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E-Collaboration Pays Off

Grants.gov and FirstGov.gov reap the benefits—and the return on investment—of cross-agency cooperation.

When the District of Columbia needs federal
grant money, the Office of Partnerships and
Grants Development goes to the Web.
OPGD, which is part of the mayor's office,
finds federal grants for D.C. agencies and
helps the agencies apply for funds, most of which go to health,
human services and public education programs. Mindful of the
diverse needs of the agencies and nonprofit and faith-based
organizations that rely on its help, OPGD's staff is always on the
lookout for "grants from A to Z," says Luisa Montero, the
organization's deputy director.

Until recently, that meant poring through volumes of the
Federal Register and scores of Web sites for grant
announcements—a time-consuming and often tedious process.
Since November, however, Montero and her staff have
streamlined their search process by using Grants.gov, a Web site
that publicizes grants opportunities from 26 federal agencies.
"Grants.gov cuts down on the time we spend looking for grants
because now we're looking in one place," she says.

Grants.gov isn't the only cross-agency
e-government initiative that's beginning to
pay off. USAServices, a government
information project that includes the

FirstGov.gov Web site, a contact center
and publications, is also booming with
traffic. Currently, the Web site alone is
recording 17 million page views per
month, up from an average of 14 million
per month in the previous year.

These two government initiatives save
time and reduce frustrations for their
audiences, but equally significant are the
lessons they offer other agencies on how
to make collaborative e-government a
practical success. At the core of each of the
two efforts are strategies for efficient and
economical cross-agency cooperation.

"The emerging focus within the federal
government is on finding areas where
agencies can pool resources," says Robin
Lineberger, senior vice president for
the federal government practice of
BearingPoint, a consulting firm based in
McLean, Va. "Reusing and cross-utilizing
intellectual capital means reduced
implementation costs."

So far, so good, say site users. Since
OPGD has been using Grants.gov for only
a few months, Montero hasn't yet
quantified savings in staff time or money.
Nevertheless, she does call the site a
resource-optimizing success.

But saved time and money aren't the
only benefits Grants.gov offers. Perhaps
even more important is that it reduces the
fear that valuable grant opportunities
might fall through the cracks. "We're
using it as a benchmark," Montero
states. "Over the past few months,
there's been a gradual movement toward
100 percent of the grants opportunities
out there [being posted on the site], and
that's really encouraging."

Making the Business Case

The foundation of the Grants.gov
initiative is a well-defined business case.
The elements of the business case are
defined by Exhibit 300 capital request
guidelines from the Office of
Management and Budget (OMB). "The
business case defines the risks, costs,
benefits and value that are applicable to
all the agencies," which is essential for a
project that cuts across more than two
dozen federal entities, says Charles
Havekost, CIO of the Department of
Health and Human Services and former
program manager of Grants.gov.

Much of the business case centers on
the benefits of having one system to
manage grant announcements and
application submissions. With this single
system, grant seekers, such as the District
of Columbia, aren't forced to learn a
different process unique to each granting
agency. "Applicants need to learn only one
system, one user ID, one password," says
Rebecca Spitzgo, Grants.gov program
manager, who was the deputy program
manager under Havekost.

To accommodate the diversity of
back-end IT systems among agencies,
the Grants.gov organizers designed the
system to be interoperable with any of the
existing back-end processes. When an
organization submits a grant application
to Grants.gov, the Web site sends the
electronic form to the appropriate agency,
where the application may be placed in
relational databases, financial systems or
document management programs.

The business case for Grants.gov
required approval from an 11-member
executive board. The board included
executive-level representatives from
OMB, the departments of Agriculture,
Commerce, Education, Housing and
Urban Development, Labor and five other
agencies. The knowledge that their
business case would be scrutinized by an
extensive cross-agency panel compelled
Grants.gov's managers to look at the
grant process from many viewpoints.

"Federal grant-makers often view their
own agency-specific grants systems as
perfect, but had to be convinced that
dealing with many different systems is
often burdensome from the grantee's
perspective," Havekost says. "The business
case was a chance to push that message
beyond bureaucratic gobbledygook."

The next step in Grants.gov's
development focused on the processes
for "find" and "apply": the grant-announcement and application-acceptance
components. Of the two, the apply tool
needed the most attention—and continues
to be upgraded. It draws heavily from
Form 424, the federal government's
standard document for grant requests.

The standard form works well for the
formula and block-grant process, but
Grants.gov is refining it to capture the
additional data required for more complex
competitive grants, such as those awarded
by the National Science Foundation.

"The NSF, with the National Institutes
of Health and the Department of Energy,
took the lead in developing what has
become known as the Research and
Related data set," says Mary Santonastasso,
director of NSF's Division of Grants and
Agreements. "Once approved by OMB,
this data set will be adopted by Grants.gov
as the core application for competitive
research applications."

Using feedback from focus groups and
direct communications, Grants.gov is also
working to tailor the visitor's experience
of the site, depending on the applicant's
organizational size, funding needs and
level of IT sophistication. For example,
when some grant seekers who were
accessing the site via slow dial-up modem
connections complained about the time it
took and the broken connections that
hindered filling out the online forms,

Grants.gov took action. The site now
enables applicants to download forms,
complete them offline and then reconnect
to upload the forms.

"Grants.gov simulates and improves
upon the paper process, which we know
is taking a step backward in the eyes
of some agencies," Spitzgo points out.
"But we have to look at this from a
governmentwide perspective and what
is best for the citizen: Not everyone
in the applicant community has
sophisticated computer systems."

The efforts are paying off. According
to Spitzgo, Grants.gov gets more than
1 million hits each week, and has received
more than 750 grant submissions.

