Technical difficulties and inconsistent policies for managing applications for federal grants submitted electronically through Grants.gov frustrate filers and often put them at a disadvantage to win awards, according to a report released by the Government Accountability Office on Wednesday.
Grants.gov, which was one of the e-government initiatives the Bush administration launched in 2002, is the government's portal for accepting grant applications for more than 1,000 federal programs. Use of the service has grown considerably since its launch six years ago, and more than two-thirds of the 489,252 applications submitted between October 2003 and September 2008 were processed in the past two fiscal years.
The Health and Human Services Department, which manages the portal, has failed to keep up with the increased usage, according to the GAO report. Cumbersome registration requirements, lack of accountability for the portal's performance and disparate policies for processing applications result in inconsistencies in award decisions, the audit agency found.
"Yet again, GAO has found significant problems with Grants.gov," said Sen. George Voinovich, R-Ohio, in a released statement. "I am concerned that a tool designed to improve the distribution and effectiveness of federal grants has so many issues in this technological age, in some cases putting applicants at a disadvantage compared to those who utilize other channels."
GAO has released multiple reports about Grants.gov's performance, starting in 2006.
The registration process developed by the Grants Executive Board, on which sit representatives from various federal agencies, should take three to five business days but could take two weeks or more for some applicants, the Grants.gov program management office noted.
According to results of a survey by GAO, 37 of the 74 grantor agencies cited difficulties with the overall registration process as one of the top three reasons that applicants gave for late applications. Other reasons included failure by the Grants.gov system to respond, preventing users from uploading applications and error messages sent by the system that users did not understand.
"System unresponsiveness . . . primarily arises before the deadline for a large grant or on days with numerous grant closings, when the number of log-ins increases significantly," GAO reported. "Applicants noted that they sometimes spend hours or days trying to log in, submit and confirm receipt of their submissions."
In February 2009, the PMO upgraded the system to increase capacity of simultaneous logins from 300 to 2,000 users, but applicants continued to report problems. A month later, Office of Management and Budget director Peter R. Orszag instructed HHS and GSA to work together to improve the system, which led to another upgrade in April to allow applicants to track the status of their applications without logging on to the portal. System performance improved temporarily, but on a high-traffic day later that month, Grants.gov could not accept applications for about two hours.
The office also failed to ensure that the Web site was operating properly and that customers were supported during the submission process and at times was slow to identify and address systems problems, according to both grantees and grantor agencies surveyed.
At the same time, the roles of the entities responsible for the management of Grants.gov remains unclear, with no written policies or procedures for how HHS' Office of the Chief Information Officer, the Grants.gov program management office, and the Grants.gov Executive Board, all of whom share responsibility for system oversight, performance and funding, are to work with each other.
Last, differing policies among agencies for determining whether applications submitted through Grants.gov are timely and comply with submission requirements can cause inconsistencies, the report found. Of the 74 grantor agencies surveyed by GAO, more than 60 percent said they determined whether an application was timely based on when the application was submitted to Grants.gov, while 16 percent said they determined whether an application was timely based on the time the application was validated by the portal. Because validations can take up to 48 hours or longer, applications submitted on time could be deemed late by the agencies.
Similarly, some agencies require applicants to submit attachments in a particular file format, but the Grants.gov system could not determine whether an application was in the correct format, or if attachments were properly transmitted to the agency. The technical issues also created an advantage for those that opted to submit paper applications, they could better predict when an application was received and did not have to comply with file formats.
"I am disappointed that Grants.gov has not received adequate support and attention, which led to the Web site's recent difficulties handling increased volumes of grant applicants," said Sen. Joseph Lieberman, I-Conn., chairman of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, in a released statement. He and Voinovich emphasized the need for the House to pass the 2009 Federal Financial Assistance Management Improvement Act, which reauthorizes and updates the 1999 legislation of the same name that led OMB to create Grants.gov.
OMB and HHS agreed with GAO's recommendations for OMB to develop Grants.gov performance measures, clarify the governance structure, develop a structured means for applicant input about system functionality and establish uniform policies for processing grant applications. Barbara Pisaro Clark, acting assistant secretary for legislation at HHS, also emphasized the need for standard procedures across the federal government for grant application.
"The multiplicity of application forms contributes to difficulty in defining system requirements, optimizing the capacity of the system, and running an efficient operations and maintenance program," she said.