AND HAS DEMONSTRATED ITS IMPORTANCE POST-PANDEMIC
GOOD NEWS! – Our annual grants management survey found that 25% more Federal Grant Managers observed a performance improvement in 2022 than in 2021. This comes after two years of substantial performance declines. But… new laws and significant increases in funding challenge some strained grant making agencies. And, like many other agencies, grant-makers have also been challenged to keep qualified professional staff, and to leverage automation and modern technology to keep up with expectations that arose in the pandemic telework environment.
This article shares a summary of the Annual Grants Survey conducted by REI Systems, the National Grants Management Association (NGMA), and George Washington University. You can access the survey’s results here.
Performance Up for 25% More Federal Grant Managers
In our survey, performance means the results and outcomes of the work that grant recipients accomplish. In 2021, just 18% of federal grant managers said performance was improving. In 2022, the figure jumped to 43% – an increase of 25 percentage points. That improvement seems to tell a story of resilience after the pandemic, a story of which grant managers can be proud.
In a panel discussion of survey results, Genevieve Lind of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration remarked that managers have figured out how to address pandemic-related challenges over time. “Fundamentally, we’ve figured out how to adapt. Some of the problems have been solved. Some small business supply chain issues have caught up or been resolved, and people have found creative networks to facilitate access to supplies.”
This post-pandemic resilience seems likely to cut across government in general, but it has taken effect specifically for grant-funded programs, starting at the federal level. At the moment, there remains a contrast, however, with state, local and non-governmental grant managers, who indicate that the performance they observed remained fairly constant compared to last year (the survey found just 2% and 4% improvements for state/local and non-profit entities, respectively).
Another discussion panelist, Bruce Robinson, of the US Department of Transportation, noted that sometimes it can be difficult to effectively measure performance. For example, DOT had to get $70B in funding from 3 COVID bills out quickly. These were critical to keep transit operational. But it isn’t a simple matter to measure the value of the fact that transit didn’t shut down because grant managers made sure that funding continued. In fact, performance may not have improved – rather it may just have persisted.
Training and Retention Remain Two of Grant Management’s Biggest Challenges
There has been huge growth in grants under management since the pandemic. Perhaps that is why our survey found that one of the top concerns expressed by grant managers is the ability to attract and retain well-qualified staff, which was cited as the biggest challenge identified in our survey (by 54% of respondents, 13% more than last year).
Agencies needed to grow their teams to manage the large influx of grant funding. Compounding the challenge, many grants were made to new, inexperienced recipients. And, during the pandemic, many grants had to be managed without visiting the recipient or observing their uses of grant funds. These challenges loomed with the addition of new grant-authorizing legislation that included the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act ($1.2 trillion), the CHIPS Act ($50 billion) and the Inflation Reduction Act of 2022 ($120 billion).
The panel described current staff’s need for training to address finance and budget, project management, and analytical skills. Additionally, with such pressure to hire quickly, new staff need training in those same topics, and more basic grant management skills. Focus group participants expressed interest in a shared training resource akin to Wikipedia. But surprisingly, the survey showed that only 40% of respondents’ employers require that their staff receive grants management training.
Retaining qualified grant professionals was another top challenge reported by survey respondents. The panel and focus group felt this is primarily due to two reasons: (1) Grant managers are experiencing burnout – from audits, compliance and corrective actions, and (2) Grant management jobs are seen as a training ground from which to move away. NGMA President, Eric Russell, recommended stronger and clearer career paths within the grants management field be developed as a retention strategy.
Administrative Burden Impacts Grantors and Grantees
Survey responses show us that a lot of time is spent on administrative requirements monitoring – about 35% of respondents’ work time/effort (down slightly from 37% in 2019). Feedback on how to reduce burden included suggestions for more system-to-system automation, more standardization (including across agencies), and better technology. Some recent efforts have helped. Panelists pointed to standardization of grants data through the GREAT Act, and the Federal Integrated Business Framework (FIBF) as sources of progress. However, challenges introduced by new legislation, new reporting requirements, and funding increases are perceived to cause a (perhaps temporary) addition to administrative burden on both grantors and grant recipients.
To help address burden, NGMA President, Eric Russell, recommended that grantors re-engineer key grant management processes from a grant-recipient’s perspective. While this has been done for grant applications (via Grants.gov), it continues to be needed for compliance and post-award reporting phases of the grant life cycle. Our grant recipient focus group at NGMA’s Annual Grants Training particularly complained about burdensome duplication of effort related to budget requirements; monitoring of recipients and subrecipients; and timekeeping.
More Modern, Affordable, and Adaptable Technology is Needed
Survey respondents indicated no significant change in satisfaction with overall grant management technology this year (rating satisfaction 3.39 on a 5 point scale, compared to 3.42 last year). But, feedback stressed the need for more effective systems to support grant reporting, especially to automate and streamline data collection processes. We also heard requests to improve system-to-system automation, to minimize redundancy and to reduce burden on grantees.
The survey also showed that only a few grant makers are starting to leverage advances in technology such as Artificial Intelligence and Robotic Process Automation. Even fewer are experimenting with Blockchain, a disruptive technology that could be used to better track and automatically connect federal funding from the grantor to the recipient to the sub-recipients. Concerted federal efforts, like the Grants Quality Service Management Office (QSMO), are needed to drive investment in modern, agile technologies to reduce grant management burden; deliver efficiently and effectively on the grants mission; and leverage data as a strategic asset. To meet future demands of all grant-making agencies, the Grants QSMO plans to onboard commercial providers into the marketplace for the Grants ecosystem using a shared services approach that will reduce duplication of effort and increase cost savings. Also, OMB’s leadership in coordinating cross-agency reconciliation to reduce grantee burden on both grantors and grant recipients may be vital for continued progress.
BACKGROUND AND METHODOLOGY
REI Systems, the National Grants Management Association (NGMA), and George Washington University (GWU), have been conducting the Annual Grants Management Survey since 2016. More than half of this year’s 643 respondents reported 10+ years of grants experience.
We presented the survey results at a Grants Management Breakfast Forum in partnership with GWU in March 2023, with a discussion panel that included Eric Russell, NGMA President; Bruce Robinson, FTA Associate Administrator for Program Management, DOT; Genevieve Lind, SBIR Program Manager, NOAA; and Shannon Candler, Grants Director, Department of Financial Services, Gwinnett County GA. We also conducted a focus group at NGMA’s Annual Grants Training event in April where 17 grant recipients shared perspectives on “The Barriers to Working with Grantors and How to Break Through.”