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OMB urges more focus on results in awarding grants

Jan. 30, 2014 - 03:26PM   |  
By JONATHAN BREUL   |   Comments
Jonathan D. Breul is an adjunct professor in Georgetown University's McCourt School of Public Policy. Previously, he was executive director of the IBM Center for The Business of Government and was a career executive in the Office of Management and Budget. / Doug Sanford

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The Office of Management and Budget has declared itself open to innovative, evidence-based approaches to grant-making, and is inviting federal agencies and their non-federal partners to step forward and show them how. Slipped into numerous sections of OMB’s recent comprehensive revision of federal grant management guidance are references to some innovative award instruments.

In an attempt to nudge federal agencies and their grantees in the direction of focusing more on programmatic results (performance and outcomes) rather than simply financial inputs, OMB has provided new emphasis to make grants innovative and evidence-based. The authority to do so has been around for quite a while, but only a few federal agencies have ever ventured in that direction and then mostly with very small grant awards.

OMB suggested some of the new innovative outcome-focused grant designs last summer in OMB Memorandum M-13-17, “Next Steps in the Evidence and Innovation Agenda.” These new approaches would focus federal dollars on effective practices while also encouraging innovation in service delivery. The memorandum and new grant management guidance suggest some of the alternative approaches:

■ Fixed amount awards – relying more on performance than cost-type compliance requirements to ensure accountability.

■ Tiered-evidence grants– focusing resources with the strongest evidence, but still allow for new innovation. In a three-tiered grant model, for example, grants qualify for (1) the “scale up” tier and receive the most funding; (2) the “evaluation” tier and receive less funding but evaluation support; or (3) the “proof of concept” tier and receive the least funding, but also support for evaluation.

■ Pay for Success - where investor provide the up-front capital for social services with a strong evidence base that, when successful, achieve measurable outcomes that improve the lives of families and individual and reduce the need for future services.

■ Performance Partnerships– enable states and localities to demonstrate better ways to us resources by giving them flexibility to pool discretionary funds across multiple federal programs serving similar populations and commutes in exchange for greater accountability for results.

What are these awards supposed to look like? Can they truly be an innovative departure from the all-too-traditional process-oriented grants and sub-grants where it often seemed to matter more that costs were neatly documented than if anything meaningful got done? Can the federal auditor be kept at bay long enough to allow positive things to unfold?

OMB is looking for federal agencies and grantees who want to re-structure grants by eliminating requirements that impede their capacity to achieve better outcomes. Let’s see if some federal agencies and grantees answer OMB’s call for more innovative and effective use of grant funding.

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