Tag Archives: Bureaucracy

Blast Bureaucrats for Inept Interpretations of Federal Regulations*

Jake received an email response to “FEMA and Grants.gov Together at Last” from a firefighter who is working on a Assistance to Firefighters (AFG) proposal who seems to have been given a bum steer by AFG Program Officer and Jake’s nemesis, Tom Harrington (for background, see “FEMA Tardiness, Grants.gov, and Dealing with Recalcitrant Bureaucrats” and the hilarious e-mail exchange with Mr. Harrington). According to our email correspondent, Mr. Harrington, the AFG contact person, said that vendors can’t help fire departments prepare grant applications, because he thinks this is forbidden by 44 CFR Part 13.

Is Mr. Harrington correct? A quick review of 44 CFR Part 13 reveals that it concerns uniform administrative requirements for grants to state and local governments. While the section contains lots of fascinating requirements, it is utterly silent on the ethics of who writes or pays for a grant proposal—which is not surprising, since I have never seen any Federal regs or RFPs that would preclude an applicant from getting help in grant writing, paid or volunteer.

While Mr. Harrington seems stuck on 44 CFR Part 13, I think he probably means Office of Management and Budget (OMB) Circular A-87, which covers cost principles for state, local and tribal governments and specifies how Federal lucre is to be spent. A key aspect of A-87 and grant administration in general is that, in addition to following Federal rules, public agencies must hew to their own procurement rules while squandering grant funds. As one who had several local government posts along the way, the most recent being the Community Development Director for the City of San Ramon in the early 1990s, and managed lots of federal and state grant funds, it basically comes down to the “smell test:” if you would not want your mother to read about how you spent Federal funds on the front page of the New York Times, don’t do it.

Federal regs don’t prevent a public agency from receiving grant writing help from others, including a potential vendor, but Mr. Harrington simply doesn’t like the idea and is intimidating AFG applicants by vague threats of dire consequences from scary sounding CFR citations. In other words, Mr. Harrington is probably a bureaucrat bully. Just like Clint Eastwood confronting Gene Hackman’s thugs in The Unforgiven’s saloon scene,** the only way to deal with bureaucratic bullies is to metaphorically blast away by reviewing the regs in question and, when one is satisfied that the threat is an illusion, sweetly asking the bureaucrat to cite chapter and verse to support his position. When he can’t follow through, you’ve got ’em.

Mr. Harrington is probably wrong, but his obstinate response illustrates an important point about dealing with agency contacts in general: although they can give you guidance, what’s written in RFPs ultimately counts. If something a program officer says contradicts the language of an RFP, assume the RFP is right. This can also work against you: if a program officer says that you don’t need a particular form, or that going over the page limit is acceptable, or that you don’t need to follow formatting requirements—all of which might make your life easier—don’t listen. Follow what you can read. Sometimes you’ll find internal contradictions in an RFP, and if so, contact the program officer and cite the conflicts, complete with page numbers and why you think a conflict exists. This may result in a modification to the RFP. But don’t assume that the verbal assurance of someone in the program will count for any more than the paper they’re written on.

Now that I’m satisfied that Mr. Harrington is pursuing his own agenda, rather than providing clear direction based on the regs, let’s examine the underlying ethical issue in juggling these rules and principles. While we do not go out of our way to be hired by vendors to prepare grant proposals for third party applicants, this does happen from time to time. For example, this almost happened with the current Carol M. White Physical Education Program (CMW PEP) RFP, which I blogged about in Brush the Dirt Off Your Shoulders: What to Do While Waiting for the Stimulus Bill to Pass. A large fitness equipment vendor called for a fee quote to have us write CMW PEP proposals for several of their school district clients. I explained that we would be happy to write the proposals as long as the vendor understood we would be working for the school districts, not colluding in getting their products purchased. I pointed out that their products would not be highlighted by brand name in the proposals, and the school districts would still have to follow applicable Federal regs, OMB circulars and their own purchasing rules.

