NOAA streamlines grant processing

New online system could be used by other agencies

Winning the contract is a "hall pass to go into any line office to talk about the grants program, and use that to leverage some other opportunities." ? Tom Bertke, director of strategic programs, STG Inc.

Olivier Douliery

Jane Lopez used to spend a lot of money shipping federal grant applications overnight and making multiple paper copies of them. Lopez cut those costs in December when she submitted an application to the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration and became the first to submit an application through the governmentwide grant application portal, Grants.gov.

The key to her savings was not just the Grants.gov portal, but also the Grants Online system being developed by NOAA to process grant applications sent to the agency.

While the Grants.gov portal allows grantees to search and apply for federal grants online, it does not handle back-office processing and awards. Those functions thus far are handled by each agency.

Many federal agencies can't process the applications electronically, so after they're received through Grants.gov, the old, time-consuming, costly paper trail begins again. NOAA's new system will eliminate those paper-based processes.

Grants Online "will be a great cost savings for all grantees and will save a lot of valuable time for the research community," said Lopez, director of sponsored programs at the Virginia Institute of Marine Science in Gloucester Point, Va.

Lopez said she "lives for the day" when Grants Online is fully developed and can support functions such as electronic submissions of financial reports.

That day will come in November when the system becomes fully operational, NOAA officials said.

NOAA has an even bigger goal: spread Grants Online beyond the agency to the rest of the Commerce Department. The system could even be used government-

wide, they said.

Already, $275,000 was added to the initial $6.5 million Grants Online contract to outline how it could accommodate the needs of four other Commerce agencies, said Sarah Maloney, chief information officer at NOAA's Office of Finance and Administration.

"The intent of the department is to look at common solutions, and this one is a big one," Maloney said.

Blueprint Technologies Inc., a Vienna, Va., subcontractor to prime contractor STG Inc. of Fairfax, Va., is conducting the requirements analysis, Maloney said. STG is handling program management, help desk and systems maintenance functions. Subcontractor BearingPoint Inc. of McLean, Va., along with STG, is doing software development, said Esther Burgess, vice president of government-

wide acquisition contracts at STG.

Competition for the fixed-price job was keen, and nine proposals were received, Maloney said.

"There were umpteen vendors calling and saying, 'Can we talk to you about our experience in grants?' even before the request went out," Maloney said. "I think the vendors really see this as the tip of the iceberg. The conclusion among them was that there was no common [grants] solution ... [and] they know we can interface with Grants.gov."

NOAA's Grants Online provides savings to the agency as well as to grant applicants. The new system, by eliminating paper-based processes, will generate an annual data-entry time savings of 2,833 days, according to NOAA officials. That time now will be available for application review and award compliance activities, the most important grant-giving tasks.

"Presently, we are re-keying the same data into 12 or 13 different back-office, stovepiped systems. This will move the federal work force from being glorified clerk-typists to being better stewards of the government's funds," said Steve Drescher, policy adviser for NOAA grants.

The new system also will allow agency officials to see on whose desk an application is lingering , said Ken Sragg, Grants Online project manager.

"We don't claim IT is going to fix all the holdups, but we're going to be able to turn on the lights and see where the bottlenecks are," Sragg said.

NOAA Administrator Conrad Lautenbacher has championed Grants Online. "[He] said he didn't understand how we could give away so much money and have people so unhappy with us," Maloney said. "It was taking a year to get a grant from NOAA, on average."

NOAA awards the bulk of Commerce Department grants, about 1,500 grants worth more than $850 million annually, Maloney said.

At Lautenbacher's urging, NOAA's grant-giving offices have participated not only in developing Grants Online, but also in reworking internal procedures to speed the process.

For instance, some application deadlines have been changed to spread work out more evenly over each year, Maloney said.

Winning the contract has allowed STG officials to pursue additional work in NOAA and could produce opportunities in other agencies, said Tom Bertke, director of strategic programs at STG.

"It's a hall pass to go into any line office to talk about the grants program, and use that to leverage some other opportunities. It is getting us into some areas where we don't have business," Bertke said. "A lot of contractors knew how important this project was to upper-level NOAA leadership. It's a good one to have your name associated with."

NOAA is at least a year ahead of any other agency that is trying to build a back-end grant processing system that will work with Grants.gov, Bertke said.

"We're hoping other agencies will consider this [solution]," he said. "We are building the base. Why go out and reinvent the wheel?"

Staff Writer Gail Repsher Emery can be reached at gemery@postnewsweektech.com.

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