Identifying the ROI

USA Services' FirstGov.gov is another
cross-agency collaboration. Directed by
the General Services Administration
(GSA), the site received funding from 22
other federal agencies for two years before
an annual appropriation became part of
the federal budget.

Today, millions of citizens go to
FirstGov.gov to find information. As
with Grants.gov, a valid business case
lies at the heart of this endeavor.

"Business cases always identify the ROI
[return on investment], and in our case
OMB recognized both the tangible and
intangible benefits," says Teresa Nasif,
director of the Federal Citizen Information
Center in GSA's Office of Citizen Services
and Communications (OCSC), which is
responsible for FirstGov.gov. Tangible
benefits may be quantified through cost
savings, but intangibles, while harder to
pin down, are also important.

"The intangibles are measured in the
increased trust level of citizens who don't
have to spend hours trying to guess which
agency they need to go to for some
information or service," Nasif adds.

Although Web-based services garner a
lot of press, USAServices' executives
believe FirstGov.gov can be successful
only if it's part of a larger package that
gives citizens choices for communicating
with the government. As a result, USA
Services also assists resource-poor federal
agencies in distributing publications and
fielding calls and e-mails from citizens.

"If a citizen calls Social Security but
really needs to speak with Labor, he can end
up in phone-tree hell," says M.J. Jameson,
GSA's associate administrator for OCSC.
Now, the call goes to the USAServices
contact center where a service rep identifies
the proper recipient. The contact center also
responds to e-mails. To date, 20 agencies are
using this free USA Services offering.

Alternatively, agencies can opt for a
fee-based service in which USAServices'
contact center is the initial contact point for
queries. Contact center reps are trained to
handle each agency's most frequently asked
questions, reserving agency staffers' time for
dealing with more complex inquiries.
About eight agencies use this service.

"FirstGov.gov is the big engine that
drives us because so many people are on
the Web now, but some people still want to
call when they have a personal question,"

Jameson says. "So, there are efficiencies in
offering all these communications channels
under one roof. The savings are now just
coming to light."

And that light is shining on the payoff
behind the promise of e-government.

CROSS-AGENCY COLLABORATION

• What it is: Pooling management and technology resources
among a wide range of agencies to launch Web sites beneficial to
each participant

• Why it's important: End users receive better customer
service while agencies launch sites more quickly and economically

• Who benefits: Agencies and their constituents

• Where the danger lies: If poorly managed, the projects
may never get off the ground

THE CHALLENGES OF E-GOV COLLABORATION

It may take two to tango, but e-government collaboration requires
many more partners.

With first-generation capabilities well-launched, Grants.gov and
USA Services managers say successful collaboration takes careful
planning and diligent leadership.

"Creating cultural change within the federal government is a tall
order," says GSA Associate Administrator M.J. Jameson. "We've got to
look differently at how we do things. We can't make decisions based
on what's most convenient for us. If it's inconvenient for citizens in
general, it just won't fly.

"People today expect that when they send an e-mail, it will get
an almost immediate response. People don't expect quite the same
response from the government, but more and more, that's what
they'll start demanding."

Providing this kind of response requires collaboration and the
technology to support it. Since many e-government projects involve
multiple agencies, standards-based systems, rather than proprietary
applications, are a must. Web services and Simple Object Access
Protocol underpin the communications links at the back end of
Grants.gov.

"The challenge is to have an open platform and standards that can
interface with any technology out there," says Rebecca Spitzgo,
Grants.gov program manager. "Using Web services, we built the
interface on the Grants.gov side. Now it's up to the individual
agencies to talk to it."

To do this, her group created a Web services reference
implementation that agency IT developers use for identifying and
fixing incompatibilities in their in-house grants-processing systems.

HEAVY PROMOTION

Simply launching an effective
site and then hoping people will
find it isn't a strategy for
success. Consequently,
marketing is a growing element
of the maturation process for
Grants.gov and FirstGov.gov.

The Office of Management
and Budget is pushing agencies
to heavily promote the federal
government's citizen-contact
services during the next two
years. Since the summer of 2003,
FirstGov.gov has persuaded
broadcast and print media
outlets to run about $9.4 million
in free ads for the initiative.

Also vital to success is a
formal structure for ongoing
communications. The Grants.gov
board meets monthly, and
stakeholders have get-togethers
with grant seekers. Grants.gov
organizers listen to suggestions
for improving the site, while
agency members offer advice on
how to navigate the grant
process. From these meetings,
Grants.gov organizers learned
that applicants prefer a Web
interface that's simple and easy
to use, not one packed with
flashy technology features.

"Bringing in the user
perspective is tremendously
important," Grants.gov Program
Manager Rebecca Spitzgo says.
These meetings helped manage
expectations. "When we had an
idea for a new capability, we'd
discuss it at a stakeholders'

meeting," she adds. "We'd say,
'This is when we'll have it, and
this is how we'll measure its
success.' "

Deputy Director Luisa
Montero of the District of
Columbia's mayor's grants office
appreciates this openness.
"There's a sense in the applicant
community that we've been
listened to," she says.

FIVE KEYS TO E-GOV COLLABORATION

1. Provide features and functions based on end-user needs, not
rollout expediency.

2. Use standards-based technology to keep incompatibilities to a
minimum.

3. Establish a pipeline for regular communications between site
organizers and users.

4. Manage expectations: Make it clear how and when a new feature
will be upgraded if its first iteration doesn't deliver a complete
range of capabilities.

5. Budget time and resources for marketing. The best Web sites will
go unused if their core audience doesn't know they exist.

Dec 31 2009

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