Take Nothing for Granted

Even minor mistakes can be deadly when an agency applies for a grant. Advances in technology can fix the paperwork pitfalls.
March 2004
Ellen Perlman
By Ellen Perlman  |  Former columnist
Ellen Perlman was a GOVERNING staff writer and technology columnist.

In Missouri, applying for federal grants is no longer a matter of crossing fingers and hoping the forms are filled out correctly. An electronic grants-management system won't let mistakes slip in: Type in too large a number and a message pops up suggesting an error has been made and proposing a fix. If the fix is not quite right, there's an onscreen number for help.

The paper process was a much more lax taskmaster. "Some mistakes you'd catch, some you wouldn't," says Randy Rook, Missouri's director of federal grants management. And that's a key issue: Mistakes can spell the difference between getting a grant and losing out on one. Bureaucratic paperwork blunders can mean, for instance, that needy children who are entitled under federal law to extra help in reading or math don't get it.

Education is an area that deals with billions in federal grant funding, but it is not the only one that can benefit from a more efficient grants-management system. Public safety, housing and social services agencies can also use advancements in technology to make the most of their grant-application process.

In some ways, just by deciding to put in an electronic system, Missouri improved the way it handles grants. The education department had used several unproductive extra steps in filling out grant applications--mostly because it always did things that way. When it came time to go electronic, the department cleared the decks and improved the business process. The result: Instead of taking two months to process, applications now take two days.

The new system solves other problems as well. Title I of the federal education law requires that the poorest schools be served first, as determined by an "economic deprivation" percentage. Missouri's system helps rank the school districts so it is easier to figure out which schools need the funding and how much should be allocated to each.

All totaled, the new system offered more than the saving of time. The number of staff needed to do the application paperwork shrank--from 16 to seven. The nine "extra" people were sent into the field to advise school districts on how best to spend their money and what programs are effective.

In Minnesota, the Department of Public Safety has an electronic- grants system for criminal justice information, crime prevention, victim services and narcotics task forces. In the paper days, some applicants hired grant writers to give them a better shot at getting the funding. Those who couldn't afford such hires often gave up on applying at all. The electronic application has changed that: Forms are easier to fill out and in-house staffers can understand exactly what they need to include in the application. Application writers don't have to enter the same name "three billion times" for each form that needs to be filled out, says Theresa Mish, information technology specialist. "We're hoping," she adds, "that at the local agency or local government level, they'll find it much easier to apply so they won't miss grant opportunities."

A grants-management system at Michigan's Housing Development Authority's Office of Community Development, launched in October, will offer similar benefits in the housing area. Application submission, review, revision and approval are now automated, speeding up the grant-applications process and freeing up agency staff to work on issues beyond how to fill out forms.

The Illinois Board of Education hopes to get another advantage when it automates its system this year. For competitive grants, as opposed to entitlement grants, the Board has a review process. Grant reviewers, who are subject-matter or program experts, read grant proposals, rate them and submit them to administrators. The task involves getting people together from other parts of the state or the country to sit in a room, go through paper applications and award a rating. The process takes place 15 to 20 times a year.

Illinois' new system will automate that routine. With all the information available in the system, reviewers will no longer need to travel for face-to-face meetings and accountability will improve. The Board will, says Dennis Powell, a consultant to the data system department, be able to "maintain historical information on everything."

Ellen Perlman
Ellen Perlman | Former columnist | mailbox@governing.com