grants management

Cloud streamlines CARES Act grants management

With confidence in agencies’ customer service during the pandemic falling, the biggest challenge has been meeting demand for assistance and services, according to a new report.

A recent Granicus survey of both government officials and the general public found that more than 80% of government officials said their agencies must become more technologically advanced, and 61% said COVID-19 accelerated digital transformation at their organizations. 

 These challenges and gaps in online service delivery have fundamentally changed expectations for local governments,” the report states. “Agencies have reached a point of no return when it comes to digitizing government operations; citizens expect simpler processes, offered online.”

One government process that’s become even more complex since the start of the pandemic is grants management.

The California Department of Housing and Community Development updated its legacy grants-management system at the end of 2019 to a software-as-a-service-based one from eCivis. That enabled the department, which handles disbursement and tracking of federal funds to cities and counties, to  begin disbursing Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act funding in three weeks, the department’s CIO Sumi Smith said.

Overall with the cloud-based system, “we are able to support a lot more people than we would be with older technologies or even just email applications and staff processing,” Smith said. “We are able to go through a lot more applications faster.”

The department had evaluated modifying its existing system, but ultimately opted for the SaaS solution because of its flexibility.

“Everybody has this expectation of immediate turnaround or immediate response and older technologies can’t fit that expectation,” Smith said.

That’s even truer during the pandemic, added James Ha, CEO of eCivis, a GTY Technology company.

“COVID has really created a catalyst. I think change is now really more of a compulsory activity,” Ha said. “The movement to the cloud, which was already taking place, has just been accelerated by COVID…. In grants management there’s a bigger need for that because COVID-19 funding is so crucial right now,” he said. “You see a lot of state and local/tribal governments really embracing change and taking this opportunity to make sure that change is built into that strategy so they can effectively track, disburse and report back on the impact of COVID-19 funding.”

Whereas agencies used to look for point solutions for basic grants-management tasks -- eligibility determination, disbursement, tracking and reporting -- now they want a unified platform so that counties, cities and even nonprofits across the state can use same technology. What’s more, agencies want solutions they can deploy quickly to get funds where they are needed, Ha said.

“It’s not just about putting things online, it’s really about creating effective outcomes in government,” he said. “It’s taking the 10 steps that really encompass the entire process -- that includes upstream federal reporting, downstream support of grantees who get COVID funding -- thinking about that entire value chain.”

Other entities using eCivis for CARES Act funding management include Los Angeles County, which is especially focused on how it’s used for organizations addressing homelessness, along with Arizona and Atlanta.

As Congress debates additional coronavirus relief, Ha said agencies should think about how they can standardize the process from start to finish, whether they’re supporting 20 counties or 100 counties. The application process is just one piece of the grants management ecosystem, he said. “You can get that right and get everything else wrong.”

“Agencies really need to be thinking about the entire process," Ha added. "How do you get the funds, how do you standardize it, how do you get it out and [how do you] make it easier for those you’re getting it out to to report it back to you?”

Looking at grants management as a whole, Smith said she’s hoping for even more automation.

“Eventually I would like to be able to do some kind of automated eligibility calculation and/or identification,” Smith said. “For any type of application, I think the ultimate would be a complete hands-off calculation so that staff can put their time and effort on only the applications that are most complicated or require the most work.”

About the Author

Stephanie Kanowitz is a freelance writer based in northern Virginia.

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