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Grants.gov and the GAO, Volunteer Broadband Reviewers for BTOP and BIP, Job Retraining, Grant Writers, and More

* More news on Grants.gov and the Government Accountability Office: Grants.gov Has Systemic Weaknesses That Require Attention. Glad someone in Washington is finally paying attention; Stanley J. Czerwinski is the contact person, so I sent him an e-mail pointing out our earlier posts on the subject, but he hasn’t responded.

Part of the report’s introductory sentence is particularly amusing: “Grants.gov has made it easier for applicants to find grant opportunities and grantors to process applications faster, applicants continue to describe difficulties registering with and using Grants.gov, which sometimes result in late submissions.” It’s true, but I’d note regarding the first part that while it’s easier to find grant opportunities, it’s still often not easy; for example, searching using Google’s restricted site feature is often faster and better than using Grants.gov’s built-in search function.

* Speaking of which, I like this headline: Contract to Upgrade Recovery.gov Stimulates Criticism.

* William Easterly explains Sachs Ironies: Why Critics are Better for Foreign Aid than Apologists:

Official foreign aid agencies delivering aid to Africa are used to operating with nobody holding them accountable for aid dollars actually reaching poor people. Now that establishment is running scared with the emergence of independent African voices critical of aid, such as that of Dambisa Moyo.

* The Dept. of Commerce and USDA must be really desperate if they’re requesting volunteers to review applications. We’re writing a Broadband Initiatives Program (BIP) and a Broadband Technology Opportunities Program (BTOP) application, which makes this announcement salient to us.

* The Services for Victims of Human Trafficking program (warning: .pdf) has an unusual deadline feature: it gives 7/13/2009 as the deadline for “Online Registration,” and 7/16/09 for the application itself. But smart applicants should move both those back by at least two days to avoid the inevitable rush.

* Now here’s a great idea for a government requirement: New bill wants fiber conduit built into every road project:

The bill would require new federal road projects to include plastic conduits buried along the side of the roadway, and enough of them to “accommodate multiple broadband providers.” Conduits must meet industry best practices for size and depth, and road builders must include hand holes and manholes along the route to gain access to the conduit. Each conduit will also include a pull tape for fishing new fiber through the line.

Most of the cost to deploy new fiber is the digging and repaving work, so putting in conduit when the ground is already torn up has a certain logic to it. It’s a relatively cheap idea, but one that Eshoo hopes will help US broadband.

Given the lousy shape of U.S. broadband deployment, which Ars Technica has covered in depth, that help would be much appreciated.

* Job Retraining May Fall Short of High Hopes, says the New York Times. This is the kind of article you would never cite in a job training proposal, unless it’s to knock it down, in which case you shouldn’t cite it in the first place. Nonetheless, those of you running job training programs ought to read it.

* Uber-geek publisher and all star Tim O’Reilly (I own a few of his technical books) on The Benefits of a Classical Education.

* Ars Technica reports that GE is throwing its weight behind smart grids. That’s probably good news for Smart Grid Investment Grant Program (SGIG) applicants.

* Ed Glaeser encourages us to put trains where the people are. That this isn’t self-evident is indicative of federal involvement.

* I hadn’t realized it till now, but two years ago the Wall Street Journal published “A Passion for the Keys: Particular About What You Type On? Relax — You’re Not Alone” regarding the fanaticism certain people feel for their keyboards. As writing a review of the Model M-inspired Unicomp Customizer taught me, I am very much note alone. Anyone who spends a lot of time typing should read both articles; even better, they might like this review of the Kinesis Advantage ergonomic keyboard.

* According to “Tax Breaks Under the Microscope” in Slate, nonprofit hospitals are much like their regular counterparts:

But research shows that nonprofit hospitals behave no differently from for-profit ones. And in some cases, nonprofits have been caught mistreating the poor for the sake of financial gains. One example: A nonprofit academic hospital in Connecticut aggressively pursued “deadbeat” elderly patients by placing liens on their homes. More recently, several nonprofit Chicago hospitals were reportedly transferring uninsured patients to the county emergency room.

* State governments are behaving with even less foresight than usual; according to a Salon post quoting the San Jose Mercury News, “In 1980, 17 percent of the state budget went to higher education. By 2007, that had fallen to 10 percent — the same as prisons and parole.” And 2007 predated the current crisis, showing that the trend away from higher education funding is accelerating.

* In one of many bizarre twists surrounding stimulus funding, California’s El Dorado County has rejected $1.6 million in stimulus funding:

The Board of Supervisors last week twice rejected what staff members described as no-strings-attached funding.

“It’s as close to a no-brainer as I’ve ever seen come before this board,” Richard Meagher of the Affordable Housing Coalition of El Dorado said of a grant application that could have put local contractors to work rehabilitating foreclosed houses and made the dwellings available to moderate and low-income homebuyers.

But Supervisor Jack Sweeney characterized himself as a “free-market person” and argued that many current economic ills are a result of government’s intrusion into society.

