The Business of Government Hour

 

About the show

The Business of Government Hour features a conversation about management with a government executive who is changing the way government does business. The executives discuss their careers and the management challenges facing their organizations. Past government executives include Administrators, Chief Financial Officers, Chief Information Officers, Chief Operating Officers, Commissioners, Controllers, Directors, and Undersecretaries.

The interviews

Join the IBM Center for a weekly conversation about management with a government executive who is changing the way government does business.

Rebecca Spitzgo interview

Friday, October 15th, 2004 - 20:00
Phrase: 
"Grants.gov was created to provide a single website for all federal grant opportunities. There are over 900 grant programs from 26 federal agencies that award over $360 billion dollars a year."
Radio show date: 
Sat, 10/16/2004
Guest: 
Intro text: 
Innovation; Leadership; Technology and E-Government...

Innovation; Leadership; Technology and E-Government

Magazine profile: 
Complete transcript: 

Thursday, September 2, 2004

Arlington, Virginia

Mr. Lawrence: Good morning and welcome to The Business of Government Hour. I'm Paul Lawrence, partner in charge of The IBM Center for the Business of Government. We created the center in 1998 to encourage discussion and research into new approaches to improving government effectiveness. You can find out more about the center by visiting us on the web at businessofgovernment.org.

The Business of Government Radio Show Hour features a conversation about management with a government executive who is changing the way government does business. Our conversation this morning is with Rebecca Spitzgo, Program Manager for the Grants.gov Initiative, which is managed by the Department of Health & Human Services. Good morning, Becky.

Ms. Spitzgo: Good morning,

Mr. Lawrence: And joining us in or conversation also from IBM is Laurie Dornak.

Ms. Dornak: Good morning.

Mr. Lawrence: Well, Becky, let's start by learning more about grants.gov. Could you tell us about the program and when and why was it created?

Ms. Spitzgo: Grants.gov was created to provide a single website for all federal grant opportunities. It was called for from the President's Management Agenda and also as part of the Public Law 106-107, which is to streamline and simplify the way the federal government does grants. It simplifies the grants management process by providing a central online system to find and apply for grants across the federal government.

There are over 900 grant programs from 26 federal agencies that award over 360-plus billion dollars a year, also one of the 24 federal cross-government initiatives for the e-government initiatives that focus on providing government-wide service. It is one of only two of the e-government initiatives that in a recent GAO audit were found to have met all of the goals that were established for the initiative back in February of '02. The site itself was launched in October 2003. We are now in full production. We've had millions of visitors and thousands of users and all the federal agencies are participating and posting opportunities.

Mr. Lawrence: You mention goals. Could you tell us about the goals of the program and even the vision?

Ms. Spitzgo: The vision of the program is to provide that single site, to provide a customer face to the government and to do business in the same way no matter who you're doing business with across the 26 federal agencies. So the goals were to first provide a find site, some find opportunities. Prior to grants.gov every agency posted opportunities either maybe through the Federal Register or on their own individual websites and there was no central place to easily find and search for grants.

So first we brought together the fined piece and that was launched as a pilot in July 2002. We started ramping up in February'03 and went into full production in November 2003. The apply piece is the other part of grants.gov and this allows people to apply electronically for grants. And that was launched in October 2003 so one of the goals was to stand that site up and provide a single way to apply for federal grants.

The other part of that was also to provide a common look and feel for how to apply for federal grants. So we came up with a core data set that some portion of that is used for every program that is announced and published on grants.gov so it gives users that consistency that every time they apply for a grant they see the same thing, they download those forms, they can use them, the required fields are marked in the same way, the logic works the same way, so they don't have to relearn the process every single time they go to apply for another program at a different agency.

Mr. Lawrence: You mentioned earlier the many different agencies involved, the wide range of grants that are given. Could you talk about grants.gov and its relationship to other federal departments and agencies?

Ms. Spitzgo: Well, there are 26 federal grant making agencies across the government. Of those 11 are what we call partner agencies for this e-government initiative. The partner agencies have supported the project for the first two years by contributing funds as well as detailees to the project. Those partner agencies are HHS, who's the managing partner, we have Defense, Education, HUD, Justice, Transportation, Agriculture, Commerce, and Labor. FEMA was one of the originals. Now that's been changed to Homeland Security and NSF and we've also just recently expanded as we moved to more of a fee for service so we have two additional rotating seats that have been added to our government structure and those will rotate every six months.