If a vendor wants to try to rig bids, that’s there prerogative and they’ll ultimately be punished. As grant writers, our job is just to write ’em without resorting to unethical acts or breaking laws. To quote Bob Dylan quoting Hurricane Carter regarding how Carter felt about being a boxer, “It’s my work, he’d say, and I do it for pay.” A program officer like Mr. Harrington should no more care about who writes a proposal any more than he should care who fixes the applicant’s plumbing when it backs up. The punch line, of course, is that the vendor didn’t hire us for the CMW PEP, although we have written a few funded proposals under similar arrangements over the years, including one of my favorite Federal programs that is soon to get a huge influx of new money courtesy of the Stimulus Bill: Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS). If an applicant for any grant, however, is concerned about legal and ethical questions, they should ask for an opinion of law from their lawyer, not depend on random off-the-cuff interpretations by program officers.

Mr Harrington’s prejudice against grant writers has a long pedigree. Over the years, I’ve often come across the misguided conception that using an outside grant writer is somehow “cheating.” Way back in 1993 or so, when we were first in business, I tangled with a HUD Deputy Under Assistant Secretary about the then-new YouthBuild program regulations. When he discovered that we were grant writers working for a South Central LA nonprofit, he went ballistic and and accused me of “only wanting to line my pockets.” I responded by asking him if he was a volunteer and if he would like me to request his salary level and travel reimbursements through a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request. This calmed him, I got the interpretation of the regs I needed, and the proposal was ultimately funded. In discussing this post with my partner and wife, Kathy Seliger (a lucky woman, she gets to hear my pontifications 24 hours a day), and she pointed that hiring a grant writer is no more cheating than a woman wearing makeup to look her best. If you want to put the best face on your next grant proposal, call a qualified grant writer to apply proposalese makeup to make your application sparkle. While we do sometimes turn down assignments, it is not for the reason imagined by Mr. Harrington, but rather for real ethical problems determined by applying the simple smell test described above. You can also apply the smell test to bureaucrats, and if what they pitch seems wrong, it often is.


* The bureaucrats I am needling in this post are Federal program officers, who are also featured in my last post, Stimulus Bill Passes: Time for Fast and Furious Grant Writing. Not to worry: no Program Officers were actually harmed in the writing of this post.

** The Unforgiven is by far the best modern Western. As Clint’s Bill Munny responds to an accusation of being a “cowardly son of a bitch” for shooting an unarmed bartender in the saloon scene, “Well, he should have armed himself if he’s going to decorate his saloon with my friend” (the dead Morgan Freeman). Words to live by in challenging bureaucrats, who often only arm themselves with self-importance and don’t take the time to understand their own regs.

Adventures in Bureaucracy and the Long Tale of Deciphering Eligibility: A Farce Featuring the Department of Education’s Erin Pfeltz

There are numerous good reasons why we often make fun of the Department of Education. One recently appeared in the Seliger Funding Report. Subscribers saw the “Charter Schools Program (CSP) Grants to Non-State Educational Agencies for Planning, Program Design, and Implementation and for Dissemination” program in the June 16 newsletter. The eligibility criteria for it, however, are somewhat confusing:

Planning and Initial Implementation (CFDA No. 84.282B): Non-SEA eligible applicants in States with a State statute specifically authorizing the establishment of charter schools and in which the SEA elects not to participate in the CSP or does not have an application approved under the CSP.

So we have two criteria:

1) States that authorize charter schools and

2) That don’t participate in the CSP.

Since it is not abundantly clear which states are eligible, the RFP also lists the states participating in the CSP:

Arkansas, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, District of Columbia, Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Louisiana, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, Ohio, Oregon, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, Wisconsin.

Great! But does the Department of Education have a list of those that authorize charter schools and don’t participate? To find out, I called Erin Pfeltz, the contact person, but she didn’t answer, so I left a message and sent the following e-mail as well:

I left a voicemail for you a few minutes ago asking if you have a list of states in which organizations are eligible for the “Charter Schools Program (CSP) Grants to Non-State Educational Agencies for Planning, Program Design, and Implementation and for Dissemination.”

If so, can you send it to me?

