Members of Congress criticized the management of federal grants on Tuesday, saying in a committee hearing that $1 trillion in funding for worthy programs struggles to be delivered through a hodgepodge of disparate or unnavigable systems.

The federal grant system is massive, with more than 50 different federal agencies funneling money to 131,000 recipients through 1,900 programs. Many program offices claim they’re unique, spinning out their own processes and tools when some may preexist. This lack of cohesion, lawmakers said, creates confusion for those who are trying to apply for grants and burdens agency staff trying to process them.

“We know that notices of funding opportunities and rules for managing grants can vary, sometimes substantially from program to program,” said Michigan Sen. Gary Peters, chairman of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, on Tuesday.

Grants are one of the more direct ways that the federal government can spur infrastructure improvements and economic opportunities in cities and towns across the country. The funding pool for these projects is huge: as much as nearly 6% of the gross domestic product in some years. For a system so big, senators Peters and James Lankford (R-Okla.) said agencies must make sure that funding goes where it’s meant to and that the process is user friendly. And since the pandemic, the weaknesses of the system became apparent with the influx of COVID-19 and infrastructure funding, which was slow to deploy because of public sector incapacity, committee witnesses said.

“Recent efforts to distribute critical funding more equitably have unfortunately spotlighted this lack of basic grants management capacity,” said Matthew Hanson, associate managing director of Witt O’Brien’s LLC, a consultancy.

Grant makers and recipients want more standardization and simplification, he said, but that’s impeded by federal guidance being akin to “another language” that is full of jargon.

“This patchwork of fragmented and overlapping programs creates complexity and barriers for potential grant applicants and could lead to wasteful duplication of funding,” said Arkin.

Grant management is a wonderful solution,” Hanson said. “It’s the front door for the federal grants process. The problem is when you pull up a funding opportunity in, and you’re faced with a 70-page Notice of Funding Availability, and it takes you three-and-a half-hours to even figure out if you’re eligible for the program or not.”

The site is managed by the Department of Health and Human Services, which is the largest grant-maker in government.

Meagan Elliot, director of the Office of Development and Grants for the city of Detroit, also said that her auditors have trouble interpreting guidance related to contracts, sub-recipient agreements and beneficiaries. There’s no free training or standardized checklists offered directly by the Office of Management and Budget on these decisions, though partner agencies do offer supplemental workshops and training, she said.

Grant management also becomes more complicated as agencies’ take on more responsibilities related to cybersecurity, technology and other initiatives that weren’t part of their original duties. And with each new responsibility comes an urge to reinvent the wheel when other agencies have already have devised a grants management program that works, Commerce officials said at a Salesforce conference on April 19.

Eric Smith, who manages grants for Commerce’s Economic Development Administration, said that new program authorities delegated by legislation like the CHIPs Act demand even more of grant management systems. The Infrastructure and Investment and Jobs Act alone provides billions of dollars in private and public grant programs.

“[For] 50 odd years, we had basically one major statutory authority we operated under, and now we have six,” he said.

Too many portals

Having too many portals that create an unwieldy system concerned lawmakers and witnesses at the hearing Tuesday, saying that even if their city or state department has the resources to navigate the federal grant process, smaller local government offices who need grants the most may lack the required personnel or expertise.

Elliot said that in Detroit, she has received feedback from small nonprofits and small businesses that they “don’t want anything to do with federal grants” because it’s hard enough to get through the local bureaucracy.

“As one example, in our office alone, we work with 13 different federal portals, three of which are [with the Federal Emergency Management Agency], as well as 10 state portals that serve as a pass-through,” said Elliot. “Each portal has different authorization and user requirements, different regulations for document retention and different staff to contact when a system crashes, as they consistently do even up to a full week before reporting an application deadline.”

In another case, there are at least 133 funding programs — including grant programs — led by 15 agencies that support broadband internet access in the U.S. Overlaps like this create a situation ripe for mismanagement, the Government Accountability Office said, and it urged a national strategy to define clear roles, goals and performance metrics.

As of May 2, GAO’s Arkin testified that no such strategy exists.

Molly Weisner is a staff reporter for Federal Times where she covers labor, policy and contracting pertaining to the government workforce. She made previous stops at USA Today and McClatchy as a digital producer, and worked at The New York Times as a copy editor. Molly majored in journalism at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

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