May 2001 to come up with a plan to streamline those grant systems and create electronic access to federal grant information.

"The May deadline is not realistic for having it all accomplished," said Brad Stanford, co-chairman of the workgroup and special assistant to the chief information officer for electronic commerce in the Office of Naval Research. "We're dealing with all these different agencies, but they're all offering services in the same area."

The Federal Commons, which will cost about $5.5 million to create and maintain for five years, will provide a single point of entry for universities and research institutions, state, local and tribal governments and other potential grant applicants to get information about grant programs by type and by agency. The group plans to have it running by 2003, with certain pieces available in the interim, Stanford said.

For instance, the FedBizOpps site (www.fedbizopps.gov) is testing its grant module, which will be used to post federal grant opportunities and will be accessible from the Federal Commons portal, he said.

Grantees will be able to use the portal to apply directly to agencies for grants, check on the status of applications and receive award notices and payments online. Once someone applies for a grant, the Federal Commons will store the personal and institution information for use later in completing forms or for other grant applications.

There are only a few commercial alternatives to the Federal Commons because most grant systems are developed internally by agencies, said Tom Meagher, vice president for equity research at BB&T Capital Markets. Even though the law gave agencies only 18 months to move to e-grants, "it's been an area that hasn't gotten a lot of attention," he said.

Oracle Corp. and FreeBalance are offering agencies and grantees Web-based systems that automate agency grant systems along with those used by state and local agencies to interface with federal grant systems. Stanford sees them primarily as solutions for the users at the state, local and university levels.

Gordon Graham, FreeBalance's vice president of marketing, said his company's eGrants system is designed to connect with a federal agency's financial management system to streamline creation of payment obligations and claims.

The CFO Council would prefer that agencies use the Federal Commons rather than buy individual commercial solutions because it wants to encourage agencies to use a common interface with grantees, Stanford said.

"If [agencies] do the same thing as other agencies and are not part of the Commons, then we think they are missing the point of the law," Stanford said.

Defining the Federal Commons

The Federal Commons is being designed as a portal that offers all grantees from state, local and tribal governments, universities, small businesses and nonprofit organizations full-service grant-processing. The portal will provide public information on grant programs and funding opportunities and secure processing of e-grant transactions.

More information can be found at www.fedcommons.gov.e-grant

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