Open Data Could Reduce the Need for Grant Forms

October 3, 2017 | By Jerry Ashworth | Post a Comment

data-01-1167498Imagine a world without forms! As the husband of a Girl Scout troop leader who has watched spend her much of her free time gathering, counting and reviewing the required forms for numerous events, I can tell you that completing and collecting such forms is definitely burdensome for both the one filing out the form and the collector of the form. That’s why my eyes widened when I attended a session on “Transforming Grants Compliance” at the DATA Transparency 2017 conference last week in Washington, D.C.

Two federal officials, one with the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and the other with the Congressional Research Service (CRS), touted the potential of the Digital Accountability and Transparency Act (DATA Act) (Pub. L. 113-101) in helping to drive the use of data-driven grant reporting rather than forms-driven reporting to ease burdens on both grant recipients and federal awarding agencies.

Andrea Brandon, deputy assistant secretary for the HHS Office of Grants and Acquisitions Policy and Accountability, discussed findings from the Section 5 pilot, which was a critical component of the DATA Act. She said the pilot showed that the federal government “needs to come together to standardize data elements” that agencies request from nonfederal entities, such as the information requested in the Standard Form 424, Application for Federal Assistance and in recipient financial and progress reports.

“We need to look at those data elements that are duplicative across the board so that we are only asking them for the information one time,” she said. Brandon said federal agencies “need to step back” and assess the various business processes across the federal government. “Do we need [nonfederal entities] to actually complete an SF-424 or do we just need structured data sets that come through a particular portal?” she asked. Those data sets could then be transmitted for other reports such as financial and performance reports and single audits. “We may need to look at standard data sets rather than forms and streamline in that way,” she reiterated.

No SF-424s? That’s an intriguing thought. Then, fellow panelist CRS Analyst Natalie Keegan, added a similar idea. “If we take a step back and look at processes, instead of just forms, we can find ways to streamline grant reporting,” she said. She went further, assuming that many grant recipients this year were recipients last year and during prior years, and likely will remain a recipient next year, therefore she questioned if performance reports from previous years can be “directed to performance requirements for next year rather than having them reinvent the performance reporting each year. Is there a way to standardize that process so it’s more efficient for the federal agencies and the grantees?”

It’s encouraging seeing federal officials considering different approaches to reduce grant recipient burdens. Will these ideas see the light of day? Who knows, but at least access to more open and consistent data could help these ideas take hold.

Let us know what you think of these ideas. Are there others that open data could help spawn? We’d love to hear from you.

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