We also work with OMB very closely. They were the co-sponsor of all the e-gov initiatives, overseeing them and giving them guidance. Other partners or obviously the grant communities, which include associations, colleges, and universities, anyone we leverage into help to reach out to tell them about the new initiative and how it can help them find and apply for grants.

Ms. Dornak: Becky, you've mentioned that the Department of Health and Human Services is the lead on the program. Why was it selected as the lead?

Ms. Spitzgo: HHS is the largest grant making agency across the federal government. It represents almost 60 percent of the grant dollars that are awarded annually. The other ten partner agencies are then the next largest so that is part of how they became the partners for this important initiative.

Ms. Dornak: And the partners contribute to the budget for the program?

Ms. Spitzgo: Yes, for the first phase, which covered a two-year period, the partners contributed money as well as detailees, FTEs which they continue to pay for. There was an algorithm structured and set up to distinguish agencies as small, medium, and large based on the number of awards that they made in the previous year and then the dollars were allocated based on the estimates of what it would take to make the program successful and be able to meet its goal in the first two years.

Ms. Dornak: As the program manager for a cross-agency program or initiative there are quite a number of roles and responsibilities that you must have. Can you explain a little bit about your current roles and responsibilities as a grants.gov program manager?

Ms. Spitzgo: As a program manager I obviously oversee the efforts of the initiatives. We have numerous goals that we've had for the initiative since it began. Also have to work with the agencies in bringing them on board, defining ramp-up strategies on how are we going to get the usage up. The agencies are all participating but obviously it's taken them a while to figure out how does this fit within their process and how can they move to doing business in a more streamlined and consolidated in that single face to the government. So we also have a governance board and I chair that Executive Board and that meets monthly and through that Board we take any funding issues, any policy issues, that we are considering. We give them financial updates of how we're spending the money because it was their money, talk about how we're doing with meeting the milestones, any issues that might have come up that we previously hadn't anticipated.

We have stakeholders meeting monthly. So I will usually chair those stakeholders meetings and that's usually for our federal agencies to give them information and continue to let them know the goals that we are meeting and what's going on in the project office and how close and where we're moving with things so that they can prepare and have their processes in place and figure out how to pull those together and then identify what are some of the missing links, where do we see there are some voids, where are we getting a lot of questions. I might go out in the field and we'll talk to the grant communities. We get a lot of feedback on how's the project doing. Where's the value of the project, what works, what doesn't work, what they still want to see that we're not delivering yet. So there's a lot of interaction on both sides both within the federal government as well as with the grants community.

Ms. Dornak: That's a lot of ground to cover. Who do you report to?

Ms. Spitzgo: As the program manager and since HHS is the managing partner officially I report to and I work for Health and Human Services. But I also report to very much the governance structure, which is the Executive Board, have a lot of interaction with OMB. We report weekly to them so I have lots of bosses and that keeps me busy making sure that we're going down the right track.

Ms. Dornak: Could you tell us a little bit about your career before coming into this position?

Ms. Spitzgo: My career started a while back at the Department of Education and I started there and I began working in the grants arena in the early '80s. I actually started working in what we called our application control center where we received grants. So you get a lot of first hand knowledge of applications and the type of information that comes in and you get to see those. From there I moved and started working more with the grants system that supported the grant process and provided service not only to our program offices but also our grant staff.

From there I managed the division that was responsible for the grants and contracts management system that was there. It was also responsible for what we called a scheduling function and this tracked and was a workload management tool to try to manage that workload so it didn't clump up at the end of the fiscal year, and what was really valuable from that was it tracked grants all the way through the life cycle from the beginning to the end so I got a very unique perspective of all the steps it took to actually do legislation and regulations through the actual award of the grant and to get it out the door.

From there I went over and I worked on our redesign of our grant system that was done in the mid-nineties and it was actually a core redesign of all of our financial systems and grant and contract system within the department and that was rolled out in '98 and that was a great experience. Obviously it's a department-wide system for grants and payment pulling together all of the users within the department, figuring out how to satisfy those needs and how to balance what we could provide and couldn't provide at the same time.

