No one starts working in or around the nonprofit sector without wanting to make a positive impact. From those who provide direct services within their community to the federal legislators seeking the best solutions to their constituents’ needs, and all the program managers, state budget officers, researchers, foundations, and technologists in between, we get involved to help.
But it can be a frustrating environment for even the most stalwart. Administering grants can seem like a Sisyphean task - the need for oversight and the promise of evidence-based policy is clear, but the duplicative forms grantees must compile and submit to apply for, receive, and report back on grant awards are often still document-based, and in some cases still filled out by hand. Even where grant information is submitted electronically, the lack of a standardized data structure means every submission is both unique and uniquely redundant, and information cannot be automatically delivered to all the people and entities who need it.
If grantees could put more of their admin costs back into their services; if program managers had the time and data resources to support their programs instead of checking off compliance lists; if decision makers had clean, timely information that allowed them to identify and respond to needs as they emerge instead of when they become emergencies - how much more could we do?
The Grant Innovation Fellowship
Long before the passage of the DATA Act in 2014, stakeholders from across the nonprofit ecosystem – Grantor agencies, their grantees, the technology companies who serve them, and the foundations and organizations seeking to bolster the work of the public sector for the public good – have all seen the need to improve grant administration, to make it faster, easier, less expensive, and more accurate. And with the DATA Act, we have an opportunity to follow a single path to all of those improvements: standardized, open data can unlock better processes, better transparency, and better outcomes.
Across all modes of government reporting and compliance, it makes sense to replace document-based information flows with standardized, open data. Open data is cheaper to generate, store, and analyze than unstructured documents. The federal grant industry uses a complex and frequently redundant array of forms, filings, and systems to administer over $600 billion in federal grants each year.
Under the DATA Act, the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB) appointed the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) to conduct a two-year pilot program to test the use of a standardized data structure for grant reporting. HHS created a dictionary of data fields used in grant reporting and worked with grantees to test the submission of grant reports using those data fields.
HHS’ data dictionary can become the standardized open data structure that the federal grant industry needs. This standardized data structure will support automated reporting to reduce grantees’ administrative burden; will enable better analysis and decision-making by grantors; and will deliver instant transparency to grant beneficiaries, policymakers, taxpayers, and the public. But this future cannot be realized without leadership.
Over the next year, we will be engaging stakeholders from all areas and levels of the nonprofit sector through research, education, and public programming. Beginning with a roundtable which will, for the first time, bring together federal grantors, program managers, technologists from both the public and private sectors, nonprofit and research organizations, universities, and foundations specifically to discuss the obstacles and opportunities presented by standardization, we can take the first steps to better outcomes through better data.