This seems bizarre even by the standards of local government. I’d bet that Sacramento Bee reporter Cathy Locke either knows something she couldn’t write about or that there’s otherwise something deeper beneath this story.

* Fascinating: Japan and Korea’s hidden protectionist measures prevented U.S. companies from competing in their home markets, and the English-language press largely ignored the story. Compare this to the story told in David Halberstam’s The Reckoning.

* Gas and the suburbs.

* New York remains rich in the ultimate resource: human capital. But the high cost of housing and high taxation levels remain threats. This is by one of my favorite economists, Edward Glaeser.

* Self-esteem has gone up in the United States; achievement has not.

* If The Onion wrote stories about grant titles, I wouldn’t know whether to believe Grants to Manufacturers of Certain Worsted Wool Fabrics is a real program or something dreamt up by satire writers.

* More porn means less rape? Maybe, and the writer cites some experiments that exploit natural variations, a lá Freakonomics, to get there. Expect to hear more on this subject in the coming years.

* I found Developing And Writing Grant Proposals while searching the other day, and love the sometimes-comical advice they give. It starts in the second paragraph, which says “Individuals without prior grant proposal writing experience may find it useful to attend a grantsmanship workshop,” a topic Isaac has dealt with, as have I.

* Megan McArdle writes about When Blogs Were Young. Compare that to my post, “You’re Not Going to be a Professional Blogger, Regardless of What the Wall Street Journal Tells You,” which is by far the most visited of any we’ve published.

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You know you’re a grant writer if a Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA) Service Area Competition (SAC) deadline vexes you

You know you’re a grant writer if… You’re reading the Health Resources and Services Administration’s (HRSA) Service Area Competition (SAC) and discover that the deadline is July 6.

You’re frustrated because Monday, July 6 is a holiday for most people: the Fourth of July is Saturday, so the “holiday” part is the Monday after, which means that you won’t get much tech support if you need it on that Monday. You probably won’t get any tech support on Friday, July 3, either, since everyone in the federal government will probably have left—most of the Feds count that Friday as the holiday this year.

The real deadline is probably closer to July 2, chiefly because whatever genius at HRSA picked this deadline probably didn’t realize it was a holiday weekend, or simply decided to play a cruel trick on applicants. There are two possible reasons for this snafu: incompetence or malice. Neither portrays HRSA in a positive light. Oh, and applicants for this program are “Section 330” nonprofit community health centers, which are perhaps not the best targets for a HRSA practical joke, especially given how tremendously complex and difficult the applications are.

You know you’re a grant writer if… the same SAC RFP further irritates you because you have to submit a preliminary application using Grants.gov for a June 23 deadline, then submit the full application using HRSA’s Electronic Hand Books (EHB) system with a deadline of July 6 July 2. In other words, you have to learn yet another esoteric electronic system, although one that’s at least somewhat easier than Grants.gov.

You know you’re a grant writer if… you find Grants.gov’s failures and quirks amusing, causing you to write about them with some frequency.

You know you’re a grant writer if… the budget you receive from your client has no relationship to the narrative you’ve written, based on what the client told you in the first place. Actually, the budget has nothing to do with little if anything to do with anything whatsoever.

You know you’re a grant writer if… you’re the only person in America working on a holiday, other than cops and escorts.

You know you’re a grant writer if… you don’t even realize that tomorrow is a holiday—Memorial Day—and have to be told to hold the Seliger Funding Report for another day.

You know you’re a grant writer if… you’re outraged when you find that a deadline is on the holiday you hadn’t realized was there (see: first paragraph, above).

You know you’re a grant writer if… you’re inclined to write lists regarding when you know you’re a grant writer, and you actually think they’re amusing.

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The Department of Housing and Urban Development’s (HUD) Neighborhood Stabilization Program (NSP) Appears at Last

Subscribers to the Seliger Funding Report saw that the Neighborhood Stabilization Program (NSP) is this week’s featured grant. The program is significant and worth examining for a few reasons, including the massive amount of money available (nearly $2 billion) and how it illustrates some of the problems with disseminating and spending stimulus money in a timely manner.

The idea behind the stimulus funding is that it’s supposed to happen quickly. Last December, Isaac wrote a post on the subject:

Our client has been going to endless meetings to discuss the NSP program and is still waiting around for the amended action plans to be approved. […]

This sad tale of woe does not make me optimistic about the really big stimulus programs that will emerge from Congress shortly. While it will be Fat City for grant writers and lots of grants will be available for frisky nonprofit and public agencies, don’t expect the funds to fix many problems.

It’s now six months later, and the RFP has finally hit the street. The deadline is July 17, which is sweet for the agencies applying but not so good on the timeliness front. Once awards are made, contracts are signed, and programs begin operating in earnest, it could well be December again. Isaac also quoted a Wall Street Journal article from December that’s as timely today as it was then, which should demonstrate the sense of urgency emanating from HUD.

