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United States

Grants Accountability (US0106)

Overview

At-a-Glance

Action Plan: United States Action Plan 2019-2021

Action Plan Cycle: 2019

Status: Active

Institutions

Lead Institution: NA

Support Institution(s): NA

Policy Areas

E-Government

IRM Review

IRM Report: United States Design Report 2019-2021

Starred: Pending IRM Review

Early Results: Pending IRM Review

Design i

Verifiable: Yes

Relevant to OGP Values: Access to Information , Technology

Potential Impact:

Implementation i

Completion: Pending IRM Review

Description

Ensure Accountability for Grants
Every year, the Federal Government spends approximately $700 billion on grants and cooperative
agreements for approximately 1,800 different funding categories covered in the Assistance Listings.
The Office of Management and Budget estimates that more than 40,000 grant recipients receive
funding annually, including State and local governments, universities, non-profits, tribes and small
businesses.
The Trump Administration will pursue Results-Orientated Accountability for Grants by improving the
transparency of the Federal grant-making process to the American public. The System for Award
Managements (SAM) will become the central repository for common government-wide certifications
and representations required of Federal grant recipients.
Under this commitment, Federal agencies will:
- Review data standards when they are published to ensure completeness and accuracy, and
inclusion of critical distinctions in types of grants and recipients;
- Align agency grant-related reform initiatives to the President’s Management Agenda;
- Modify existing, or design new, grant systems to use government-wide data standards.

IRM Midterm Status Summary

2. Ensure Accountability for Grants

Main Objective

“Pursue Results-Orientated Accountability for Grants by improving the transparency of the Federal grant-making process to the American public. The System for Award Managements [10] (SAM) will become the central repository for common government-wide certifications and representations required of Federal grant recipients.

Milestones

“Review data standards when they are published to ensure completeness and accuracy, and inclusion of critical distinctions in types of grants and recipients.”

“Align agency grant-related reform initiatives to the President’s Management Agenda.”

“Modify existing, or design new, grant systems to use government-wide data standards.”

Editorial Note: For the complete text of this commitment, please see the United States’ action plan at: https://open.usa.gov/assets/files/NAP4-fourth-open-government-national-action-plan.pdf.

IRM Design Report Assessment

Verifiable:

Yes

Relevant:

Yes

Access to information; technology and innovation for transparency and accountability

Potential impact:

Transformative

Commitment analysis
This commitment facilitates results-oriented accountability for federal grants by “improving the transparency of the federal grant-making process,” [11] specifically surrounding assistance listings, defined as “assistance to the American public in the form of projects, services, activities.” [12] The commitment will make the System for Award Management (SAM) [13] the “central repository for common government-wide certifications and representations required of Federal grant recipients,” [14] thereby enabling entities seeking federal assistance [15] to conduct a centralized search for assistance and submit required certifications and representations at a centralized repository. [16] “Representations and certifications” refer to information that is required when applying for federal assistance, and annually updated per the Federal Acquisition Regulation (FAR), which governs federal procurements. [17] The representations and certifications are comprehensive, covering issues from unpaid federal tax liability and criminal history to compliance with Equal Employment Opportunity regulations.

Under the government’s efforts to position SAM as the government repository for certifications and representations for assistance, the commitment envisions a range of activities for federal agencies: (1) reviewing assistance listings’ data standards at the time of publication to ensure completeness and accuracy, as well as to ensure the inclusion of distinctions in grant types and recipients; (2) aligning agency grant reforms to the President’s Management Agenda; and (3) modifying existing or designing new grant systems to use government-wide data standards. These activities are treated as milestones for the purpose of evaluating the commitment.

The three milestones are almost verbatim copies of actions mandated by a 2018 Office of Management and Budget (OMB) memorandum on “Strategies to Reduce Grant Recipient Reporting Burden.” [18] The majority of the commitment text is similarly copied.

