The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly in Government Grants Management
Results of the 2018 Annual Grants Management Survey
By Jeff Myers, Rujuta Waknis, and Shelly Slebrch
Results are in from an Annual Survey of Grant Managers, and there is some good news and some bad news, and some “ugly” news. The good news is that more new people seem to be taking up a role in grants management, and their colleagues consider well-qualified staff to be the most significant key to success. And, although grant funding is still seen as uncertain and susceptible to politics (did anyone notice that the government shutdown stopped many grant programs in their tracks?) not as many grant managers saw this as a problem in 2018. Perhaps they have learned how to plan for uncertainty!
The bad news, however, is that grant managers still spend most of their time on compliance, and the effort and attention required for compliance increased in 2018 over previous years.
And – in a surprising mixed result, 55 percent of state, local and tribal grant managers reported that the performance of their grant programs improved over the previous 12 months. In contrast, the largest group of federal grant managers, 43%, said that they can’t tell whether their program’s performance improved because performance data is not available. Since the federal government issues over $700 billion in grants (more than contracts and procurements), and accomplishes many major missions through the efforts of grant recipients, this seems kind of ugly: taxpayers really don’t know what they are getting for their money.
As background, these findings are based on the only large-scale survey of grant managers in the United States. In October 2018, the George Washington University, the National Grants Management Association, and REI Systems invited more than 5,000 professionals from government (federal, state, and local) as well as non-government organizations to share their perspective. On February 26, the results of the survey were presented at a Grants Management Breakfast (GMB) Forum, where a panel of experts discussed the results and addressed questions from the audience.
The survey results are available here: 2018 Annual Grants Management Survey Results and Analysis. Key takeaways from the panel discussion included:
- Grant managers spend more time monitoring compliance than any other activity and this increased in 2018. Panelist Jennifer Colton, Director of the Maryland Governor's Office of Grants, notes that while grants managers appreciate government-wide grants frameworks such as the Uniform Grants Guidance, they inevitably compel grants managers to spend increased time ensuring compliance to the regulations and new information. Panelist Ryan Smith, National Technical Assistance Coordinator at the Economic Development Administration, said that the pre-award process could be streamlined if there were a single system or website that holds all the data needed to check against award documents.
- 43% of federal respondents can’t measure performance or don’t know if performance improved in 2018 (while 55% of state, local & NGO respondents say performance did improve). CAP Goal 8 of the President’s Management Agenda, “Results-Oriented Accountability for Grants” emphasizes performance measurement and improvement. However, one grant manager privately indicated to the authors that “…the Administration proposed to zero-out the grant program that I manage. Congress restored the funding, but there’s not a very strong interest in performance data since the administration wanted to eliminate the program. And, since it’s a formula-driven grant, I can’t easily compel grant recipients to provide performance data anyway.”
- Grant managers want data sharing and automation of federal-state interactions, more than any other priority. The interest in information sharing between federal and state increased between this year and last year, though the intention and method, and responsibility for such coordination are unclear. Panelist Jennifer Colton noted that all parties involved—federal grantors, state grant recipients, and their sub-recipients—would benefit from a collaborative standardization of performance metrics, and Colton suggests that grantor agencies could establish the standardized performance metrics for grantees to follow. [Note to OMB and to CAP Goal 8 sponsors: Leadership is needed here!]
- Grant managers aren’t happy with access to technology and costs of software needed to report to the fed government. The most dissatisfaction found in this year’s survey was with the ability of grantees and sub-grantees to cover the costs of the software needed to report into federal grant making agencies. This might be easier and more affordable for grant recipients if coordination across federal agencies were stronger.
- Grants directives are well-received, though not all are well-understood, and they may not solve the problems that concern grant managers. Survey respondents rated OMB’s Uniform Grants Guidance most positively amongst all federal grants guidance. Generally, grant managers are receptive to the GREAT Act being considered by Congress, which would standardize many grant management data elements. However, many grant recipients anticipate that the GREAT Act will reduce their administrative burden – and – passage of the GREAT Act alone will not ensure that federal grant-making agencies align and coordinate the data requirements they make of grant recipients. Nor will the current incarnation of the GREAT Act provide a consistent automated way for states and federal agencies to exchange data, as survey respondents fervently desire.
To view an archived video of the panel discussion, or download survey results and analysis, visit The Grants Management Breakfast Forum web page.
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