Another point: HUD has apparently abandoned Grants.gov. You won’t find the actual RFP on Grants.gov—you’ll only find a link to hud.gov/recovery. Even then, the RFP is still difficult to find because you’ll find a giant scrolling banner, a link to a press release, and a news story about NSP, which is why we always include links, like the the one in the first paragraph of this post, that go straight to the RFP. In addition, HUD will only accept paper submissions:

Deadline for Receipt of Application: July 17, 2009. Applications must be received via paper submission to the Robert C. Weaver HUD Headquarters building by 5:00 p.m. Eastern Daylight Time. […]

Timely submission shall be evidenced via a delivery service receipt or a postal receipt with date and time stamp indicating that the application was delivered to a carrier service at least 48 hours prior to the application deadline…

Those of you with a sense of history and irony will find this amusing because was among the first (if not the first) agencies to require Grants.gov submissions. That HUD won’t even accept them anymore might tell you something about the Grants.gov problems we’ve discussed extensively.

Finally, this application is an example of HUD going both ways with funding distribution: some NSP funds are being passed through to states and counties via block grant, as described in Getting Your Piece of the Infrastructure Pie: A How-To Guide for the Perplexed, while this program notice says that “NSP2 funds will be awarded through competitions whose eligible applicants include states, units of general local government, nonprofits, and consortia of nonprofits. Any applicant may apply with a for-profit entity as its partner.” Sounds good to us!

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From the Department of “No Kidding:” Grants.gov Warns of Outages at High Service Period

Those of you who are working feverishly to finish Federal proposals by Monday should stop surfing the Internet and get back to your assignment, because Grants.gov has finally figured out (or admitted) what Seliger + Associates did five years ago. According to the post “High Submission Volume” from the Grants.gov blog, which is written with a voice somewhere between “press release” and “technical bulletin,”

There are 29 Grant Opportunities closing on Monday, April 27, 2009, including a large Recovery Act opportunity for NIH that is expected to receive an unprecedented number of applications. The submissions for these opportunities have already begun and will continue to grow as we move towards April 27.

(emphasis added).

Imagine Amazon announcing that you can’t buy books a week before Christmas, or Stubhub saying that you should wait until after the Superbowl to look for tickets and telling you to use their services when no one else is. Whoever is running Grants.gov probably don’t see the irony of announcing instability when the largest number of people are likely to use the system and that you can depend on the system when using it isn’t important. In his first post about Grants.gov, Isaac wrote:

[T]he real world deadline for Grants.gov submissions is actually two days in advance of the published deadline, since, unless there is a system meltdown, the funding agency is unlikely to give you any slack. So, if the upload gets screwed up, you’re generally screwed as well.

Now even the Grants.gov administrators have effectively acknowledged this. I wonder if RFP writers will eventually start including this caveat. Regardless, I’ll reiterate what I said in the first paragraph: if you’re working against a Monday deadline, stop shirking your duties and get that proposal uploaded!

EDIT: More entertaining news appeared this weekend. Grants.gov is supposed to be the central repository for all grant-related aspects of the federal government. But we’ve now learned that “[… S]elect programs may choose to use alternate systems to process grant applications during this heightened period of demand.” Remember: everything goes through Grants.gov. Unless it doesn’t.

In addition, Grants.gov must be getting the Santa Claus calls we’ve been getting, which Isaac discussed at the link, because the front page now says that “Grants.gov does not provide personal financial assistance. To learn where you may find personal help, check Government Benefits, Student Loans and Small Business Start-up Loans.”

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March Links: Stimulus Madness, Grants.gov, Health Care and More!

* We wrote about how to get your piece of the stimulus pie, noting that better-prepared organizations are more likely to be funded. Now the Washington Post reports that “Much in Obama stimulus bill won’t hit economy soon:”

It will take years before an infrastructure spending program proposed by President-elect Barack Obama will boost the economy, according to congressional economists.

[…]

Less than half of the $30 billion in highway construction funds detailed by House Democrats would be released into the economy over the next four years, concludes the analysis by the Congressional Budget Office. Less than $4 billion in highway construction money would reach the economy by September 2010.

* At The New Yorker, Steve Coll decided to blog the Stimulus Bill. Good luck on your journey! I, for one, would prefer not to wander in the desert for 40 years, but I’m glad someone else is willing to do so and perhaps bring something enlightening down from the mountain at the end. From his first post:

I particularly like the turn from the setting to the main title: “Begun and held at the City of Washington on Tuesday, the sixth day of January, two thousand and nine…An Act.” It’s all very grand—and a long way from the aesthetics of Fox News or MSNBC, which is how we usually encounter this material, in a summary of a summary.

And so, herewith launches an irregular series about the stimulus bill. I will read all of it, carefully, so that you don’t have to, and every so often I will stop and try to write something useful. It seems doubtful that the full law will prove either as funny or as morally edifying as the Old Testament, but I will do what I can.

* The Washington Post reports that Grants.gov Strains Under New Demand:

An early casualty of the stimulus package was identified by the Office of Management and Budget this week when OMB Director Peter Orszag told agency heads to plan for a possible meltdown of the government’s online grantmaking portal… “Grants.gov continues to experience system slowness due to the high volume of users,” the Grants.gov blog advised readers Tuesday.