She replied a day and a half later, too late for the newsletter:

The information in the federal register notice includes a list of states which currently have an approved application with the CSP (http://edocket.access.gpo.gov/2008/E8-13470.htm). Non-SEA applicants in those states should contact their SEA for information related to the CSP subgrant competition. More information on the Charter Schools Program can be found at http://www.ed.gov/programs/charter/index.html.

I replied with some quotes from the RFP and then said:

The RFP gives us a list of states that do participate in the CSP. My question is whether you have a list of states that a) have authorized charter schools and b) do not have an application approved under the CSP.

In other words, which states do not authorize charter schools?

Erin responded:

States without charter school legislation are: Alabama, Kentucky, Nebraska, North Dakota, South Dakota, Maine, Montana, Vermont, Washington, West Virginia.

And then I responded:

Subtracting those states and the ones that already participate in the CSP program leaves me with NV, AZ, WY, OK, IA, MO, MS, NH, RI, HI, AND AK.

So states from these states and only these states are eligible. Is that correct?

She said:

Eligible applicants from these states would be able to apply.

Notice the weasel words: she didn’t say that the states I listed were the actual and only ones eligible. So I sent back yet another note asking her to verify that and she replied “For the current competition, only eligible applicants from these states would be able to apply.”

Beautiful! Finally! After a half dozen or so e-mails, I extracted the crucial eligibility information. Based on her tenacious and expert obfuscation, she deserves to promoted, possibly to Undersecretary for Obscure RFP Development (isn’t it obvious that I’m only talking about the current competition, not every conceivable competition?).

Wouldn’t it have been easier if the initial RFP simply stated the eligible states? The obvious answer is “yes,” but it also wouldn’t leave room for potential mistakes from the Department of Education. Instead, the RFP eligibility is convoluted and hard to understand for reasons known chiefly to bureaucrats; when I asked Erin, she wrote, “The states are listed in that way to encourage eligible applicants whose states have an approved CSP grant to contact their state departments of education.” Maybe: but that reason smacks of being imagined after the fact, and the goal could’ve been more easily accomplished by just listing the 11 eligible states and then saying, “Everyone else, contact your SEA.” But the Department of Education has no incentive to make its applications easier for everyone else to understand—and it doesn’t.

When I wrote about Deconstructing the Question: How to Parse a Confused RFP and RFP Lunacy and Answering Repetitive or Impossible Questions, I was really writing about how needlessly hard it is to understand RFPs. This is another example of it, and why it’s important for grant writers to relax, take their time, and make sure they understand every aspect of what they’re reading. If you don’t, you shouldn’t hesitate to contact the funding organization when you’re flummoxed.

The material most people read most of the time, whether in newspapers, books, or blogs, is designed to be as easily comprehended as possible. Many things produced by bureaucracies, however, have other goals in mind—like laws, for example, which are designed to stymie clever lawyers rather than be understood by laymen. Such alternate goals and the processes leading to bad writing are in part explicated by Roger Shuy in Bureaucratic Language in Government & Business, a book I’ve referenced before and will no doubt mention again because it’s so useful for understanding how the system that produces RFPs like the one for the Charter Schools Program (CSP) Grants to Non-State Educational Agencies come about and why correspondence with people like Erin can be frustrating, especially for those not schooled in the art of assertiveness.* In grant writing, assertiveness is important because confused writing like the eligibility guidelines above is fairly common—like missing or broken links on state and federal websites. I recently tried finding information about grant awards made by the Administration for Children and Families, but the link was broken and the contact page has no e-mail addresses for technical problems. I sent an e-mail to their general address two weeks ago anyway and haven’t heard anything since.

Were it more important, I’d start making calls and moving up the food chain, but in this case it isn’t. Regardless, tenacity and patience are essential attributes for grant writers, who must be able to navigate the confused linguistic landscape of RFPs.


* Sorry for the long sentence, but I just dropped into a Proustian reverie brought on by RFPs instead of madeleines. Perhaps one of you readers can translate this long-winded sentence into French for me.

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.”