Seeking Users

Rebecca Spitzgo says Grants.gov 'opens a whole new world' to grant applicants, though HHS is still looking for more users.

Olivier douliery

Grants.gov gets acclaim but few customers so far

By practically any standard, the Grants.gov portal is a model e-government project.

The electronic tool, which consolidates more than 900 programs and lets citizens apply for grants online, received a Showcase of Excellence award earlier this year from a panel of federal officials at the FOSE trade show in Washington. And the General Accounting Office this year recognized Grants.gov as one of only two of the Quicksilver e-government projects to have achieved all its objectives.

But is Grants.gov a success if few people actually use it? The Office of Management and Budget is aiming for the portal to receive 15,000 grant applications in its first year, but since it went online in March, Grants.gov has received only 327.

OMB officials are working to define utilization'how e-government projects are used after they've been fully implemented'and plan how the projects will reach the marks they set. Project managers must decide who their customers are and how they'll measure use of the service.

Officials at the Health and Human Services Department, which oversees the project, and at partner agencies have identified several obstacles to finding users: informing them about the portal, making it easy for them to use and getting other agencies to participate.

A goal of Grants.gov is to make grants available to small groups that didn't have easy access under the old system, in which applicants sought grant opportunities at agency Web sites or in publications such as the Federal Register. 'It opens up a new world to people who may have paid for this service before and now they can simply go to the site and find it themselves,' said Rebecca Spitzgo, the Grants.gov program manager.

Agencies can still post the grant announcements on their own sites in addition to Grants.gov.

But informing small groups about the system is a challenge. The HHS Office of Community Services has held three national conferences to help potential applicants learn about Grants.gov and walk them through the electronic applications process, Spitzgo said.

HHS' Administration for Children and Families has experienced some success using Grants.gov. In a recent two-week period, it received 127 electronic applications from two grant announcements made by its Office of Community Services. Of the 1,200 total applications received, the electronic submissions through Grants.gov accounted for 10 percent. That far exceeded the 1 percent expected, said ACF computer analyst Diana King, especially considering that 'it's a new experience to a lot of new grantees in a new system,' she said.

The system also poses a technical challenge for some users unfamiliar with the electronic signatures it requires for authentication or the downloadable forms they must fill out.

Applicants must be sure they have filled in all the required fields in the forms; the button to submit an application does not become enabled until they have done so.

'We're getting feedback from our help desk, where people think they have completed and can't get that button enabled,' Spitzgo said. 'We're looking at ways to more easily identify which field is missing and needs to be filled out and working with the help desk so they can better trouble-shoot those.'

Applicants must also register with the Contract Central Registry for electronic credentials. 'We have to get it to the point where it's very easy for people to figure out,' she said.

Smoother process

Spitzgo said her team has provided a checklist to help guide applicants, reduced the time it takes to register and improved error messages to help users understand what they need to do to complete the forms.

As users become familiar with the systems, the registration and application process will become less difficult, Spitzgo said.

Grants.gov works closely with other agencies to contact potential applicants to inform them about the program. Spitzgo has identified 'channel' partners, large organizations that can notify their membership. Grants.gov also publishes a quarterly newsletter.

When Grants.gov receives an application, it hands it off to the grant-making agency through the system-to-system interface with the portal. The interface pulls applications electronically into an agency database. The agency receives data in Extensible Markup Language and a copy in Adobe Portable Document Format.

Six agencies have built and tested system-to-system interfaces, including the Agriculture and Education departments and the Administration for Children and Families.

Agriculture released its grant interface module last month for use by its agencies to connect with Grants.gov. 'Technologically, it was not a huge challenge,' said Chris Niedermayer, Agriculture's associate CIO and e-government executive. 'But it was [a challenge] consolidating around a single tool the needs of 13 different grant-making agencies, who have established and grown their own processes independently over the years.'

'The challenge was in agreeing to standards in collecting data and distributing it. It's all a cultural shift,' he said

Agriculture has made its interface available for other departments, Niedermayer said.

Unisys Corp. developed the Web-based grant interface module using Java2 Enterprise Edition. Agriculture's Rural Development agency office in St. Louis hosts the module. Agencies download grant application information into their back-office or grant management systems, which routes applications to a database for review.

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