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A $662 Billion Challenge: Transforming U.S. Grant Reporting

By Rep. Virginia Foxx, The Hill

In 2017, the federal government awarded $662.7 billion in grants funding to state agencies, local and tribal governments, agencies, non-profits, universities, and other organizations. Roughly translated, this equates to the Gross Domestic Product of Switzerland – or more than the GDP of every country outside the G20.

Within our federal government, there are 26 agencies awarding federal grants. And all of them continue to rely on outdated, burdensome document-based forms (PDFs) to collect and track grant dollars. Society has moved into a new age of information and technology, and it’s time that our government follow suit.

Among the problems facing grant reporting processes, two issues have constantly risen to the top. First, they do a poor job of delivering transparency to agencies, Congress, and taxpayers.  Secondly, grant recipients bear unacceptable costs of compliance. Transforming reporting platforms from static documents into digital, searchable data would address both problems.

Adopting a government-wide open data structure for all the information grantees report will alleviate compliance burdens, provide instant insights for grantor agencies and Congress, and enable easy access to data for oversight, analytics, and program evaluation.

That is why I am working with a bipartisan, bicameral group of lawmakers to transform grant reporting and bring it into the 21st century. The Grant Reporting Efficiency and Agreements Transparency (GREAT) Act (H.R. 4887/S. 3484) will modernize grant reporting by mandating a standardized data structure for information that recipients report to federal agencies. Unless the reporting requirements for federal grants are machine-readable (searchable), the auditing process will continue to yield waste and inefficiency at best, allowing fraud and abuse at worst. 

OMB came to this very conclusion following its two-year pilot project with the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) under the Digital Accountability and Transparency Act (DATA Act) of 2014. The project involved building out a Common Data Element Repository (CDER) Library of 34,530 data elements sourced from over 444 federal post-award grant forms. We can only estimate the full extent of overlapping and duplicative information reporting requirements grantees must adhere to. The potential for harmonization, and ultimately, reduced inefficiencies is yet to be fully realized by both government and grant recipients. 

While the CDER Library is the best-developed data dictionary available today, the HHS pilot program represents only a beginning. Modernizing grant reporting is not just about creating greater efficiencies within our government. It will transform the way over $660 billion in taxpayer dollars are spent. 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.

In order to fix the way federal grants are reported, we must move from a document-centric reporting system to a data superhighway. I urge my colleagues in the House and Senate to support the GREAT Act and bring grant reporting into the 21st century.

Read original publication in The Hill here.

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