On January 12th, over 40 stakeholders from all across the Federal grant sphere joined the Data Foundation and the Aspen Institute at the Gates Foundation to discuss the state of data in grant reporting. For the first time, representatives from multiple federal grantor agencies and departments joined nonprofit researchers, members of the public sector, and technologists to share experiences, challenges, and opportunities to harness data for the public good.
The Current State of Nonprofit Data
There is no gentle way to say this – right now, nonprofit reporting data is by and large a mess. Vast swathes of forms and reporting are still document based, and those that are digital are disparate and disconnected from one another, even within single agencies. Current processes and IT systems fail to address duplicative reporting burdens because they are structurally incapable of doing so. On top of burdening the grantees and subgrantees with redundant, time-consuming reporting, this leaves program managers and leadership with their own administrative crosses to bear – with no functional ways to input and cross-reference grantee and program information outside prohibitively expensive manual data entry or text crawlers which then have to be verified, program improvements are too long coming and cannot address emerging or changing needs.
On top of this, the sheer volume of requested data is arguably doing both grantors and grantees a disservice – every additional metric and measure requires additional administration on the part of both parties. Agencies are frequently asking for information with no clear idea of how it might be used, operating under the assumption that more data is always better, but in many cases the near-continuous increase in collection points can serve to obscure instead of illuminate. Differences in vocabulary – not only between grantors and grantees, but between and even sometimes within agencies – can lead to incorrect reporting and subsequently to contrary answers and analytics that should line up but do not. This in turn leads to challenges in policy development, funding requests, and program justifications despite a wealth of information delivered in good faith by grantees.
HHS Section 5 Pilot
We already have all the data we need, and arguably more than we can use, yet lack a way to efficiently render that data functional and comparable. While the challenges are myriad, solutions are at hand. HHS’ Section 5 Pilot, also known as the Common Data Elements Repository (CDER) Library, provides an open source of elements and a data dictionary which, if applied government-wide, will not only provide a standardized data structure but a common language for reporting.
Currently containing over 11,000 unique elements culled from 115 different forms, the CDER Library makes it possible to compare apples to apples across disparate programs and business lines by identifying specific pieces of descriptive or financial information regardless of where they appear on individual forms. The Library could also become the system of record for federal reporting forms which we currently lack and sorely need. The system already ties into the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs on a daily basis to verify new, current, and expired items and could be a tremendous boon to the grant sphere as a whole and to government grants managers in particular.
Challenges and Opportunities
For a complete overview and analysis of the conversation, as well as the research it has inspired, you’ll have to wait until the end of March when our first white paper is released. But to close out this post, it seems fitting to follow the same format with which we closed out the meeting – with challenges and opportunities. Instituting a significant overhaul of the methods and systems which shape grant reporting is neither a small nor a simple task, but it is well within our reach when stakeholders from all levels and perspectives come together to ensure we create a solution that benefits everyone.
Encouragingly, there seems to be a significant consensus on the main challenges to be faced and an almost dazzling variety of potential benefits and opportunities.
- Awareness, Outreach, and Buy-In
People up and down the ladder know the current system is frustrating and inefficient, but many are unaware of the efforts being made to improve it or the solutions available to us. In the end, all roads will lead back to this as the single most important factor in determining the success of these efforts.
- Data Quality
Data flows up, and from 2000-2015 state and municipal governments received 84% of federal grant funds, which are then dispersed to sub-grantees. Without buy-in at the state and municipal levels, the data quality is unlikely to improve. And without articulating a clear ROI through comprehensive outreach efforts, obtaining their buy-in would be difficult.
- Capacity and Burden
It is crucial as we move forward to remember that within the grants ecosystem there exist huge gaps in organizational, fiscal, and technological capacity, not just within sub-grantees providing direct services, but at all levels of federal, state, and local government as well. Careful consideration of this must be made to avoid inadvertently creating one burden while attempting to alleviate another.
