On Wednesday, the House Oversight Subcommittee on Intergovernmental Affairs convened a hearing to assess the government’s management of the federal grants process. Our Executive Director Hudson Hollister testified along with representatives from the Government Accountability Office (GAO), Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), Project on Government Oversight (POGO), and the Congressional Research Service (CRS). Below are key exchanges between the Subcommittee and witnesses.
360-degree Transparency for Grant Reporting
Hudson Hollister testified that the current reporting system is broken because “grant reporting is a document-based affair.” During the question and answer portion of the hearing, Rep. Virginia Foxx (NC-5-R), the original sponsor of the GREAT Act (H.R. 4887), inquired about the bill’s benefits, including how it would build off the DATA Act if enacted. Hollister described how the GREAT Act, if it became law, would create a single unified data set of all the information reported by grantees across the government. This would enable crucial performance information to be interoperable between agencies and within complex agencies. Ultimately, Hollister argued, it would be “possible to take a particular grant, see all of the aspects of congressional appropriations and individual payments coming from the agency, and also see what the grantee is [doing] about that grant. That means 360-degree transparency.”
Eliminating Duplicative Forms
HHS currently leads the Section 5 pilot project, established under the DATA Act, to explore burden reduction of post-award grant reporting compliance by standardizing and harmonizing the data elements contained across the government’s grant reporting forms. As part of the pilot, HHS created the Common Data Element Repository (CDER) Library, which has documented over 34,000 grant recipient data elements across the government.
Andrea Brandon, Deputy Assistant Secretary at HHS, described her long-term vision for grant management at Tuesday’s hearing. Simply put, “we are trying to get rid of the forms.” Brandon also outlined the how the agency is working on a set of structured data elements across the entire department that would enable HHS to no longer need grant forms to be submitted in document-based attachments. See the exchange here.
Congress Needs to Move on the GREAT Act
The White House has issued policy initiatives to tackle grant reporting. Most recently the White House released the President’s Management Agenda that laid out Cross-Agency Priority (CAP) Goal 8: Results-Oriented Accountability for Grants. Chairman Palmer inquired about the White House’s efforts to “close that gap or to get the specificity that we need” to solve the inefficiencies with grant reporting. Peter Tyler, Senior Policy Advisor at POGO, pointed out that while the executive branch “has the full authority” to create a standardized data structure for grant reporting, there still needs to be congressional action in this area. Tyler stated that the “GREAT Act does, like a lot of legislation…put the stamp of importance from Congress, you say let’s get this done as well as making sure there are timelines and reporting back to Congress on a regular basis. That is key.”
USAspending.gov Needs Continued Oversight
The Committee expressed some concern about the consistency of DATA Act mandated federal spending data on USAspending.org. Drawing from Tyler’s written testimony, Chairman Palmer asked about a grant program led by the Department of Agriculture. The budget for it is “approximately $4.5 billion in FY2017 but searches for this program return no records.” Additionally, the Federal Transit Capital investment grants program, which the Department of Transportation oversees, spent approximately $4.6 billion in 2017, but USAspending records only show $1.6 billion of that.
In response, POGO’s Peter Tyler acknowledged the “serious lacks” in data on the new USAspending.gov site, but affirmed that he does see that “progress is being made.” The present gaps in data did not cloud the committee’s outlook on the future, however. During the hearing, the committee remained optimistic about the innovations in data standardization and transparency that are on the horizon.
Our Coalition’s vision for grant reporting was best articulated by Rep. Foxx during the hearing when she said it “is to put in systems so that everyone can see” the $700 billion annually awarded in grants, ensuring “that money is being spent the way it should” and, most importantly, that taxpayers are “getting results, and we are helping people in the way we said we were going to help people.”
The data companies we represent have solutions that can deliver transparency in grant data and automate grantee reporting for greater efficiencies, but this can only happen if the federal government takes a data-centric approach instead of continuing to put documents first.
We are grateful for the Subcommittee’s invitation for the Data Coalition to testify, and given the evident progress being made by the government on these reforms, we continue to urge Congress to shape the law around these goals and pass the GREAT Act.
Watch the full hearing here.
Read Hudson’s full testimony here.