Grants team proposes pods of systems, not one

Task force tells OMB that one-size-fits-all approach won’t work

A task force charged with finding the best way to manage grants spending has recommended the Office of Management and Budget build on a consortium model instead of a centralized platform.

The decision moves the grants project away from a consolidation strategy that was unsuccessful for the E-Authentication e-government initiative.

The consortium approach has yielded preliminary success in a handful of e-government efforts. But the adoption of this strategy for grants management is a first for any of the governmentwide lines-of-business projects.

“Our options were to take from existing systems and redesign them to mitigate our risks or build from scratch,” said Mark Carney, the Education Department’s chief financial officer and co-chairman of the grants task force. “We felt the scope and scale was too big to build from scratch, and we didn’t want to put all our eggs in one basket.”

Follow the leader

OMB comptroller Linda Springer said last month that for the grants projects one agency will act as the lead, with others connecting to its hardware and software.

The task force considered several models, including a centralized back-office system and a shared-services version similar to the plans proposed last month by the human resources and financial management task forces.

But dividing agencies into consortiums seemed to make the most sense, Springer said.

“After we looked at it, we felt it would be too hard to implement the system because of the way the data moves from one place to another and to manage the business processes of the different agencies,” Carney said. “We can’t have a one-size-fits-all system, but we can do better than all of us having different packages.”

Carney said that after a plan has been set for sorting agencies into consortiums the task force will see whether further consolidations are possible.

Education, the National Science Foundation and the Office of Justice Programs are a few of the agencies with successful back-office grants systems, Carney said.

OMB and agency managers did not fare well in trying to create a centralized E-Authentication portal and stayed away from single systems for the E-Payroll and E-Travel projects. The consortium approach is being used for the two Quicksilver initiatives.

Meanwhile, officials still are deciding how to move forward with the Business Gateway.

Agency executives, including CFOs and CIOs, are reviewing the grants business case submitted to OMB last month. Springer said she is confident the consortium idea will go forward.

No help

“We didn’t think there were any private-sector companies that made back-office grants software that could be used by all of the federal government,” Springer said.

The biggest challenges with the project are forming a governance structure and sorting agencies into consortiums, Carney said.

The task force also must finish standardizing agencies’ back-office functions, of which about 80 percent to 85 percent are common so far.

“The model can’t take effect until we finish these standards,” Springer said. “The goal is to eliminate back-office customization.”

Carney said the last 20 percent would be difficult because agencies must either decide to change their business processes or ask Congress to change existing laws that require them to do business in specific ways.

“If we can’t overcome the need for customization of systems and if we don’t have flexible business rules, this will fall apart,” Carney said.

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