That system rolled out in about mid-'98 and a couple of years later we started building an e-grants component to that which was part of the original vision of the system and that was sometime in 2000 so we learned a lot. Then at that point was as we were doing our electronic grant system I had the opportunity to go out in the field, work with a lot of the users, hear what their requirements were from the grant community, and really getting to interact a lot which was the first opportunity I had had, that type of experience, because I was always more providing services within the department as opposed to externally to the grant community.

And then grants.gov came along and I had the opportunity. They were looking for detailees and this was in early in 2002 and I saw that as an opportunity to really do the right thing. There had been a lot of discussion about a consolidated government-wide system, a lot of effort, and I had attended many of those meetings so with the e-gov initiatives it really presented the opportunity to have some dedicated staff with money and a charge of having the President's Management Agenda call for a citizen-focused government. What I felt like was this is the opportunity, this may be the only shot we get, and to go over and try to be part of that. So I joined that team in June 2002 and served as the deputy role and then in April of this year the program manager, Charlie Havekost, who had been with the initiative when it was launched was asked by the Secretary of HHS to be the CIO for HHS so he moved into that role and I began the program manager and so that's how I've gotten where I am.

Mr. Lawrence: That's fascinating. Well, it's fair to say that you spend a lot of time with grants?

Ms. Spitzgo: Yes.

Mr. Lawrence: How does one apply for a grant using grants.gov? We'll ask Rebecca Spitzgo, the PM for the program, to take us through this when The Business of Government Hour continues.

(Intermission)

Mr. Lawrence: Welcome back to The Business of Government Hour. I'm Paul Lawrence and this morning's conversation is with Rebecca Spitzgo, Program Manager for grants.gov initiative, which is managed by the Department of Health and Human Services. And joining us in our conversation is Laurie Dornak.

Ms. Dornak: Becky, grants.gov has really changed the way citizens are finding and applying for grants. Can you describe the grant process that was in place prior to the grants.gov program?

Ms. Spitzgo: As we talked a about a little bit earlier, the process was very individual and unique to each grant-making agency. They were very much trying to meet the needs of the grantors or the potential applicants by making things available through their websites, publishing in the Federal Register. Some agencies had put up electronic grant systems and moved ahead with those. Many other agencies are still receiving paper.

We have agencies at all different levels and all different phases of the process but everyone was really driving for getting to an electronic process because we do have a mandate to do that within the government in the Public Law 106-107 as well as actually the Paperwork Elimination Act also calls for that. It called for all agencies to provide an electronic means for their customers to do business by October 2003. The feedback we were getting from the grant community was yes, we want to do business electronically but you now have 25 systems out there and they're all different and everyone's doing it the best they can and thinking of their grant community but I do business with lots of grant-making agencies so I would really rather have a single way to do that business with the government as opposed to a different way for every agency that I interact with.

Ms. Dornak: Well, two of your major customers would be the grant community at large as well as the agencies who work with you to put out applications on grants.gov. Can you explain the grants.gov process from the perspective of a potential grant applicant? How do they use it? And then maybe walk us through a real live example.

Ms. Spitzgo: First, the way we envision it is obviously the grant applicant or the potential applicant would first find a funding opportunity that they would be interested in applying to. So that's where the find part comes in. They would come to grants.gov, go into the find piece, and they would start searching for an opportunity and they can do this in many ways. They don't need to know what the agency is that they want to apply for. They can go in, put a subject matter into the full text search and search that way. They can go by eligible applicants.

Then they have an opportunity to look at what we call synopsis. Now, that never existed before grants.gov. It was very common to the contracts world but agencies just did a full announcement. So the synopsis gives you about 20 or 30 data elements of the points that people are usually the most interested in, how much money is there, how many awards are you going to make, what's the purpose for this, a very short brief on who is eligible, and if they look at that and find that this looks like something I'm really interested in then they go to the full announcement, and there is a link to the full announcement, and see the further details about how you apply and the real nitty-gritty about what's involved with this competition.