Again, crucial but complicated – a solution that does not work for everyone will not work at all. This is not to say the benefits to all stakeholders will be perfectly balanced and equal, or that there will be no compromises or exceptions made. But without both engaging and accommodating the most significant needs of all groups, standardization could easily fail to fulfill its promise and could potentially even add compliance and administrative burden.
- Complexity of the Status Quo
UGG. ROCIS. ICRAS. COFAR. GPRA-MA. OIRA. DATA. PRA. The rules, regulations, offices, mandates, and orders governing grant reporting can seem like a Scrabble game gone mad, and the above list only includes the rules governing information collection, and does not begin to touch on volume of the department, agency, or program specific demands for information they subsequently send out once they have navigated that maze. And any solution must take all of the above into account – but the good news is that they are often already interconnected in ways that can be untangled and simplified by data standardization, rather than adding to their intricacy. The more challenging aspect may be getting all the organizations and offices governing those rules at the same table and onto the same page.
- Decreased Burden
Alleviating the administrative burden on grantors, grantees, and subgrantees will not only save money on the governmental side but will allow more funds to reach the individuals or localities the programs are seeking to assist. Attempts to drive grantee and subgrantee administrative costs down become unreasonable when organizations are constantly expected to keep lowering their budgets while facing increasing collection burdens.
- Better Evidence
Better data makes better evidence; better evidence means better evidence-based decisions. Bad data can be worse than no data at all – being certain and wrong can be much more dangerous and have far more lasting negative consequences than simply not having enough data to come to a definitive conclusion.
- Better Communication with the Public
Better data facilitates better outreach to the public from both governmental and nonprofit organizations through improved impact statistics and visualizations. A public that is aware and supportive of programs is crucial, and benefits not only the direct providers of assistance and services but also grantors seeking to defend or increase their budget requests and administrations (be they local, state, or federal) seeking to demonstrate public good.
- Best Practices/Communities of Practice
Many other national and international organizations are also working in similar areas – from state and municipal associations and administrations, to governments of other countries, standardized data is seen as the path forward. From adopting Best Practices and lessons learned to collaborating on potential solutions, we are not alone - there are other passionate people working on similar problems.
- Improved Response to Emerging Need
Faster, cleaner data enables funders to identify and respond to emerging needs more quickly and efficiently. With the current systems, it can quite literally take years for the Federal government to identify and respond to emerging needs, at which point either the emerging need has become an emergency or the damage has already been done. Uncovering patterns in need more quickly means that negative impacts can be minimized, which in turn reduces associated budgetary strains. Moreover, foundations will be able to integrate their own internal reporting data with open federal data and create a clearer picture of the funding landscape in which their particular missions reside, allowing them to better identify funding gaps and maximize their impact.
- Better Data Makes Better Research
Nonprofit research organizations (both nonprofits that create research and nonprofits that perform research on the sector) will have access to more comprehensive and accurate data on the public sector, its funding, its distributions, and its goals. This benefits not only our understanding of the entire ecosystem, but would help governmental and private funders identify underserved issues and populations, and assist organizations in targeting their programs and partnerships for maximum impact and efficiency.
Slow and steady is the only way to win this race. Given the number of stakeholders and the diversity of needs and challenges each member of each group brings to the table, not to mention the labyrinth of existing rules, regulations, and offices governing this space, a quick solution is unlikely to be a wise or functional solution. Moreover, identifying where redundancies can be eliminated and where they may unintentionally be created by the adoption of specific data standards through careful consideration and conversation is of utmost importance.
But it can be done, and it must be done. If this conversation told us nothing else, it is that there are many passionate, dedicated people who want to see these efforts succeed and who are willing and eager to come together to make it happen.
Many thanks to our hosts at the Gates Foundation, our sponsors Streamlink and Workiva, and to all the participants who came to share their knowledge, experience, and enthusiasm with us and each other.