The Independent Blue Ribbon Panel on Grants and Contributions called for fundamental change to the management of grants and contributions.
The panel reached clear and clear-sighted conclusions: that the federal government needs to change the way it “understands, designs, manages and accounts for its grant and contribution programs.” It recognized the important links between simplified administration and accountability. It called for sustained political and public service leadership, and for programs to demonstrate accountability, accessibility and efficiency.
Grants and contributions (G&C) programs touch Canadians invisibly every day. When we drive on a road, board an airplane, travel by rail, watch a Canadian film or read a Canadian book, we are benefiting from the successful outcome of a complex granting process. In an ideal world, the programs would be visible and Canadians would celebrate them. Unfortunately, many of these programs only become visible as political ammunition during Question Period.
It is a fact of today’s public sector life that every action is under scrutiny. Have resources been properly allocated? Can expenditures be related to results such that they demonstrate success? Is program performance equal to or better than that of comparable organizations? When government managers deliver programs through third parties, are they sure that accountability is not lost? Solid information systems and accurate and timely reports maintain awareness and provide assurances to managers that funds are well managed.
A common complaint about grants is that they are hard to find, difficult to apply for and often include complex and confusing eligibility criteria. The U.S. government has addressed this problem with Grants.Gov, a single website for applicants to find and apply for grants. This storefront fulfills the government’s obligation to be fair, transparent and accessible to potential applicants. The technology was relatively easy. The hard part was bringing different departments to a common process, but legislation passed in Congress in 1999 helped smooth the way.
Ironically, timely, well-designed and well-promoted grants programs can attract disproportionate “uptake” and literally overwhelm the processing and decision-making systems that should support them. With or without a central grant portal, well-designed enterprise grants management software, especially implemented on the web, allows granting organizations to screen applicants at source. Those applicants that meet all the specified qualifications can then be quickly and easily grouped by any combination of attributes the program managers select: geographical region, experience, size of grant requested, or other criteria.
From the applicant’s point of view, being “on file” with a government department or agency can and should be a one-time chore, with subsequent applications automatically populated with existing information.
From the granting institution’s perspective, automated processes provide comprehensive information in an organized format, allowing better understanding of the client group, from first encounter right through to program evaluation. And well-designed software puts the obligations of clarity and completeness where they belong, with the applicants. Effective communication can be established with both successful and unsuccessful applicants.
Finding ways to streamline the processes is key. While it is true that every granting program is different, it is equally true that many share common traits and processes, from application to close out. Lower costs, better data management, standard training and ease of use for applicants all make a compelling business case for standardization. The Alberta government, for example, the second largest grantor after the federal government, has decided to standardize on a single enterprise grants management product across all granting programs in all departments.
Simply automating existing business processes doesn’t work. Good software projects require a change agent who can credibly question existing systems and practices, and help an organization move to new standards of performance. Success brings success, and a small enterprise grants management implementation can grow organically within an organization as it brings clarity and order to long-standing business challenges.
Good implementation captures unique skills and experience and documents them for the benefit of others. With the right tools, employees create better business processes. Processes and procedures are codified in a software package to retain experience.
The U.S. government is a pioneer in enterprise grants management. While it is a huge, diverse and risk-friendly culture, with constant pressure to excel, at the operational level, there is no compromise in the demands placed on software vendors. Per capita, the U.S. delivers almost double the program dollars through G&Cs as Canada: around $500 billion each from the federal and state governments. Beginning in 1999 with Public Law 106-107, the U.S. government has required that its departments and agencies streamline and automate their processes, facilitate a vastly improved user experience and cooperate across departments wherever possible to make that happen.
Under the auspices of the U.S. National Grants Management Association, a certification program for federal, state and municipal employees is being developed. Best practices and standards are becoming better defined. Accounting has existed for thousands of years, but the profession is still creating and teaching new standards.
Building your own, or modifying an off-the-shelf product, was common. But as organizations work more and more under a whole-of-government approach to deliver complex solutions in cooperation with other public and private actors, stand-alone systems offer less functionality, longer development times and more risk.