The question is, how will we be able to distinguish new problems from business as usual?

* From the department of unintended consequences: “Doctor-Owned Hospitals Fare Poorly in Child Health Bill” says:

A bill making its way through Congress to provide more low-income children with health-insurance coverage could spell financial trouble for scores of hospitals owned by physicians.

The number of doctor-owned hospitals has tripled to about 200 since 1990, but they have long been mired in controversy. Supporters say these hospitals, which often focus on one or two lucrative services, such as cardiac care or orthopedics, are highly efficient, saving expenses for both patients and insurance programs, including Medicare.

Critics say physicians who refer patients to hospitals in which they have an ownership stake drive up costs, because they order more tests or perform unnecessary surgery. They argue that the physician-owned hospitals also cherry-pick the healthiest patients, which hurts the finances of other hospitals, the majority of which are nonprofits.

* More on unintended consequences and kids in “New Law Cripples Small and Independent Children’s Toy and Clothing Makers:”

The gist is that the new regs impose debilitating new testing requirements on anyone who makes, markets, or sells toys to to children. The bill is a hysteria-filled reaction to last year’s China lead scare, and its reach is really pretty incredible. Thrift stores, libraries, independent toymakers, people who hand-make toys and clothes to sell online, and on down the line are all going to be affected. It’s going to put thousands of people out of business. Just what the economy needs.

As is the case with most new regulations, the one group that won’t have any problem complying will be the giant toy companies—the very companies responsible for the lead scare that inspired the legislation in the first place.

* The New York Times is In Search of the Just-Right Desk. They neglect the best desk of all, however, which is one with a Humanscale keyboard system attached to it. The 5G system can be found for $225 – $300, and once one has it, the only question is having a surface on which to mount it. We wrote about such equipment issues in Tools of the Trade—What a Grant Writer Should Have.

* Although the Wall Street Journal editorial page is a notoriously lousy place to seek informed or balanced opinions, it does have a useful piece about What Medicaid Tells Us About Government Health Care. Ignore the political slams and focus on the parts about access to care:

The federal and state governments are equally culpable for the program’s troubles. The federal government matches state Medicaid spending, paying an average of 57% of costs. States expand enrollment in order to qualify for more federal aid. Insurance coverage has become the end itself, with states spreading resources widely but thinly — without enough attention to the quality of care, accessibility, or whether coverage was actually improving health. States have no obligation to rigorously measure health outcomes in order to qualify for more federal money.

One major healthcare problem in the United States is insufficient access to care, and in particular to specialty care. While insurance rates get enormous amounts of media coverage, virtually no one discusses how hard it can be to use public insurance like Medicare/Medicaid because relatively few providers accept them. We’ve worked for clients in relatively large cities that lack an adequate number of basic specialists like ob/gyns and cardiologists, and often have no practices that will accept Medicare/Medicaid. As the editorial notes, the preference for these programs has been on enrolling the maximum number of people—sometimes at the expense of the quality of care given:

For its part, the federal government has often prevented the states from taking steps to fix their own Medicaid programs, such as by devising outcome-based standards for evaluating performance, and de-emphasizing the goal of growing the number of covered people to focus more on improving the health of those served.

* Elsewhere in the WSJ, an article discusses “Heroin Program’s Deadly Toll: Needle Exchanges Save Lives but May Imperil Workers:”

Worker drug abuse is “a huge problem,” says Jon Zibbell, the founder of a Massachusetts drug users’ coalition who is now an assistant professor at Skidmore College. “We prevent [overdoses] among our clients,” he says. “So we should try to prevent them among our workers.”

Studies suggest that needle exchanges work. In San Francisco, Chicago and New Mexico, heroin-related deaths dropped after users were taught how to administer an anti-overdose medication to each other. In New York City, the rate of new HIV infections among injection-drug users dropped more than 75% between 1995 and 2002 as the number of clean needles distributed doubled, according to a study by epidemiologists there.

Many needle-exchange programs employ recovering addicts who might not always be as recovering as they say. This is a near-universal tactic in service delivery under the theory that those who can empathize with a person’s struggle are better able to help that person and to provide a positive role model.

* Ever wondered why people can’t give unused airline tickets or frequent flyer miles to you? So did the WSJ, and in “Why Fliers Can’t Donate Unused Tickets” Scott McCartney explains that airlines make a lot of money from unused tickets and would rather make specious security and technical arguments than allow greater customer choice.

* Note to the person who found our site by searching repeatedly for “grant writeting in la.”: you’ve correctly realized that you need help with writeting writing.

* In other search news, someone found us by searching for “should we hire a grant writer?” Being grant writers, our answer is almost always yes, but one can find more on this subject in a tangentially related post on “Why Can’t I Find a Grant Writer? How to Identify and Seize that Illusive Beast.” This subject might also become a post of its own at some point: watch this space for more.

