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Grant process still stuck in the swamp.

Five years after the federal government was supposed to coordinate grantmaking online, many goals remain just that--goals. The Federal Financial Assistance Management Improvement Act of 1999 instructed federal agencies to work together to streamline the grants applications process, encourage electronic application and management, and reduce burdens and conflicts in rules.

The effort has succeeded in some areas, notably having created, a website where hopefuls can find available grants and learn about the applications process. Federal agencies have also made progress in creating a simplified and uniform application process. The initiative has also surveyed users and boosted its publicity efforts, hoping to make more grant hopefuls aware of the site.

But the effort has floundered in terms of developing common electronic systems for reporting financial and performance information, the Government Accountability Office reported. Multi-agency working groups formed to tackle specific problems initially took public input, but have not adequately publicized their efforts or continued to seek public participation. "Without such input, reforms are less likely to meet the needs of grantees," GAO concluded in "Grants Management: Additional Actions Needed to Streamline and Simplify Processes."

The Grants Management Committee back in January 2001 issued an "interim/draft plan" on how to continue to receive public input. It envisioned an ombudsman where audiences could complain about problems, and considered creating performance measures to judge improvements in the grants process. The committee set a target date of March 31, 2002 to outline the ombudsman role. But priorities changed and no one ever took the job. "In addition, the agencies have neither set specific annual goals and objectives nor used concrete performance measures in the annual progress reports" as the law required, GAO said. is currently studying the issue.

The Department of Education failed to present its required annual report for 2002 but submitted its reports for 2003 and 2004. In the latest report, the department addresses the progress it's made and its participation in the program. started in October 2003 and, in October 2004, issued a press release announcing its 1,000th applicant.

But despite this progress, "Efforts toward common electronic systems for reporting financial and performance information have not progressed," GAO said.

The Office of Management and Budget also started a multi-agency Grants Management Line of Business initiative to help all agencies manage grants. It will explore the feasibility of government-wide grant systems for management, financial and performance reporting.

Additionally, nine boards, work groups and committees with representatives from federal grant-giving agencies are working on various aspects of the National Grants Partnerships, according to

Though the boards have succeeded in improving some aspects of the grants process, GAO said that "with many potential areas on which to focus, some work group representatives commented to us that they addressed the 'low-hanging fruit,' preferring to work on those tasks that were more readily accomplished while yielding strong results."

One accomplishment: The PreAward Work Group, concerned with inconsistent grant announcement formats, developed a standard form so that anyone looking at competitions at will find the same types of data in the same places. The group has also clarified language and made it more consistent across programs.

Some other efforts remain in the works, including creating uniform payment and reporting systems and a uniform application for research grants. These ideas would make life easier for schools that apply routinely for funding from several departments. But other priorities have gone nowhere, such as plans to improve the processes for reviewing applications and closing out grants, GAO reported.

Progress has centered on making applications available electronically rather than creating uniform forms, in line with an OMB directive from a year ago. A grants management team is supposed to recommend electronic grant management improvements next year.

Complicating the picture, the Audit Oversight Work Group, one of the organizations created by the project, hasn't had a chairman for the last year and a half, so the subgroups haven't been coordinating well, GAO found.

GAO said that the future of the project remains unclear. Groups have "overlapping responsibilities," and the "management situation appears to have hampered progress." OMB plans to form another group--a Grants Governance Committee to oversee the efforts.

As of early last month, the Education Department had posted 26 grant applications on and gotten 196 applications.

Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, chairman of the Committee on Homeland Security and Government Affairs, issued a statement on the GAO report saying "significant progress has been made in making it easier for applicants to find and access all federal grant information and application packages online through (,) but it is clear that challenges remain. The individual agencies and the cross-agency work groups must continue coordinating their efforts with and soliciting input from grantees, particularly keeping them informed of the process to best ensure that these reforms meet the needs of applicants and all those who rely on federal grants."

You can view the GAO report at

Grant Programs Going Online

The Department of Education announced it plans to move all its grant programs to This means no more paperwork for grant applicants--literally.

Applicants will only be allowed to submit by paper if they lack either Internet access or the capacity to submit large electronic documents.

Therefore, the department recommends that anyone who might want a grant at any time register as soon as possible at to "avoid facing unexpected delays that could result in the rejection of your application."

For fiscal year 2005, the Education Department will still allow applications through its own e-Application system or on paper for some grants, while others must go through Individual grant announcements will specify the rules.
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Title Annotation:dateline washington
Author:Pekow, Charles
Publication:Community College Week
Date:May 9, 2005
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