If they find they want to apply within the find piece there's what they call an apply button. They push that apply button. They would then be taken to the grants.gov apply portion of the system and be able to download the application package and this application package includes all the forms that they would need to fill out to apply as well as also the instructions of how you go about filling them out. They download these to their PC and once they've downloaded them they no longer need to be connected to the Internet. At this point everything can be done on their PC and they need no Internet connectivity and that was really important because that's one of the things that we heard as we did focus groups and we work with the grant community is it's often the smaller grantee that is really struggling to get into the federal grant arena and they don't have the resources.

They don't have the grant writers. They don't have someone to go and look and find the grants for them and they don't often have high-speed Internet connectivity so they're using telephone wires to go through so they don't want to always be connected to the Internet when they're filling out the forms. So the downloadable forms allow them to fill them out off-line. They do validation of data while they're filling those out and it tells them what's required, what's not required, what forms are required. Some are optional. Once they've completed them and they've saved them it forces them to save a copy on their hard drive. Then a submit button will become enabled and they submit it to grants.gov and we receive it, we give them a grant number, and at that point the agency is notified that you can come and pick up your application, someone has applied, and then the agency can pull that in to their back end system so that they can start doing their grant process.

Mr. Lawrence: In that description you talk a lot about the users and I'm curious. How did you incorporate the needs of the users into the development of the program?

Ms. Spitzgo: We did a prototype first of what we thought the system would look like, what the website might look like, and we ran some focus groups and we had a marketing firm, Rockbridge, that did that for us and they would ask questions like what do you think this button would do and, of course, the reaction was well, push it and let's we'll see what it does and we'll tell you if that's the right thing. And no, they wouldn't do that. They really wanted to try to make it as objective as possible so they walked people through that. And we did that both for the agencies as well as the grants community and we got some really good feedback from that. And from that we did a lot of re-design of the site and incorporated their comment.

We also went out and did some surveying of the applicants to see what they want grants.gov to provide them and how it should work and what kind of things were broken with the process right now. We also ran a pilot prior to launching the site which was run in June 2003 and we actually had about 100 applicants who came in, downloaded some forms, would register, process them, send them back, and then we ran focus groups to get feedback on the pilot. We also did this with the agencies as well. We had about well over half of the agencies participate as part of the pilot so they could get the experience of posting these application packages, pulling that application, trying to get the data into their system, and we also did a focus group of them to see what worked and then at that point we went into shut-down mode of okay, now we have to figure out what the right answer is so we can get this launched by the end of October.

Ms. Dornak: It sounds like your agency users have been involved pretty heavily all along. How has grants.gov changed the business processes for those agencies giving out grants?

Ms. Spitzgo: We don't touch too much the business process of the federal agencies and I think that was an important piece in the overall acceptance of moving to a government-wide system. The find piece, yes, now they do come to grants.gov and they publish those opportunities. And they do come there to also publish their grant packages. But once the grant application gets into their system their business pretty much stays the same. So they had just a few places that they really needed to tweak of who would post these opportunities on grants.gov. Who makes sure that if we still in the Federal Register that we got it out there within a day or so so that we know we do have that consolidated in that single site of all of the opportunities.

And the same is really true for apply. Who's going to do that? Are we going to do it from a centralized approach within the agency? Are we going to de-centralize it and have lots of people doing it? How are we going to pull our applications when they come in? Are we going to do that? They actually can do that in a system-to-system manner and have their back end system pulling them or they can have someone come to website and pull it. And are we going to do that program by program or are we going to have it done centrally for the whole department.

We've actually had implementations in both ways. Some agencies have done it in a centralized manner and they pull all of them at one time through the system to system interface and a few others are doing it by competition and they've decentralized it and that's usually more of the smaller agencies that are operating that way.

Ms. Dornak: As you come up on the one-year anniversary for grants.gov apply have you seen an increase in the number of people who use find and apply for grants since the inception of the program?

Ms. Spitzgo: We've seen some significant increases especially over the last four to five months on the apply side but the find piece took off immediately. We went to full production of it in October 2003 and we were looking at once we got that full repository of all the federal opportunities out there of getting about 400,000 hits a week and mailing out e-mails because there is a subscription service that you can sign up for so you can get e-mails as things are posted. We were sending out about 150 e-mails during that time when it first launched and now we get over 1.2 million hits a week and that number has fluctuated as high as almost 1.5 and over 500,000 e-mails a week. So it's very interesting watching those numbers grow. When I think the find numbers just can't get any bigger they just continue to grow and the excitement is out there.