Per the memo, the impetus for these milestones—and thus the commitment itself—derives from the Digital Accountability and Transparency Act (DATA) of 2014, which requires OMB to administer a grants pilot to identify new common data standards, to enable efficient reporting, and to provide new solutions that reduce administrative burden on awardees and the government workforce, and subsequently issue guidance to federal agencies on their implementation. [19] This memo fulfilled the ‘issue guidance’ requirement.

The grants pilot was conducted by OMB in conjunction with the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). [20] HHS was designated as the executing agent of a sub-DATA pilot focused on assistance listings due to its role as the largest grant-issuing entity and managing partner of Grants.gov. [21] The assistance listings pilot was carried out from November 2014–May 2017. [22]

Conceptually, the goal of the DATA pilot program was to “identify common reporting elements” required of federal grantees, contractors, and other parties, “as well as [to identify] unnecessarily duplicative or burdensome financial reporting requirements for recipients of Federal awards.” [23] The pilot sought to develop a viable online tool that would “centralize collection of all reporting requirements under the Federal Acquisition Regulation (FAR), rather than require contractors to submit reports to multiple locations and in multiple formats,” and create government-wide data standards that would “increase opportunities for streamlined reporting,” covering data elements, conditions, attributes, and other information required of federal assistance seekers. [24]

OMB’s resulting Report to Congress: Data Act Pilot Program advised establishing a central, open repository for defining and collecting both assistance listings data, as well as the representations and certifications required of assistance seekers.

In the abovementioned memo, OMB gave deadlines for transitioning representations and certifications to SAM, and for using government-wide federal data standards for assistance listings, including: (1) 30 September 2018 for finalizing government-wide core grants management data standards; (2) 30 April 2019 for agencies to submit a plan to OMB that describes their strategy for integrating the new data standards into current and/or future grant systems; and (3) 1 January 2020 for SAM to become the central government-wide repository for representations and certifications. [25]

These activities closely resemble those described in the President’s Management Agenda (PMA) [26] as referenced in the commitment text. The PMA includes a Cross-Agency Priority (CAP) that focuses on “Results-Oriented Data for Grants,” and represents the broader framework for the commitment’s proposed activities. In line with the commitment’s objectives, the PMA will “rebalance compliance efforts,” “standardize grant reporting data and improve data collection in ways that will increase efficiency, promote evaluation, reduce reporting burden, and benefit the American taxpayer.”

Though the commitment describes activities that are largely internal to government functions, the IRM researcher assesses the commitment as relevant for the OGP value of access to information by nature of its efforts to streamline assistance seekers’ ability to access information on—and submit—the required representations and certifications. The commitment is further relevant to the OGP value of technology and innovation for access to information due to its use of SAM as a digital repository and interface for submission of representations and certifications.

As described in the commitment text and in the corresponding section of the 2018 PMA, the commitment’s activities are materially and substantively important given the $700 billion that the U.S. government spends on grants and cooperative agreements, covering roughly 40,000 grant recipients annually, ranging from state and local governments to universities and small businesses. [27] Funding assistance listings comprises roughly 20% of the entire federal budget. [28] Furthermore, federal and nongovernment grant managers spend roughly 40% of their time managing compliance with federal grant requirements, illustrating the burdensome compliance process that impedes grantees’ focus on delivering and measuring results obtained using federally-funded assistance. [29] Moreover, SAM (as of 2017) had roughly one million registered contractors, grantees, and federal officials, published 250,000 procurement opportunities, award notices, and engagement events on a daily basis, and used 200+ standard data elements across 2.2 million contracts awarded annually. [30] Though encompassing a broader range of contracts than assistance listings, this immense scope of SAM representation and certification activities highlights the potential for efficiency gains. Potential efficiency gains are particularly sizeable for assistance listings for states and universities, for whom “federal financial assistance accounts for approximately a quarter and a third of their state and university budgets respectively.” [31]

