- In the April 20, 2009 Wall Street Journal, Elizabeth Williamson wrote “Stimulus Confusion Frustrates Business,” in which she states “Confusion over how to go after money allocated to various stimulus programs appears to be clouding corporate efforts to plan ahead . . .”
- In the April 12, 2009 New York Times, Kirk Johnson wrote “Waving a Hand, Trying to Be Noticed in the Stimulus Rush,” which concerns a nonprofit group stumbling around looking behind the refrigerator looking for stimulus funds like our faithful Golden Retriever, Odette, sniffing after the scent of the salami she was tossed yesterday, and thinking, “it’s just got be here somewhere.” Kirk states, “Whether the stimulus even has a place for the ideas [the nonprofit] is pursuing is not clear.” Both the reporter and the nonprofit smell the grant salami, but can’t quite find it, while Odette eventually gives up and rolls on her back.
Sense a trend? I could cite a dozen other similar stories in which talented reporters interview presumably bright individuals, none of whom find the Stimulus Bill salami, but you get the idea: no one in the media is writing “how” stories about the ways federal funds are distributed. Instead, endless “who,” “what,” “where” and “when” articles are published, leaving readers to assume the whole process, is, as the Temptations sang when I was in high school in 1968, just a Ball of Confusion. To quote:
Evolution, revolution, gun control, sound of soul.
Shooting rockets to the moon, kids growing up too soon.
Politicians say more taxes will solve everything.
And the band played on.
So, round and around and around we go.
Where the world’s headed, nobody knows.
Oh, great googalooga, can’t you hear me talking to you.
Just a ball of confusion.
Every time I see a “ball of confusion” story about the Stimulus Bill, I write the same note to the reporter . . . “call me and in 15 minutes, I will explain how federal funding actually is distributed.” Few call, perpetuating the “ball of confusion” story line. Like Tiny Mills, my favorite professional wrestler when I was a kid growing up in the late ’50s in Minneapolis, used to say when being interviewed by announcer Marty O’Neil, “I’m all burned up, Marty, I’m all burned up.” Since I’m all burned up about the slipshod Stimulus Bill reporting, here is the shorthand version of the federal funding process (and even this is a slightly simplified version):
- Imagine Barney Frank (if you are a Democrat) or John Boehner (if you are a Republican) waking up one morning with a bright idea to solve some real or imagined problem in American by taking money from Peter to help Paul.*
- The bright idea is turned into a bill, which both houses of Congress pass and the President signs.
- Funding authorization for the newly minted program is included in a budget authorization bill. In some cases, the legislation creating the program and funding are in the same bill. The recently passed ARRA (“Stimulus Bill”) both creates new programs with funds authorized for the new programs and authorizes additional funding for existing programs. An example of the first case is the Department of Energy’s Smart Grid Investment Grant (SGIG) Program, which was originally created in 2007 but substantially modified with additional funding in the ARRA. An example of the second case is the Department of the Treasury’s Community Development Financial Institutions (CDFI) Program, which received an extra $100 million under the ARRA. A new NOFA was just issued with a deadline of May 27.
- The new program is assigned to a Federal agency, which in turns assigns existing or new staff as Program Officers for the program.
- Along with the requisite donut eating and mindless meetings, draft regulations are written and passed among Beltway types (e.g., legislation staff, “evil” lobbyists, interest groups, etc.) for informal review and comment. After the draft regulations are made as obtuse as possible, they are published in the Federal Register for public comment, usually for 30 days.
- Final regulations are then published, usually featuring detailed explanations of why all the public comments are stupid and pointless, meaning the final regs are generally about the same as the draft regs. This is because interested parties have already taken their shots during the informal review process and Program Officers don’t care about what folks in Dubuque think anyway. It may take a federal agency anywhere from 30 days to 180 days to publish draft regs, and the review comment period is usually 30 days. The final regs will usually appear about 30 – 60 days later. The SGIG Program mentioned above is still in the informal regulatory review stage. A client sent us the draft regs, and they are a mess (the reasons why would be a post in itself). The FOA is being drafted simultaneously with the regs to speed up the process and the FOA is supposed to be published in June.
- After the program regs are finalized, there are two possibilities, as follows:
- (1) If the program is a federal pass-through to the states, the money is made available for the states to distribute, using an existing or new system, and based on some formula. Most of the so-called “infrastructure” funding in the Stimulus Bill was allocated this way, allowing the feds to more or less wash their hands of the process and say, “we’ve allocated the money with lightening speed and it’s not our fault if the states are too dumb to spend it quickly.” These pass-through Stimulus Bill funds go the relevant agencies in each state, with highway construction funds to the State Transportation Department, water/sewer funds to the State Water Department, UFO landing strip construction funds to the State Department of Extraterrestrial Affairs, and so on. I will eventually write a detailed post on how states distribute funds, but I digress.