When we go out and give presentations, the feedback is wow, I just love the find piece. It's saving me so much time. I get my e-mail and I sit down with my coffee in the morning and I go through that e-mail and oh, within fifteen or twenty minutes I know everything the federal government has published about grants for the last day. And I'm done and I can send it on if I need to share it. So the reception for the find pieces has just been tremendous.

On the apply side we've also seen a very large growth in numbers. We launched the end of October 2003. We received our first electronic application in December, the first of December. We had about four or five agencies initially publish some packages but since that time over the spring and the early summer we are up to about 180 packages that have been posted out on grants.gov with I think we're up to now 16 of the 26 agencies have posted with many more queuing up to post in the next couple months and we have received just about 1,000 applications. We're at about 985 so we're all waiting for that big day when we go over that 1,000 mark which we think is a big milestone for grants.gov and certainly will happen prior to our first anniversary.

Mr. Lawrence: That was fascinating, especially the number of hits. What are the management challenges of running a program that touches so many federal agencies? We'll ask Rebecca Spitzgo, Program Manager for grants.gov, to give us her perspective when The Business of Government Hour returns.

(Intermission)

Mr. Lawrence: Welcome back to The Business of Government Hour. I'm Paul Lawrence, and this morning's conversation is with Rebecca Spitzgo, Program Manager for the grants.gov initiative, which is managed by the Department of Health and Human Services, and joining us in our conversation is Laurie Dornak.

Ms. Dornak: Becky, with such a diverse audience from the grant applicant community how do you reach out to so many potential different applicants and how do you market the services of grants.gov to that community?

Ms. Spitzgo: That's really been a challenge and we've used many different means to go about doing the marketing but very much we are very focused on that we do need to market the program. We've started out early on in identifying what we call channel partners. These were large organizations that already had outreach mechanisms in place to get to their members and we worked with identifying them so we could use them to provide information to via e-mails or mailing and then they could help push that word out.

We've also worked a lot with the grant-making agencies in identifying who their applicant community is and asked them for mailing lists or provide them information and then let them push that out. We truly are a very small office. Our numbers are small so we look to try to leverage the relationships that we have.

We also do a lot of presentations. We share it within the office, we go on the road to large conferences but also some small ones, some rural areas, because we feel like that's where the message can make the biggest difference and those are the folks that don't have as many resources to bear to actually find the federal grants. So a lot of it has been word of mouth which we think is a good thing.

Advertising and marketing will tell you word of mouth is the best type of advertisement you can get. So we work with doing the presentations. We've also contacted members of the Hill. Often they'll bring together some of their constituents and we'll go out and do a briefing for that and the marketing is a lot of e-mail as much as we can but we are also in the midst of launching a PR campaign right now to do some advertising in some journals targeted at particular segments of our grant community, doing some mailing, and then we'll evaluate how well that marketing campaign is driving our numbers up and getting us to where we need to go.

Ms. Dornak: The grant.gov program has received a number of accolades over this past year since its inception. Some of those included the FOSSE Showcase of Excellence Award and the National Grant Management Association's Electronic Solutions Award. Can you tell us a little bit more about these awards?

Ms. Spitzgo: Yes, the first award we received was at FOSSE and that was really exciting because it was the first one. Nominations went into the committee and they narrow things down to about ten finalists or so and then they make some selections that they feel are from the Federal Leadership Council's what they call their showcase of excellence. And they're looking for projects that have had an impact government-wide and have really made a difference and have brought that citizen centric approach to doing business electronically. Everyone who is selected as a finalist has a booth or a display at what the FOSSE calls e-town so that was one of the first booths that we set up. We got a lot of traffic to that booth, were able to share a lot of information about the program, and they had a luncheon and when we were selected. That was very exciting and we just feel like that's great PR for the program. It really helps to get the word out. Most of the technology-type magazines will cover FOSSE and follow up on that as well as there is a lot of e-mail that goes out so that helps us spread the word as well.

