State and Local Challenges in Grant Data

In 2016, the federal government disbursed $651.7 billion in grant awards. Of that, 84% went directly to state and local governments in the form of either mandatory (also known as ‘formula’) or discretionary (‘block’) grants. The lion’s share of this funding is dedicated to Medicaid and other health programs, but even with those expenditures factored out that leaves $277.6 billion, or over 7%, of the total federal budget for FY2016. That 7% funds everything from environmental mitigation, income security programs, and early childhood education to transportation, community redevelopment, job training, and social services.

State and municipal governments occupy a uniquely complex place in the grant ecosystem. Grantees *and* grantors both take in data from below and push it up, and as a result their data and reporting systems are particularly susceptible to redundancies and complications. Along with the federal reporting requirements they are obligated to meet, each state has its own internally mandated requirements to monitor the finances and performance of programs.

2013 report from the Urban Institute based on a survey of nonprofit entities with either government grants or contracts for the delivery of services noted that reporting requirements are one of the single biggest challenges facing organizations. The report highlights that the general burden of duplicative reporting is created largely by a lack of agreement on terminology from funder to funder and a lack of communication between funders causing organizations to be overwhelmed. State and municipal governments, with their dual challenge of being both grantors and grantees, can be even more overwhelmed.

Troublingly, these murkily defined terms and systemic complexities can do much worse than just leaving us with unreliable and incoherent data - they can leave money on the table. Ultimately, it is all but impossible to understand funding. At the end of FY15, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) found almost $1 billion in undisbursed funding remained in grant accounts, which had expired. Further, more than half of which had expired 1-3 years prior. The undisbursed accounts cost the federal government real money - $173,000 per month in fees just for empty accounts that have not been closed because either the final reports have not been delivered or registered within the granting agency. Often this is due to either a grantee’s failure to deliver their required close-out reports on accounting and performance, or an agency’s failure to review, process, or reconcile reports which have been delivered.

The Grants Oversight and New Efficiency Act (GONE Act), which was implemented to help improve the close-out rates, is well intended but essentially will result in a report on reporting. The grants involved are those which have expired in excess of two years ago, and the act does nothing to redress the systemic problems which lead to open but expired grants and undisbursed funds.

The GAO, the Urban InstituteNASACT, and many others across the ecosystem have been advocating for coherent, streamlined grant reporting since well before the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act came into being. The only way to truly create a better environment for grantees, be they  local governments or subgrantees providing services, is to standardize the proverbial kit and kaboodle. The chart showing the flow of federal grant-related reporting illustrates why demand for standardized data is only going to continue growing, as data calls become simultaneously more numerous, more diverse, and more redundant.

The chart only shows the movement of grant data once it reaches the federal government, None of it cascades. None of it autopopulates, or autogenerates. Within the grant world, huge swaths of the data sources for the information shown above exist only in fillable PDF forms unless it is either crawled by software or entered into a database by hand after the report has been delivered to the funding agency by the grantee. None of it is standardized, with the exception of USASpending.gov, which only deals with the financial reporting and is only going into effect across the federal government in May of this year.

States and municipalities have their own complex labyrinths of institutional and legislative requirements, on top of those imposed from above, as well as challenges of shifting federal and state budgetary priorities and capacities. All of this is before they try to respond to ever changing and often growing public needs. On average, federal funds make up almost 31% of a given state’s expenditures and is second only to their state tax revenues as a funding source. States are dependent on federal resources to care for their citizens in a variety of both tangible and intangible ways. Funds are often either being underutilized or overspent on unnecessary, duplicative administrative tasks.

Creating and mandating a standardized data structure and data dictionary for reporting that could be used up and down the information ladder would not only save money for nonprofits and create a clearer picture of program needs and better fiscal oversight for the federal government, but in many ways it may be most beneficial for those state and local governments working in between. States are already starting to work with each other to ease the data and reporting burden on themselves and their grantees, as with the Single Portal Initiative. A comprehensive, and well-defined data dictionary for reporting, based around the DAIMS but with the addition of terms, measures, and metrics specific to the grant world would better serve the community.  Also, it would drive costs down, increase efficiency, and give better, more consistent, and more reliable insight not only into fiscal outlays, but into both the needs of citizens and how to meet those needs better.

And the best part is, we already have one in the CDER Library - we just have to use it.