* In still more search news, someone else found us by searching for “free grant writing software.” Software isn’t going to help you: learning how to write, however, will. But there are a number of lovely free and open source pieces of writing software, including AbiWord and OpenOffice.org. In the paid but inexpensive world, I’m fond of the Mac program Mellel.

* Why is the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) giving out money for the Garrett A. Morgan Technology and Transportation Education Program, which is designed “to improve the preparation of students, particularly women and minorities, in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM)?” Isn’t that the Department of Education’s job? It’s a good example of a point we occasionally make: just because a federal, state, local, or foundation/corporate giving resource doesn’t appear to fund in your area doesn’t mean they won’t issue an RFP in it anyway.

* If you think running your program is hard, consider the Chiricahua Leopard Frog Conservation project, which “will involve hand removal of frogs and monitoring refuge sites to determine status of the Chiricahua Leopard frog and possible re-invading bullfrogs.” Where do I sign up?

* The New York Times is smart enough to try following federal money to A.I.G., as reported in “Where Taxpayers’ Dollars Go to Die.” They should try the same with federal grant programs.

* State smiling lessons for liquor store employees in Pennsylvania. Good luck! One of the nice parts about moving from Seattle to Tucson was the civilized practice of selling booze in grocery stores, which Washington State lacks.

* One of the very few genuinely intelligent recent articles about the financial mess: The Problem With Flogging A.I.G.:

By week’s end, I was more depressed about the financial crisis than I’ve been since last September. Back then, the issue was the disintegration of the financial system, as the Lehman bankruptcy set off a terrible chain reaction. Now I’m worried that the political response is making the crisis worse. The Obama administration appears to have lost its grip on Congress, while the Treasury Department always seems caught off guard by bad news.

And Congress, with its howls of rage, its chaotic, episodic reaction to the crisis, and its shameless playing to the crowds, is out of control. This week, the body politic ran off the rails.

There are times when anger is cathartic. There are other times when anger makes a bad situation worse. “We need to stop committing economic arson,” Bert Ely, a banking consultant, said to me this week. That is what Congress committed: economic arson.

* Writing in the Wall Street Journal, Dambisa Moyo examines Why Foreign Aid Is Hurting Africa: Money from rich countries has trapped many African nations in a cycle of corruption, slower economic growth and poverty. Cutting off the flow would be far more beneficial. He also wrote the book Dead Aid: Why Aid Is Not Working and How There Is a Better Way for Africa

* Your eyes might deceive you: Slate’s Dahlia Lithwick asks: “Have the Eyes Had It?
Is our eyewitness identification system sending innocents to jail?
” The answer, according to her article, is yes.

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Grants.gov and deadline goofs

Isaac wrote about the dangers of online submissions in “Grants.gov Lurches Into the 21st Century,” which says that real world deadlines should be at least two days before the actual deadline to ensure that your proposal is actually received. This will help you avoid latency and response problems when every other applicant rushes to upload their application at the last minute.

Occasionally Grants.gov goofs result in postings like one regarding the Department of Education’s Charter School Programs (CSP; CFDA 84.282A):

The original notice for the FY 2009 CSP competition established a January 29, 2009, deadline date for eligible applicants to apply for funding under this program. For this competition, applicants are required to submit their applications electronically through the Governmentwide Grants.gov site (www.Grants.gov). Grants.gov experienced a substantial increase in application submissions that resulted in system slowness on the deadline date. For this reason we are reopening and establishing new deadline dates for the FY 2009 competition for CSP. Applicants must refer to the notice inviting applications for new awards that was published in the Federal Register on December 15, 2009 (73 FR 76014) for all other requirements concerning this reopened competition. The new deadline dates are: Deadline for Transmittal of Applications: February 25, 2009.

The odd thing, of course, is that whoever operates Grants.gov must know deadline days will result in a submission flood, and yet when that flood predictably comes everyone seems flummoxed. Sometimes, but not always, the funding agency responds by allowing more time. It’s not apparent what factors, if any, Grants.gov or program personnel consider in deciding whether to extend the deadline, and this opaqueness means that you have to assume that no deadlines will be extended. Isaac wrote about a lucky circumstance in “Now It’s Time for the Rest of the Story:”

[…] our client didn’t even know that HUD had received the proposal until about two weeks before the funding notification. It seems that she did not receive the sequence of emails from grants.gov confirming receipt of the proposal. She called and sent emails to grants.gov and HUD, which generated responses along the lines of, “we can’t find any record of it.”* This went on for about two months. Adding to the festivities, it turned out that there were problems with other applicants that day at grants.gov, so HUD re-opened the competition for a short period of time to allow these applicants to re-submit. Our client called the HUD Program Officer to discuss the re-submission process, at which point she was quickly told, “You don’t have to, we have your proposal and it’s already scored.” Two weeks later, she got a call from her congressman letting her know she’s been funded.

But you can’t rely on lucky circumstances. Just as the stimulus bill probably isn’t going to function as advertised and popularly portrayed and FEMA can’t seem to run the Assistance to Firefighters (AFG) program well, Grants.gov isn’t going to yield the efficiency gains it theoretically should. And if stimulus-funded programs begin pouring forth from Washington, the traffic on Grants.gov is only going to grow.

