Standard issue

A group of federal and private-sector experts on the government’s grant-making functions are trying to jump-start the development of data standards for back-end systems.

The National Grants Partnership, a public-private group working on grants administration issues, wants to use the success of the Grants.gov e-government project as a model for the government to create a set of data elements that can be used by all grant-making agencies.

“Grants.gov gave agencies a method to standardize how they publish grant opportunities and receive applications,” said David Cassidy, a vice president of Turner Consulting Group Inc. of Washington and co-chairman of the NGP White Paper Series. “The other major parts of the grant process should benefit from similar efforts instead of the stovepiped way it has developed over the years.”

NGP issued a white paper addressing in detail this and a host of other issues this summer, after the Government Accountability Office released a critical report on the lack of coordination among agency organizations.

NGP also hopes the white paper revives the Grants Management Line of Business Task Force, which has been dormant since January. The Grants LOB is one of five led by the Office of Management and Budget. Last year, under OMB comptroller Linda Springer, who left in January, the task force announced it would take a consortium approach, where one agency would act as the lead with others connecting to its hardware and software.

But since Springer left, the project has all but stopped, amid a lack of coordination among the task force, Grants.gov and the group implementing the Federal Financial Assistance Management Improvement Act of 1999.

Karen Evans, OMB’s administrator for e-government and IT, said the LOB task force is working with the newly established Chief Financial Officers Council Grants Committee on policy and with Grants.gov on technology issues.

Evans added that the Grants Executive Board, which oversees Grants.gov, also will serve an advisory role for the line of business.

“Direct coordination with these two governing bodies will better ensure consistent policy, efficient architecture and clear goals for individual agencies, as well as for the three grant-related initiatives,” Evans said.

Agencies dole out about $441 billion a year in grants to state and local governments, nongovernment entities and private-sector organizations, but each agency processes grants differently.

Tyson Whitney, co-chairman of the NGP White Paper Series and an Agriculture employee, said agencies have not developed common data elements because of legislative or policy mandates. But with the integration of back-end systems with Grants.gov, he said, data standards are needed.

NGP and other organizations found the problem is widespread. For instance, NGP said agencies can’t agree on how to record demographic requirements: Some ask for age breakdowns of 0-5, 6-12 and 13-18 years, while others ask for 0-2, 3-6, 7-9 and 10-18.

NGP recommended that OMB:

  • Lead the effort to reduce the number of different legislative requirements agencies must meet for grant programs
  • Establish cross-cutting financial and performance metrics
  • Define a timeline to finalize the development of standards
  • Provide incentives for grantors to adopt the standards.

NGP also strongly encouraged OMB to create a grants management improvement program, similar to the Joint Financial Management Improvement Program that helped develop and maintain standards for federal financial systems. JFMIP was merged into the CFO Council earlier this year.

“A grants management improvement program could discuss what those data standards could be and ensure they are executed in a uniform fashion,” Whitney said.

Cassidy added that before the government created JFMIP, agencies did not have financial management standards and were in the same situation they are with grants today.

“Data and process standards will be the real turning point,” he said.

In addition to standards, NGP recommended that OMB and agencies study existing grant reporting systems that can be used as a foundation for a common system and then develop one or more pilot programs. The administration should establish a grants ombudsman in OMB’s Office of Federal Financial Management to oversee the standards creation, while agencies should inventory and consolidate redundant back-end systems.

“There needs to be widespread agreement and buy-in from agency management and grantees,” Whitney said. “Data standards are a significant challenge, but we need to have a greater reuse of data.”

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