The “What’s Next for Grants?” panel discussion at the National Grants Management Association (NGMA) 2021 Annual Grants Training on April 8th featured an all-star lineup of leaders in the grants management field. The panelists included, Alice Bettencourt of the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), Laura Watson of the Department of Labor (DOL), Andrea Brandon of the Department of the Interior (DOI), Sandra Webb of the Administration of Children and Families (ACF), and Julius Chang of GrantSolutions (a Federal shared software services provider).
Grants management is transforming from a time-consuming bureaucratic process to one that is using emerging technologies such as Artificial Intelligence (AI), machine learning, and robotic process automation (RPA). These technologies are helping to reduce recipient burden and move grants staff from focusing on the low-risk task-based processes to high-value efforts.
During the panel discussion, Andrea Brandon pointed to her own experience at DOI, where she has noted that a combination of the past year of remote work due to the COVID-19 pandemic and the increasing popularity of AI tools such as Amazon’s Alexa and Google Home in personal spaces has led many at her agency to become more comfortable with embracing these technologies. People have realized that AI is not as scary as it seems in the movies, and certain boundaries can be imposed to protect privacy. Becoming more comfortable internally with emerging technologies such as AI is essential before pushing them out to recipients.
Andrea, Sandra Webb of ACF and Laura Watson of DOL discussed how although many people across the Federal government are still using spreadsheets, emails, and PDF documents to track data, there is a huge push toward using shared services providers such as GrantSolutions to help automate processes and eliminate manual entry. As Laura pointed out, the more agencies that take part in a shared service, the more consolidation and standardization that can take place.
The panel also discussed how innovative grants projects are being developed, tested, and the benefits to both grantors and grant recipients. These projects, which cover many aspects of grants management, from reducing time to issue awards to better assessing risk, are being implemented across the Federal government.
Alice Bettencourt spoke about some of the exciting initiatives at HHS. HHS was recently designated as a Quality Service Management Office (QSMO) for grants to drive modernization of systems. Alice said, “Last year, we consolidated our Federal Financial Reporting so that no matter which agencies in HHS you have a grant from or how many, you go to the same place to file your Federal Financial Report. We’re looking for those types of things, through the QSMO, across the government, [and] we’re doing that as well within HHS. I think it makes life easier. I think we all know how many different places we log in to and how many different passwords we have. If you’re literally taking just a few minutes a day over all of the trillions of dollars that we have out there, that’s real savings. It’s maybe a little bit at a time, but it frees you up to do other things and to do your work much more quickly.”
It’s safe to say the future of grants is very closely tied to technology – and as more and more Federal agencies embrace them, the more grant recipients will benefit in the long run.