The National Grants Management Association's Electronic Solution Award was the next award that we received and that was probably April or May time frame. That was a new category and that was to recognize electronic solutions that had made a difference in the grant environment for the federal government. So being selected for this really helped to demonstrate the impact as well as acknowledge that this is a government-wide effort, people are aware of it, and part of the challenge is getting the information down to lots of people in an organization and making them aware of it and many of the grant-making agencies are very, very large and we have a few people who know about it so pushing it down in that organization has your grant specialist. It has some of your program people. It also has a lot of state representatives now. They have expanded it beyond just the federal government so that gave us a lot of exposure. That award was given out at their conference and we were very pleased to have been selected.

The third award that we recently received was an HHS award and it was the Secretary's award for distinguished service. And this is an annual awards program where they select awards that have made a significant difference in addressing and advancing the mission of the department. What was very unique about this, at least I find unique from my federal experience, is that the award wasn't just to the HHS employees that are part of the grants.gov program management office. It was to everyone who was part of that. So we had many detailees from Education, HUD, Transportation, NSF. All of those were also included in the award, anyone who was part of that and really made it happen. So it was nice to see it not be stove-piped into that agency mentality as we recognize our own people and this was recognizing a cross-government team of folks that had really done a lot to bring it together.

The citation that was on that award was "For Achieving Consensus Among the 26 Federal Grant- Making Agencies and Creating a Unified Web Storefront to Find and Apply for Federal Grants." So we were pleased and excited to be recognized within HHS as well.

Mr. Lawrence: In thinking about the scope of grant making in the federal government I'm just curious. Has this type of grant program ever been attempted before?

Ms. Spitzgo: There were efforts to do that and actually we're quite fortunate that those efforts took place because it gave us a great launching pad to getting the program going. There was what some people may remember called Fed Commons for a while through the Inter-Agency Electronic Grant Association, IAEGC. It was a group of agencies that had come together because they recognize the value of sharing best practices and that what they were doing in the grants area was similar across each agency and they were looking to have a common electronic system for the government and that's where the Fed Common's effort grew out of that. Originally before grants.gov existed Public Law 106-107 was signed into legislation in 1999 so there was an electronic component, a requirement for that law, and Fed Common was the means that they had hoped to fulfill that portion of the law with.

So the Fed Common group did a lot of work in looking at trying to find the define the architecture, what was going to be the approach, gathering some of the requirements, looking at some cross-agency data, and trying to come up with that core data set. But the biggest drawback was they didn't have funding and they didn't have dedicated staff and they really had no owner. It was really a group of people that came together. There wasn't an agency, a management structure. There was support within the federal grant community for it but not that agency structure to really help support and make it happen which has been very valuable.

So they had made a lot of strides forward. They had actually done a find pilot in working with GSA because the fedbizopps site, which is for finding all contract opportunities, the grants.gov find piece is very similar. It's almost the same, which is one of the reasons they were hoping to leverage that. So they had done a pilot trying to use the same data elements and from that they learned that we really needed to have some more that were specific and unique to the grants area.

So that work had already been done before grants.gov started so that really gave us a good place to start for the find piece. The 106-107 pre-award group was one of the groups. They were working on those find data elements and they were also looking on a standard format for announcements so all that work has just dovetailed right into grants.gov and we were able to take that and give it an electronic face to the community and so that really helped us a lot in launching that as well as we had a lot of agency efforts.

They had a tremendous number of lessons learned and even though they weren't doing it on a government-wide perspective they were doing it on a department-wide perspective. An agency like NSF, they've been doing it for ten years so they had learned a lot and could really share a lot of that information about how they did electronic grants, how they got their numbers up, what were some of the critical factors to consider. So we were very fortunate in having that foundation to build upon that really helped to launch our effort.

Ms. Dornak: So where do you see the grants.gov program going? When do you expect it will graduate from the e-government initiatives?

Ms. Spitzgo: Well, graduation is somewhat of a new concept. As we evolve and the e-gov programs evolve I think the original emphasis was creating them and making them succeed. And then it was okay, where's our next step so the next step that's been laid out is graduating or institutionalizing these so this is the way we do business across the federal government which is very important. We don't want these initiatives to stop. We want them to truly become the recognized way to do business.