- (2) If the program involves direct submission to the federal agency, the Program Officers draft a RFP/NOFA/SGA/FOA or what have you, which is the document that applicants will actually use as the guidelines for spinning their tales of woe and need. RFPs are sometimes published in the Federal Register, made available through Grants.gov, FedBizOpps.gov, and/or in even more obscure ways. As Jake has previously noted, Grants.gov is the central repository for all Federal grant information, except when it isn’t.**
- Applicants prepare and submit proposals in response to the RFPs. This is what Seliger + Associates does endlessly. Depending on the funding agency, the amount of hysteria surrounding the grant program and the underlying problem it is supposed to solve, the length of time allowed for submission varies from about two weeks to three months, with 45 days being typical. In the case of new programs, where new regs and RFPs have been drafted, one can usually expect several modifications to the RFP to be published, as mistakes and inconsistencies are identified. Since we spend much of our time deciphering arcane RFPs, we often have the thankless task of letting the Program Officer know that they have screwed up their RFP. In making these calls, we usually receive snarls and growls, not attaboys in return. We don’t do this out of civic duty, but to protect our client’s interest by not having the Program Officer declare a do over and start the RFP process again.
- Once the RFP deadline arrives, the process submerges into the murky waters of Washington, but the review process goes more or less as follows:
- 1. Applications are “checklist reviewed” to make sure the applicant is eligible, the forms are signed, etc. In most cases, if the application is technically incorrect, it is summarily rejected. You do not pass Go and you do not get $200, but you will eventually get a charming “thanks for the lousy application” form letter. Certain funding agencies, such as HUD, may send a deficiency letter, giving the applicant one more chance to sign the forms or what have you.
- 2. Applications that pass the technical checklist are reviewed on “merit.” These reviews can be done by the Program Officers, by “peer reviewers” (nonprofit and public agency managers lured to Washington by per diem and a $100/day honorarium) or by other Federal employees dragooned into the task. The last is the worst alternative, because the shanghaied bureaucrats will know nothing about the program and will be annoyed at having been roused from their slumber. Think of Smaug the Dragon in The Hobbit, who always slept with one eye half-open.
- 3. The applications will be scored on some scale and, in most cases, allegedly against criteria in the RFP. The applications will be ranked by their score, at which point our old friend, politics, rears its ugly head again. Most RFPs contain language along the lines of “The Secretary reserves the right to make funding recommendations based on geography and other factors.” While the Secretary of Whatever can basically fund any agency she bloody well feels like, as a practical matter this means that the funds are spread to many states for applicants in big cities, towns and rural areas and for projects that are perceived to help certain populations of interest. One could have a highly ranked application but still not be funded due to the vagaries of the approval process. If it is good news, the applicant might get a congratulations call from their House Rep or Senator’s office before the notice of grant award letter shows up. Some our of clients have reported reading press releases in local papers from their elected representatives before they were officially notified of being funded. While most Federal agencies aim for about a 90 day review process, about three – nine months is more typical. Using six months is a good standard.
- The grant award letter will include instructions to contact the Budget Officer who has been assigned to the application. This being the Federal government, the award being offered may be the exact amount requested, or less than requested, or even more than requested.
- You’re not done yet because the applicant must “negotiate” a contract with the Budget Officer. If the Budget Officer thinks the budget originally submitted was not prepared in accordance with Federal budgeting rules, or is just having a bad day, he will demand that you modify your budget or prove that it is reasonable. I have lots of funny stories about this process, but will save them for future posts. After the budget is agreed, the rest of the contract is negotiated. Allow two months for the contracting process.
- Congratulations, you’ve fallen across the finish line. Since Federal funds cannot usually be expended before contract is signed, most recipients will not begin project implementation until the money is actually available, so another three months can be added to hire staff, teach them where the restrooms are, arrange for donuts to be delivered for weekly staff meetings and the like. Keep in mind that, if the money is for construction of something, add additional time for environmental reviews, permits, bidding and yet more contracts!
How much time is likely to go by before funds for new programs in the Stimulus Bill actually start stimulating something other than reporter’s imaginations? Adding it all up, I’ve got:
- 3 months to develop regulations
- 2 months to develop the RFP
- 1.5 months for submission of applications
- 6 months for application review
- 5 months for contracting/start-up activities
If all goes right—and it almost never does—it takes at least one year for a Federal grant program to move from congressional approval/budget authorization to walkin’ around money for nonprofits. Keep in mind that this is for a program involving direct Federal competition. In the case of state pass-through programs, an additional one to three years can be added, depending on state budgeting and other processes. We’ll be writing “Stimulus Bill” proposals in the twilight of President Obama’s first term!
* As George Bernard Shaw famously quipped, “The government who robs Peter to pay Paul can always depend on the support of Paul.”
** The CDFI Program is a good example of how Federal agencies sometimes “forget” to publish their grant opportunities in grants.gov or the Federal Register. As noted above, the Department of the Treasury received $100 million in extra Stimulus Bill funds for this program and decided to use $45 million to fund additional applications for the last funding round, which closed in October. The funding announcements for the October round have not yet been made, so for those of you counting, six months has gone by since the application deadline. Even though there is much gnashing of teeth in the media about banks not lending, the Treasury Department itself is taking forever to get its funds on the street.
The other $55 million in CDFI Stimulus Bill funds have been set aside for new applicants in a supplemental funding round, which has been rumored for two months. The NOFA was finally issued on April 21, with a deadline of May 27, but was only placed on an obscure part of the CDFI web site, if one drills down to “News and Events.” It is not listed on the “How to Apply Page,” which includes timely info on the deadline for last October. Nor was it published on Grants.gov or in the Federal Register. If there are any aspiring Woodward or Bernstein type investigative reporters out there, you might want to find out why the Department of Treasury did as little as possible to let potential applicants know about this very sweet pot of gold. With all the fuss and bother over the Stimulus Bill, one would have thought the Department of the Treasury would have been trumpeting the availability of these funds.