HHS, other agencies collaborate to make Grants.gov pay off

If it takes nimble cross-government collaboration to really make electronic government work, Grants.gov is well ahead of the pack.

When the Web portal was getting started two years ago, program officials had to get grant-making agencies across the federal government on board. And they did.

The Government Accountability Office reported this year that Grants.gov was one of only two Quicksilver e-government projects to meet all its original objectives. Its mission was to create a simple, unified way to find and apply for federal grants on the Web.

“I think the collaboration among the agencies and [the] way they’ve all come together is as much of a success story as anything else,” said Rebecca Spitzgo, Grants.gov program manager at the Health and Human Services Department, the program’s managing partner.

“You just don’t see that happen often, whether it’s private industry or the federal government,” she said. “Those walls are up. We have people who have allowed those walls to be broken down and do things that are in the best interest of the citizen.”

Grants.gov lets state and local agencies, academic institutions and nonprofit organizations find and apply for federal grant opportunities worth about $360 billion annually.

One reason grant-making agencies were keen to collaborate on Grants.gov was that they understood how crucial it was to their missions.

“They really believe in doing good things,” Spitzgo said.

“They want that grant money to go out for its intended purpose. In the long run, if you make it easier for the grant community, more people can apply, we get better-quality applications and the money is put to better use. I think both the agencies and the grant community have bought into that.”

Another reason for Grants.gov’s success is leadership from the top, Spitzgo said.

The Office of Management and Budget, for instance, has persistently driven the message that the Quicksilver projects—a centerpiece of the President’s Management Agenda—are critical to improving effectiveness and efficiency in government programs.

Not business as usual

“OMB’s leadership has helped,” Spitzgo said. “They sent a message that this is a priority, that this is not business as usual and that agencies should be participating.”

Grants.gov was rolled out in two segments. The “find” piece was piloted in July 2002 and is now fully deployed. That component alone has made a differece.

“Putting all that information together on a single site has had a tremendous impact across the grant community,” Spitzgo said. “Before, [grant seekers] would have to go to each agency’s Web site, the Federal Register or a funding guide to try to find this information. Now, all of a sudden, it’s all there together.”

The fact that grant opportunities are presented in a standard format is important.

“A very strong message we hear continuously from [grant seekers] is that they want a single face,” Spitzgo said. “And they want it to be the same every time they touch it. They don’t want to have to learn it over and over again.”

The “apply” piece, built by Northrop Grumman Information Technology of Herndon, Va., was launched at the end of last October, meeting its target date.

“We had a little over six months to get the whole apply piece up,” Spitzgo said. “During that time, we built a prototype, used it to solicit feedback from the grant community and grantors, piloted the system from June to August and launched it at the end of October. It was a very busy time.”

Grants.gov is based on Northrop Grumman’s InflowSuite product set, which provides the system’s core application management functions, including validating applications and routing them for submission to the agency.

The system also allows users to download the application and work offline, which is a big plus, Spitzgo said.

Working offline

“Some of the really small grantees just don’t have high-speed Internet connectivity,” she said, “and doing stuff online for long periods of time, such as filling out an application, is not always something that works for them.”

Grants.gov has not only met its original objectives, it has met its deadlines.

“We felt, for the credibility of the program, it was of the utmost importance to meet every date and keep the momentum going,” Spitzgo said.

Making the Oct. 31 deadline last year for launching the apply component was especially daunting.

“It was a monumental task trying to meet that deadline,” said Mike Atassi, Grants.gov program manager for Northrop Grumman. “It was an immovable deadline. But we approached it as a partnership. The success of the government is our success. We wanted this to be a true partnership and true success story.”

Getting Grants.gov up and running on schedule proved government can work fast, be flexible and deliver the goods, he added.

“You hear about how the government is slow, not quick to react and bureaucratic, but this is an example where government can be compared to one of the slickest, fastest-moving companies in industry in putting together a solution that is governmentwide,” he said.

To date, more than 1,000 grant applications have been submitted via the system. But there’s more work to be done.

Of the 26 grant-making agencies, nine still haven’t posted application packages. But officials expect all 26 agencies to have packages online by 2006, Spitzgo said.

To prompt more use of the system, Grants.gov officials also plan to reach out to grant seekers through media and print advertisements and e-mail campaigns.

“It’s such a large and diverse community,” Spitzgo said. “The challenge is getting the word out to all those people and getting them to know about it.”

The bottom line is that Grants.gov is no longer simply a project.

“It’s now going to become the way the government does business,” Spitzgo said.

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