OMB is really still trying to figure out what graduating means, when you've graduated. One of the key factors that they have identified is moving government-wide programs to what we call a fee for service. Now as we move into fiscal year '05 we're moving to a fee for service that all 26 grants-making agencies will be contributing to and supporting the grants.gov effort. So that's one means of graduating. One of the others is potentially when you've met all your goals and milestones that were originally laid out in the first two years and grants.gov has done that so we essentially feel we've graduated. We haven't yet worn the cap and gown yet or walked down the aisle but we are very close to being there and becoming an institution in a good sense within the federal government.

Mr. Lawrence: It's exciting to think about the first graduate. What does the future hold for this and other e-gov. initiatives? We'll ask Rebecca Spitzgo, Program Manager for grants.gov, for her thoughts when The Business of Government Hour returns.

(Intermission)

Mr. Lawrence: Welcome back to The Business of Government Hour. I'm Paul Lawrence, and this morning's conversation is with Rebecca Spitzgo, Program Manager for the grants.gov initiative, which is managed by the Department of Health & Human Services. Joining us in our conversation is Laurie Dornak.

Ms. Dornak: Becky, can you tell us a little bit about your upcoming areas of focus for the grants.gov program?

Ms. Spitzgo: Our focus is to ramp up and get our numbers up, get more agencies utilizing the system so that it is truly single site for government. And to do that we need to have all of the opportunities out there. We have received almost 1,000 applications which we're really excited about but we want to see that number grow by twenty times or more by this time next year.

And the agencies have spent a lot of time in trying to figure out how to make this work, how to streamline their processes, how to use some more of the common forms that we have put out there to be used on a government wide basis, so we have lots of things that are in the works right now and we really are at that tipping point of being able to go further, have many more programs out there, and for every program we put out there that's new that it could possibly introduce us to a new part of the grants community. So every time we put a new program out we do more outreach. We'll work with the agencies on reaching out to those grant communities that we may not have hit before.

We also want to see that we continue to hit some of those same grant communities over and over because once someone has registered once then they can use grants.gov. They only do that registration once for no matter what agency they're applying for. So their opportunity to leverage the system as they become familiar with it and their learning curve will go down substantially and the process will indeed become much easier. They will also be an advocate to help incentivize the agencies to publish additional opportunities and continue to get the usage up. So we're really looking forward to another very busy year and seeing our numbers continue to grow.

Ms. Dornak: Well, grants.gov has been a very successful e-government initiative thus far. Where do you think future initiatives will take us?

Ms. Spitzgo: The future initiatives for grants.gov will continue on until we finally get to a full implementation and full utilization across the federal government, and, as we talked about before, we do believe we are very close to institutionalizing grants.gov and it's become the way we do business. Grants.gov also works with some of the other e-gov initiatives, one of those being e-authentication. They are continuing to move forward with that initiative and we are just moving into some more technical things and improving the way that we can leverage credentials across the government so that people using the system do not have to continue to get different IDs every time. We could eventually hopefully get to that single sign-on.

We also work with the Integrated Acquisition Initiative, which is another e-gov initiative, by using the contractor central registry system and that's another one where we're leveraging what was done in contracts and we're also using it for grants and this continues to give us that government-wide focus and that's what we're looking for and we want to continue to support those and we'll grow with them as they continue to have their usage go up and we both go down this road together.

We also have some other initiatives that were introduced earlier this year by the Office of Management and Budget and these were called line of businesses and there are five of them and one of those is the grants line of business. That initiative is looking more at the back-end systems and consolidating the way those same 26 federal agencies do business. Right now typically every agency will build a customized grant-making system to meet their needs, to internally process these awards, and to obligate the money. So that initiative is looking is there is an opportunity to consolidate some of those systems and it's gone through its initial analysis stage and is about to deliver the business case to OMB and so that's going to be moving forward and one of the outcomes of their analysis is that grants.gov should continue to be the customer facing piece. So we see that there could be many more additional pieces that could be built on to grants.gov in addition to the find and apply. So we may see a lot more activity as we move forward into the upcoming fiscal year.

Mr. Lawrence: What advice do you have for other government managers who are tasked with cross-agency programs?

Ms. Spitzgo: It's extremely challenging but a lot of fun, I would say so it's worth the effort. Some of the things that have been very effective for grants.gov are really being able to throw off our agency hat and HHS has been a wonderful managing partner in allowing us to do that and truly not have an agency hat on and look at what is best for a government-wide initiative, not just a single agency.