There’s a lesson to take from this: Grants.gov submissions are as arbitrary and disorganized as paper submissions, but it’s vastly harder to prove that you actually submitted a proposal using Grants.gov. In modern times the postal system and FedEx have rarely—if ever—been so overwhelmed that they couldn’t deliver packages (exceptions being obvious weather issues like hurricanes), and even when they became overwhelmed, one can still show proof of submission. With Grants.gov, that luxury is gone. Be warned.

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FEMA and Grants.gov Together at Last

Last week I complained that FEMA still hadn’t posted the Assistance to Firefighters Grant (AFG) Program 2008 Fire Prevention and Safety Grants to Grants.gov, which particularly rankled after last year’s fiasco.

My post went up on February 1, and lo! on February 2, the FY2008 Fire Prevention and Safety Grants program appeared on Grants.gov. And it only took a single e-mail to FEMA and last year’s contact person, Tom Harrington.

For those of you who are interested, the prodding e-mail I sent said:

Last year, I wrote to Tom Harrington, the AFG contact person, to ask why the AFG RFP didn’t appear in the Federal Register until three days before the deadline. We had an increasingly bizarre exchange about why the delay occurred, in which he gave a wonderfully nebulous response to my pointed questions about who was responsible for posting the announcement to Grants.gov: “I don’t know if there is anyone specific to blame; the process is to blame.” That exchange (see below for the whole thing) became the promised unflattering post on FEMA Tardiness, Grants.gov, and Dealing with Recalcitrant Bureaucrats.

This year, the AFG program RFP was released and, just like last year, didn’t appear in Grants.gov. What gives? Did the policy promised by Tom—”As soon as the policy is written, we’ll know. At this time, there is no policy.”—ever get written? If so, by who? If so, why wasn’t it written? This became the latest post on Grant Writing Confidential—FEMA Fails to Learn New Tricks With the Assistance to Firefighters Grant Program—and I would love to write a follow-up with your response.

As you can see from the About Grants.gov page, the site is supposed to be a central storehouse for grants information:

The concept has its origins in the Federal Financial Assistance Management Improvement Act of 1999, also known as Public Law 106-107. Public Law 106-107 has since sunset and is now known as the Grants Policy Committee (GPC). For more information on the Grants Policy Committee, click here.

The Grants Policy Committee’s Final Implementation Plan includes a policy product on page 6 that says one of its products will be a “policy on use of Grants.gov for mandatory grants” which will “Establish [… a] policy requiring agencies to post a description of funding opportunities for mandatory grants on Grants.gov.” Why is the Department of Homeland Security and FEMA hindering that effort?

This year’s unnamed contact person still hasn’t replied, which hurts my feelings, but at least I’ve inspired change you can believe in.

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FEMA Fails to Learn New Tricks With the Assistance to Firefighters Grant Program

Last year I railed about the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s inability to post the Assistance to Firefighters Grants program RFP on Grants.gov in a timely fashion in “FEMA Tardiness, Grants.gov, and Dealing with Recalcitrant Bureaucrats.” In addition, I sent a nastygram to FEMA about this failure, which someone named “R. David Paulison” responded to seven months later, as noted in the third bullet of January Links. That it took seven months to respond to a letter complaining about timeliness might be indicative of further problems.

You might imagine that FEMA would’ve solved the problem this year—in which case you’d be wrong. The Assistance to Firefighters Grant (AFG) Program 2008 Fire Prevention and Safety Grants (warning: link goes to a .pdf) program RFP was issued on Jan. 29, but it’s still not on Grants.gov as of this writing. Furthermore, the RFP doesn’t even include a Catalog of Federal Domestic Assistance (CFDA) number attached—which it should, since, according to the CFDA website, “As you know, the CFDA provides a full listing of all Federal programs available […]” and all federal programs are supposed to have a CFDA number in the body of their RFPs.

(As an aside: the CFDA website isn’t working at the moment because “We are upgrading our site to provide increased transparency, greater access to assistance information and to better support the American Recovery and Reinvestment Plan.” Isaac tried to visit it earlier this week and found it dead. This is somewhat strange because every other website, including ours, would leave the old version up until the new one is ready to go; only the government would take down the old website and leave nothing in its place. I’ve never seen Amazon.com intentionally prevent me from buying books because they wanted to improve the interface. Keep this in mind when contemplating the various proposals that have been floating around regarding government-mandated electronic medical records.)

Nonetheless, a print version of the CFDA lists the AFG’s CFDA number as 97.044. I took that to Grants.gov’s search page and tried the CFDA number and variations on AFG. No dice. In other words, the CFDA and Grants.gov websites must not talk to one another, since AFG appears in the CFDA but not in Grants.gov. More importantly, FEMA still hasn’t posted the AFG RFP to Grants.gov. Maybe FEMA will three days before the deadline, as they did last year. I’m really glad Tucson isn’t susceptible to hurricanes.

