Federal grants process goes electronic

The federal government is launching a project July 1 to make it easier for state and local governments to apply online for grants, one of the Bush administration's five major initiatives to deliver electronic services to the public.

The project will save money by relying on an existing Web portal instead of building a new one, said Charles Havekost, the e-Grants program manager at the Department of Health and Human Services, where the governmentwide program is being developed.

The e-Grants project will piggyback on FedBizOpps, a Web site where agencies post information for industry on potential business opportunities, and is expected to grow into a full-service operation by October 2003.

"We have pretty clear marching orders," Havekost said at a Digital Government Institute conference June 10. "We have to give applicants a way to apply electronically."

Havekost likened the project to a one-stop shopping "storefront," where people can browse and buy what they want. He said the project would tap government contracting vehicles and off-the-shelf products to provide more bang for the buck.

State and local governments have long been clamoring for help in navigating the federal grants maze. Although the government provides nearly $400 billion in grants each year, most applications require a lengthy paper trail and follow-up phone calls to agencies to make sure the application is being processed.

Grants are "one area where we can move the dice a little," said Eric Brenner of the Illinois Federal Clearinghouse, a state program set up to collect federal grants.

In the past decade, the amount of federal grants has increased fourfold, but the public has had little help in getting them. Each year, federal agencies are required to report their progress in making the grant process easier, and the "pace has picked up," according to Brenner.

It is all about "making people aware of what grants are out there," he said. "The amount of federal grants is pretty extensive. The things that move the big money are Medicaid and highway funding, but a big part of good government is making it easier for everyone to go after it."

John Cronin, director of public-sector alliances for Autonomy Corp., a data mining company, encouraged making it easier for the public and industry to find grant opportunities.

"The government will ultimately benefit from the work being done by grantees," Cronin said. "The grantees will be able to locate opportunities more easily and be able to perform the process in a much more cost-effective manner."

Havekost said that the $20 million cost of the e-Grants project would be spent on such big-ticket items as hiring integrators to put together all the pieces. Eventually, the public will be able to buy a software package to apply for e-grants, much as the public can now buy tax preparation software.

HHS, which awards nearly half of all federal grants, including tens of millions of dollars to states for Medicaid, is spearheading the project. But other agencies also provide grants for everything from arts projects funded by the National Endowment for the Arts to homeland security initiatives from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

The e-Grants initiative is one of 24 government projects proposed in October 2001 by the Office of Management and Budget to bring electronic services to the public. In April, OMB selected five e-government initiatives, including e-Grants, to share $4.15 million in funding.

Although the project will launch in October 2003, officials are still working out many details, including signature authentication and whether to charge a fee, Havekost said. He said officials were considering a number of ideas, including charging $13 — the price of sending mail overnight via the U.S. Postal Service.

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Easy Access

The e-Grants project, managed by the Department of Health and Human Services, will provide defined categories for grants, common data standards and simple ways to find federal grant opportunities online. Eleven agencies are partners in the e-government initiative, as well as 15 other federal grant-making agencies, universities, nonprofit groups, and state, local and tribal governments.

The partners include big government agencies, such as the Agriculture Department, and some smaller ones, such as the National Archives.

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