OMB’s Data Pilot Program report speaks further to the magnitude of the potential time saved by centralizing representation and certification requirements via SAM. A 2014 OMB review found that among 100 FAR reporting requirements, roughly 40% were required to be submitted to “multiple federal contracting officers across the Federal government, in multiple formats, and to multiple agencies.” [32] In a 2014 national open dialogue with 553 stakeholders, participants broadly supported federal efforts to streamline and centralize submission of certifications and representations. [33] A broader pool of 2,039 respondents was invited to vote on dialogue-generated ideas; 30% supported efforts to reduce federal reporting and compliance burdens, and “reduc[ing] duplication in reporting and data collection” received the largest number of votes. [34]

The commitment has a transformative potential impact given the magnitude of compliance burdens currently faced by federal assistance seekers and grantors; the magnitude of the funding and assistance listings affected by the commitment; and the commitment’s potential to substantially reduce compliance burdens by centralizing representations and certifications. The IRM researcher nevertheless notes that a transformative impact may be impeded by the lack of specificity in the commitments’ three activities. Specificity is needed regarding the scope—i.e., which agencies will be covered by these efforts, which grant-making systems will be subject to revised data standards, and which distinctions in types of grants and recipients are currently lacking under existing data standards. Specificity is also needed regarding the activities, such as which data standards are currently not subject to review at their time of publication, and what efforts agencies will take to align their grant reforms with the PMA. Despite these shortcomings, the IRM researcher nevertheless assesses the commitment as having a transformative potential impact based on the potential large-scale gains in compliance efficiency.

[10] SAM is officially defined as the “System for Award Management;” “managements” is an error in NAP4.
[11] Government of the United States, The Open Government Partnership: Fourth Open Government National Action Plan for the United States of America (OGP, Feb. 2019), 2, https://open.usa.gov/assets/files/NAP4-fourth-open-government-national-action-plan.pdf.
[12] System for Award Management, “Learning Center: Assistance Listings” (accessed 8 Mar. 2020), https://beta.sam.gov/help/assistance-listing. Beyond grants, federal assistance also covers loans, scholarships, and insurance. Id.
[13] SAM is located at https://www.sam.gov/. Assistance listings are currently housed in a beta version of SAM available at https://beta.sam.gov/. Prior to SAM’s creation in the fourth quarter of fiscal year 2017, federal domestic assistance listings were maintained via the Catalog of Federal Domestic Assistance (CFDA) (http://www.cfda.gov). As of 25 May 2018, the CFDA website was retired, renamed “Assistance Listings,” and officially moved to the SAM platform, which currently remains in beta mode. For additional details, see U.S. Dept. of Energy, “PF 2018-32 Catalog of Federal Domestic Assistance (CFDA.gov)” (18 Jun. 2018), https://www.energy.gov/management/downloads/pf-2018-32-catalog-federal-domestic-assistance-cfdagov. See also System for Awards Management, “Catalog of Federal Domestic Assistance Transition Frequently Asked Questions” (GSA, May 2018), https://www.nasact.org/Files/2018_05_CFDA_Transition_FAQ.pdf.
[14] Government of the United States, Fourth Open Government National Action Plan at 2.
[15] “Entities” include state and local governments, universities, nonprofits, tribes, and small businesses. Office of Management and Budget, “Memorandum for Heads of Executive Departments and Agencies” M-18-24 (White House, 5 Sept. 2018), https://www.whitehouse.gov/wp-content/uploads/2018/09/M-18-24.pdf.
[16] Id.
[17] System for Awards Management, System for Award Management Federal User Guide – v.2.5 (25 Jan. 2020), https://sam.gov/SAM/transcript/SAM_Federal_User_Guide.pdf. See also Federal Service Desk, “What are Representations and Certifications?” (12 Oct. 2013), https://www.fsd.gov/fsd-gov/answer.do?sysparm_kbid=46d02a7e6f585100211956532e3ee416&sysparm_search=. See §14.2 for the full SAM representations and certifications questionnaire required of those seeking federal assistance. For the complete FAR, see Acquisitions.gov, “Full FAR Download in Various Formats” (accessed 9 Mar. 2020), https://www.acquisition.gov/browse/index/far.
[18] The OMB memo’s first three actions are:

Commitments

Open Government Partnership