But there is some good in this mess, which you can find on page 10 of the RFP: “Applicants are allowed to hire, or otherwise employ the services of, a grant writer to assist in the application process.” Great news! Great, but unnecessary—funders can’t prohibit or forbid grant writers; how you prepare your application is your own affair. Typically, you just can’t charge expenses to a contract before you have a contract to charge them to, and you can’t hire grant writers on a contingent-fee basis. But no ethical grant writer will work on a contingent-fee basis, as we explain in our FAQ.

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FEMA Tardiness, Grants.gov, and Dealing with Recalcitrant Bureaucrats

The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA)—the same guys who brought us the stellar job after Hurricane Katrina—issued the Assistance to Firefighters Grants program on what Grants.gov says is March 26, 2008. But the deadline was April 04, 2008, which is absurdly short by any standards, let alone those of a federal agency. I sent an e-mail to the contact person, Tom Harrington, asking if there was a typo. He responded: “No mistake. The Grants.gov posting was a little delayed. The application period for AFG actually started on March 3rd.” So, unless you have psychic powers, it is unlikely that you would have known about this opportunity. This “little delay” is for a program with $500,000,000 of funding. If anything has changed at FEMA since Katrina, it’s not obvious from my encounter with the organization; as President Bush said to FEMA’s chief after Katrina, “Brownie, you’re doing a heck of a job!

I was curious about how and why this deadline foul-up occurred, leading to an e-mail exchange Tom, who appears to be a master at not knowing about the programs he is a contact person for. It’s instructive to contrast my experience with him and the one with the state officials who I wrote about in Finding and Using Phantom Data. Bureaucrats come in a variety of forms, some helpful, like the ones who provided dental data to the best of their ability, and some not, such as Tom.

I replied to his e-mail and said, “Do you know who was responsible for the delay, or can you find that out? Three weeks is more than a ‘little’ delayed.” He gave me a wonderfully bureaucratic response: “I don’t know if there is anyone specific to blame; the process is to blame.” That’s rather curious, since processes don’t put grant opportunities on Grants.gov—people do, assuming that federal bureaucrats should be considered people. And even if the “process” is to blame, someone specific should to change the process so problems like this one don’t recur. I replied: “If ‘the process is to blame,’ what will you do differently next year to make sure this doesn’t happen again?”

His response contradicted his earlier statement: “Assure that those responsible for the paperwork are informed that they are responsible for the paperwork.” In other words, someone is responsible for this year’s problem—but who is that person? I inquired: “I’m wondering who is responsible for the paperwork or who will be responsible for it.” And Tom responded: “As soon as the policy is written, we’ll know. At this time, there is no policy.” Notice how he didn’t answer my first question: who is responsible? Instead, he used two clever constructions, by saying that “we’ll know,” rather than him or some specific person with FEMA. Instead, some nebulous “we,” with no particular individual attached to the group will know. The passive construction “there is no policy,” avoid specifying a responsible person. Tom uses language to cloak the identity of whoever might be in charge of the FEMA policy regarding Grants.gov. The e-mail exchange went for another fruitless round before I gave up.*

If you were actually interested in finding the truth about who caused the delay, or how it will be avoided next year, you’d have to try and find out who is really in charge of the program, contact that person, and probably continue up the food chain when that person gives you answers similar to Tom’s. Normal people, however, are unlikely to ever try this, which is why Tom’s blame of “the process” is so ingenious: he avoids giving any potential target. Someone caused this problem, and to find out who would probably take an enterprising journalist or an academic highly interested in the issue.**

Sadly, I’m not going to be that person, as I write this chiefly to show a) how bureaucracies work, which isn’t always in the positive way I described in “Finding and Using Phantom Data”, and b) why you should be cognizant of the potential drawbacks of Grants.gov. Regarding the former, if you need to find information from reluctant bureaucrats, you have to be prepared to keep trying to pin them down or become enough of a pest that they or their bosses would rather get rid of you by complying with your request than by stonewalling. If the bureaucrats at the health department from “Finding and Using Phantom Data” had been as unhelpful as Tom, I would’ve begun this process because data is more important than the deadline for this program.

This strange interlude in the Never Never Land of FEMA also tells us something important about Grants.gov: the primary website for notifying interested parties about government grants is as useful as the organizations who use it. Any fire department that depends on Grants.gov for announcements just got screwed. Despite the designation of Grants.gov as “a central storehouse for information on over 1,000 grant programs[…]”, it’s only as good as the independent organizations using it. Perhaps not surprisingly, given FEMA’s past performance, that organization doesn’t appear interested in timeliness. Incidents like this explain Isaac’s wariness and skepticism toward Grants.gov, and why it, like so many government efforts, tends not to live up to its purpose. And when something goes wrong, whether it be FEMA during Hurricane Katrina or propagating information about grant programs, don’t be surprised if “the process is to blame.”

EDIT: You can see our follow-ups to this post in “FEMA Fails to Learn New Tricks With the Assistance to Firefighters Grant Program” and “FEMA and Grants.gov Together at Last.”


