In-Depth: Rep. Virginia Foxx (R-NC) reintroduced this bill from the 115th Congress to ensure that federal government technology keeps pace with federal grantmaking:
“To get the most out of each taxpayer dollar, the federal government has to keep pace with the technological advances that make our digital society ever-more efficient. That means implementing new, uniform data standards for federal grant reporting and leaving behind antiquated document-based methods. The GREAT Act requires the Executive branch to take these necessary steps, which will lead to decreased compliance costs for grant recipients and increased public scrutiny of grant spending.”
In an op-ed in The Hill, Rep. Foxx added that this bill would have multiple benefits:
“The GREAT Act will enable our grantmaking agency to receive accurate reporting submissions and data analytics to assess the effectiveness of the grants. This would have a twofold effect: First, it would allow greater scrutiny of how the money is being spent. Second, the legislation allows grantees to maximize every dollar they receive from the government to ensure it goes back into communities, supporting local businesses, organizations and education.”
Rep. Jimmy Gomez (D-CA), who was an original cosponsor of this bill in the 115th Congress, added that the sheer amount of money given out in federal grants makes this bill critical:
“Every year, the U.S. government issues over $600 billion in federal grants to state and local governments, agencies, small-businesses, and non-profit organizations. It’s important that every grant dollar issued is tracked and held to account, but the grant reporting process is riddled with complexities and redundant paperwork. The GREAT Act will modernize the way the government does business by standardizing and simplifying grant reporting information into searchable open data. This will make the grant reporting process more transparent, efficient, and accessible to everyday Americans.”
The Trump administration has set a goal of compiling and standardizing data elements to help establish an overarching taxonomy for core grant information. It has not, however, taken a position on this legislation as a means of achieving that goal.
The Data Coalition supports this bill. Its Executive Director, Hudson Hollister, says:
“In its current form, grant reporting is overly complex and riddled with flaws. The GREAT Act will solve this problem. The proposed legislation will require the adoption of a government-wide open data structure for all the information grantees report. Ultimately, replacing documents with data will alleviate compliance burdens for the grantee community, provide instant insights for grantor agencies and Congress, and enable easy access to data for oversight, analytics, and program evaluation.”
Alex Howard, deputy director of the Sunlight Foundation, says that there’s no doubt grantmaking needs to be reformed in the U.S. government, but he isn’t sure if this bill is the right solution:
“It’s very difficult if you’re trying to do watchdog work, if you’re trying to do business intelligence work, if you’re trying to do anything to figure out which entity is which in terms of their receipt of funds… [Any bill on this topic needs to] address that root issue, [and] I’m not sure how much this will address it or or not.”
In the 116th Congress, this bill has the support of seven bipartisan cosponsors, including four Democrats and three Republicans. In the previous Congress, it passed the House with the support of seven bipartisan cosponsors, including four Democrats and three Republicans. It had the support of the Data Coalition, National Grants Management Association (NGMA), Federal Demonstration Partnership (FDP), and the Association of Government Accountants (AGA).
Of Note: 26 federal agencies award federal grants. All of these agencies rely on outdated, burdensome document-based forms (PDFs) to collect and track grant dollars.
Today, congressional offices have a limited number of staffers assigned to help federal grantees with applications — and this can’t rival the private sector’s ability to hire a team of specialists for the same job. According to Rep. Fox, “[t]hat means often the small business who can’t afford to hire a team of specialists or afford the burdensome hours of filling out duplicative paperwork are not able to compete [for federal grant money].”
Currently, two issues have consistently risen to the top among problems facing grant reporting processes: 1) they do a poor job of delivering transparency to agencies, Congress and taxpayers, and 2) grant recipients bear unacceptable costs of compliance.
In its 2018 State of the Union of Open Data report co-published with Grant Thornton, the Data Foundation found that there are already data publication and standardization improvements happening within the federal government. In interviews with over 20 members of government and industry, the Data Coalition found that over three-fifths of respondents said the publication and standardization of data had improved in the last year; the same respondents expressed optimism that those improvements would continue into 2019.
Summary by Lorelei Yang
(Photo Credit: iStockphoto.com / Olivier Le Moal)