This just allows you to look at it with very different eyes, having some dedicated staff on board to support it. Some of the other things that we did very early on that were quite helpful is defining success. What does success mean if we meet this goal? And by defining success then you know when you've met the goal and you can declare success and you create momentum from that. And momentum is an extremely important thing when you have a short time frame and you're trying to bring people along so that they can believe that this is going to be successful.

And even if they may not be truly hoping it's successful as they see it succeed they know they need to be part of it because they don't want to be left behind. So that momentum and that reassurance that we are continuing to succeed and continuing to manage those expectations really take you a very long way into making believers out of people that you are truly headed down that road to success.

Another key piece is also have some early wins. People need to know. They can't wait two years to see a product because they're not sure they're going to like the product. So if you have some early wins and successes they can see what you deliver. They can weigh in on those. They have a voice and you're listening. Our stakeholders meetings have been an excellent forum that allows agencies to ask whatever question they want to ask. It's an open forum and that's another thing, make it open. Let everyone know where the money's going, how you're doing it. It's not a secret.

If they want to be a part of it, well, detail someone over to us and you can be a part of that day to day process. You can have a spy as we used to call it and you can see what goes on and it's a wonderful opportunity for employees to do that detail as well it does give the agency insight and many of our detailees go back and brief the agencies and then they're an advocate for the program once they've gone back.

The other thing is defining the task. There's a scope creep. That's a killer. It's always a killer with any project. So you do need to very clearly say what we're going to deliver and what we're not going to deliver. And it doesn't mean that you're never going to deliver but this is what Version 1 is going to be. It's got to have x, y and z . We've heard you. We know we've got to have that as a minimum. We may try to do a few more things but the guarantee is you'll get x, y and z. So those have been important and guiding principles we've used throughout the project that have helped us succeed.

Mr. Lawrence: That's pretty strong advice and while we're on the advice giving let me ask you another question. What advice would you give to a person just starting a career in public service?

Ms. Spitzgo: I would advise them to take advantage of the many opportunities that are out there today. There's a lot of cross-agency efforts going on. It's truly the theme of the day, so to speak, but I don't think it's going away. It's not tied to one administration versus another. It is where government is headed. It's more economical to do business that way but, more than anything, it serves our customers the best. It's always what is it the customer truly needs as opposed to well, what fits best in my world.

So you really have to take yourself out of the federal environment sometime and figure out how can you serve your customers and get out there and try to find out what their needs are. The opportunities for details, for switching jobs sometimes, they just give you so much insight to other parts of the federal government and that tends to be a springboard at times to something else and I think well worth the risk to take that opportunity, to seize the moment if you really believe it's the right thing to do, and to be part of an effort. It's exciting and it's so motivating. So stay tuned in to the initiatives that are going on throughout the government and seize those opportunities as they come along.

Mr. Lawrence: That's a great final answer, Becky. I'm afraid we're out of time. Laurie and I want to thank you for joining us this morning.

Ms. Spitzgo: Well, thank you, Paul and Laurie. I would to like also mention the website for grants.gov. is www.grants.gov. I invite you to go out and visit the site. If you're one of our grant-making agencies and this is the first time you've heard about grants.gov there are points of contact out there for the federal agency and if you'd like to know more you can contact us or contact your point of contact within your agency to get more information. If you are a member of the grant community I would suggest you sign up for the find subscription service and start getting those e-mails every morning that tell you what's being published out on grants.gov so you'll know what funding opportunities are available to apply for. Thank you.

Mr. Lawrence: Thank you, Becky. This has been The Business of Government Hour featuring a conversation with Rebecca Spitzgo, Program Manager for the Grants.gov Initiative. Be sure and visit us on the web at Businessofgovernment.org. There you can learn more about our programs and research and get a transcript of today's very interesting conversation. Once again, that's Businessofgovernment.org. This is Paul Lawrence. Thank you for listening.

Rebecca Spitzgo interview
10/16/2004
"Grants.gov was created to provide a single website for all federal grant opportunities. There are over 900 grant programs from 26 federal agencies that award over $360 billion dollars a year."

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