Postcards from the Edge (of Grant Data)

It’s been an interesting three months. As I’m in the midst of the long slog to the final draft of our first paper on grant data, I thought I’d let others do the talking this time. Below, anonymous and in no particular order, are some of the more interesting, insightful, or colorful comments from the past three months of conversation with current and former state and federal employees, foundations, technologists, researchers, and members of the nonprofit community. You’ll likely notice a few trends:

“We have to get out of the mindset that more data is always better - which means we have to stop asking for it if we aren’t using it.”
“Data flows up - we need more outreach to grantees in state and local government and nonprofits. They need to be on board in advance, so they need to understand the ROI, but they’ll be on board once they do.”
“Pardon my French, but where the h*** are all the forms?”
“I don’t think it’s the fault of the nonprofits that they are stuck in compliance culture - we ask for all this data and then we never give it back. So the only ROI they get is not getting dinged on next year’s application for not doing their homework.”
“It took ten years to finish the National Taxonomy of Exempt Entities.”
“There are a lot of nonprofits who don’t see the value of metrics because they don’t understand metrics - they don’t understand the difference between an output and an outcome. Worse, there are a lot of people in government who are creating measures who don’t understand the difference either.”
“What the grants world needs is a central policy office with teeth.”
“We’d have an easier time reducing burden if we could find more forms that could be shared. But there’s no system of record. They used to be housed at GSA, but I’ve never found anyone who knows why they stopped.”
“We may have a data transportation problem.”
“A lot of the issues around how much money we have listed as unspent in the federal coffers could be cleared up if the program offices and the finance offices just talked to each other. Or had access to the same systems. More than half of those grants have probably been extended or are still being drawn down, but nobody tells the finance people.”
“Compliance culture doesn’t get you good data.”
“We need a better way to find forms that could be common or standard - right now, the most likely way you’re going to identify a common form is with an eidetic memory and luck.”
“We need a sea-change in attitudes and culture - reporting is about more than oversight or compliance, and we need to start treating it like the opportunity for improvement it is.”
“Agencies keep saying they can’t track program money because they reorder offices and reclassify programs all the time. But they absolutely can. They have task codes. They have account codes. And those don’t change no matter how many times you reorganize who’s in charge of what.”
“We need agreement on definitions. We need agreement on attributes. Right now we don’t even have agreement on whether the date should be spelled out or just be numbers. And somebody needs to have the authority to actually pick one, once and for all, and say ‘that’s how it’s going to be for everyone from now on.”
“We have the technology. We could do this today. This is not a technology problem. This is a culture problem and a process problem.”