To Fix Federal Grant Reporting, Standardize the Data!

The Data Foundation's Grant Innovation Fellowship, generously sponsored by Workiva and StreamLink Software brought together grantmaking agencies, grantee organizations, and the tech industry to explore the need for a common, standardized data structure for grant reporting. Our Grant Innovation Fellow, Jen Spencer, produced a research paper that outlines how standardizing the data fields and formats of the hundreds of document-based grant reporting forms could bring efficiency for grantees and transparency for agencies and the public. The paper will be published this summer. This blog post is an excerpt.

At next week's DATA Act Summit, hosted by the Data Coalition, grantmaking agencies including the Departments of Health and Human Services and Justice and the Environmental Protection Agency will participate in panel discussions of the need to adopt a standardized data structure. Join us!

The U.S. federal government awards more than $600 billion in grants each year to state agencies, local and tribal governments, and nonprofit organizations. To track grantees’ use of taxpayers’ money, federal grants trigger a complex array of reporting requirements. These reporting requirements are subject to government-wide laws and rules, yet are administered separately by hundreds of program offices spread across dozens of grantor agencies.


Federal grant reporting is broken, in two distinct ways. First, it does a poor job of delivering information to agencies, Congress, and taxpayers. There is no central repository of all the information that grantees report to grantor agencies. There is no meaningful way to aggregate the entire government’s, or even an entire agency’s, grant reports to police compliance or compare performance.

Second, grantees must invest significant resources to fill out forms, often providing the same information multiple times, in an atmosphere of uncertainty and arcanity.


Most grant reports are documents: grantees must compile and submit forms to apply for, receive, and report back on their grant awards. Even where grant information is submitted electronically, electronic submission tools still typically rely on plain-text fields based on the paper documents that they recently replaced.

Federal grant reporting is outdated compared with other areas of government reporting. For instance, around the world, governments are choosing to transform document-based regulatory reporting into open data, in which all information is expressed using standardized data fields and formats. Open data can be instantly aggregated for transparency. Open data can often be compiled automatically, with software pulling the needed information from internal systems.

By replacing document-based regulatory forms with open data, the government of Australia saves Australian companies over $1 billion annually, because the companies’ software can automatically generate and submit regulatory reports to multiple government agencies at once.

In the United States, the open data movement has recently begun to transform the way that federal agencies report their spending. The Digital Accountability and Transparency Act of 2014 (DATA Act) requires the entire federal executive branch to begin a shift from document-based financial and award reporting to a system of open data, using government-wide data fields and formats. Every federal agency began reporting standardized spending data to a central repository housed within the Treasury Department on May 9, 2017.

The DATA Act has created a single, unified open data set that represents the whole government’s spending, delivering instant transparency for agency leaders, Congress, and taxpayers, while also enabling software to automatically report and validate spending information.



Open data can deliver the same transformation in federal grant reporting as has already begun in Australian regulatory reporting and U.S. agencies’ financial reporting. If the federal government adopts a standardized data structure of common data fields and formats, applies that structure to all of the reports that grantees must file, and publishes the information as open data, the central problems of grant reporting can be solved.

The foundation for open data in grant reporting already exists. The Department of Health and Human Services has created a dictionary of data fields, known as the Common Data Element Repository Library (CDER Library), that could be expanded into the necessary government-wide data structure. But to realize electronic transparency and reduce grantees’ compliance costs, the government must expand that dictionary, support its, use, and ultimately make it mandatory.

If the CDER Library is adopted as the mandatory language of grant reporting, grantees' software will be able to automate the preparation and submission of reports that today require manual labor. Agencies and the public will have access to grant report information as a single data set - rather than decentralized across across hundreds of program offices.

The CDER Library is our foundation for a new grant reporting ecosystem. But to bring grant reporting in line with modern technology, the federal government needs to follow Australia's lead and make the CDER Library official.