* Tolstoy wrote in the appendix to War and Peace (trans. Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky):

In studying an epoch so tragic, so rich in the enormity of its events, and so near to us, of which such a variety of traditions still live, I arrived at the obviousness of the fact that the causes of the historical events that take place are inaccessible to our intelligence. To say […] that the causes of the events of the year twelve are the conquering spirit of Napoleon and the patriotic firmness of the emperor Alexander Pavlovich, is as meaningless to say that the causes of the fall of the Roman Empire are that such-and-such barbarian led his people to the west […] or that an immense mountain that was being leveled came down because the last workman drove his spade into it.

You could say the same of trying to study the manifold tentacles and networks of the federal government, which is only moved, and then only to a limited extent, during a truly monumental and astonishing screw-up like Katrina, which is itself only a manifestation of problems that extend far backwards in time and relate to culture, incentives, and structure, but such failures are only noticed by the body politic at large during disasters.

** Even journalists get tired of fighting the gelatinous blob. As Clive Crook writes in The Atlantic, “Personally, and I speak admittedly as a resident of the District of Columbia, I find the encompassing multi-jurisdictional tyranny of inspectors, officers, auditors, and issuers of licenses—petty bureaucracy in all its teeming proliferation—more oppressive in the United States than in Britain, something I never expected to say.”

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Grants.gov Lurches Into the 21st Century

Change is coming, albeit slowly, to Grants.gov, the the online system for Federal submissions. But, as with all things grants, the change is confusing at best.

When the feds first started transitioning to electronic submissions five or six years ago, different agencies used different approaches, resulting in general chaos. Eventually, Grants.gov became the default gateway. While the concept of Grants.gov isn’t bad (the applicant downloads an “application kit file”, fills out some forms and attaches locally generated files before uploading the whole mess), the reality is cumbersome. This is because until recently Grants.gov exclusively used a creaky program named “PureEdge Viewer,” which does not support Mac OS X, Windows Vista, or Linux and is as easy to use as a nuclear submarine. Using the PureEdge Viewer is like gazing into the world of computing circa 1996, but it more or less works.

One fun aspect of submitting through Grants.gov is that the system generates a total of three emails after upload to confirm the upload process, but gives itself 48 hours to do so. Thus, the real world deadline for Grants.gov submissions is actually two days in advance of the published deadline, since, unless there is a system meltdown, the funding agency is unlikely to give you any slack. So, if the upload gets screwed up, you’re generally screwed as well. And, of course Grants.gov tech support (actually provided by IBM) is closed on weekends, making Monday submissions especially festive. Finally, the Grants.gov tech support people have no knowledge of the funding programs and the program officers at the funding agencies have little if any technical knowledge. This sets up a perfect opportunity for being bounced back and forth between the two, making a call to Grants.gov tech support a virtual guarantee of frustration. Calling Grants.gov is like being in a Mac Guy commercial with two Windows guys and no Mac Guy*.

Now, the good news: for what seems like forever, Grants.gov has been “testing” the PureEdge Viewer replacement, which is Adobe Reader 8.1.2, meaning that the submission system is finally being dragged in the 21st Century. The testing is apparently over and Grants.gov now says: “Applicants are required to have a compatible version of Adobe Reader installed to apply for grant applications.” Sounds good, since Adobe supports Vista, OS X, and Linux, but the euphoria will cease when you look further down the page and find out: “Please note, not all applications are provided in Adobe Reader, so it is recommended to also have the PureEdge Viewer installed.” As usual, the feds givith and the feds taketh away, because not all agencies will use Adobe and we’re in for even more confusion with Grants.gov trying to manage two different systems at once. Every time the feds create a unified standard, they change it later. Call me crazy, but I predict even more chaos, particularly since HUD, a notoriously dysfunctional agency even by federal standards, is the guinea pig and will use Adobe for all SuperNOFA submissions this year.

I remember when HUD first used Grants.gov a few years ago and the process for all of their submissions got mucked up somehow, resulting in extensions and re-submissions for every SuperNOFA program. History could repeat itself, as after 30+ years of working with HUD, I have every confidence in their ability to screw up the submission process. If you’re applying for a HUD grant this year, I recommend uploading at least a week early.

We’ll keep you posted on our experience with the new and perhaps improved Grants.gov system. We still prefer using paper submissions, when allowed, as we know exactly what they will look like on the other end and, furthermore, I am 100% certain that no federal proposals are being reviewed on computer screens (think about the oddball collection of 14″ CRTs likely to be found in the bowels of HUD central and you can assume everything is being printed out at the other end anyway). With a paper submission, you know what you sent and what the agency received. With an electronic submission, you have the ever popular GIGO, “garbage in/garbage out,” problem.


*An aside for those of you who are panting for an obscure movie reference—the first movie role of Justin Long’s, who plays the Mac Guy, was the obsessed young fan in the great Star Trek spoof, Galaxy Quest, with its pearls of wisdom for all grant writers, “Never give up, never surrender!”