Grants Management:

EPA Has Opportunities to Improve Planning and Compliance Monitoring

GAO-15-618: Published: Aug 17, 2015. Publicly Released: Sep 17, 2015.

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What GAO Found

Of the 17 performance goals in its 2009–2013 grants management plan, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) fully met 2, partially met 6, and did not meet 1. EPA did not measure its progress for the other 8 goals. EPA officials provided several reasons for meeting relatively few of the performance goals and not measuring the others. For example, according to officials, EPA did not measure progress for some goals because it redirected resources from achieving grants management goals to managing American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 grants, under which EPA more than doubled its grants in 2009. For 5 goals where EPA either did not meet the goal or did not measure performance, officials reported that there was no impact on the grants management program because EPA took mitigating actions or the negative effect of missing the goal was minimal. However, for 10 goals, GAO found a negative effect of EPA not measuring or partially meeting the goals, including an absence of data on compliance with policies, inefficient processes that increased workload, delayed processes for awarding grants, and delayed training and policy implementation.

As of May 2015, EPA's draft 2016–2020 grants management plan partially follows four relevant leading practices for federal strategic planning that GAO identified from prior work and Office of Management and Budget (OMB) guidance. Specifically, the draft plan

sets 5 strategic goals but has yet to link them to an overarching mission statement,

includes strategic objectives but has yet to define strategies to address management challenges or identify resources needed to achieve the goals,

ensures leadership accountability for just 1 of the 5 strategic goals, and

includes 11 performance measures but has so far only one measurable target.

By fully incorporating these leading practices, EPA could have better assurance that it has established an effective framework to guide and assess its efforts to meet its grants management goals and help address long-standing grants management weaknesses.

EPA has made progress monitoring grants management directives agencywide since GAO's 2006 report. For instance, EPA electronically tracks unspent grant funds and the timely submission of grantee reports. However, two key challenges hamper EPA's efforts to monitor such directives. First, 8 out of 10 regional offices use paper files to document compliance with grants management directives, so monitoring these offices' compliance requires resource-intensive manual file reviews. Second, the limited reporting and analysis capabilities of its IT systems leave EPA without agencywide information for most of the 212 directive requirements GAO reviewed. Although EPA deployed two web-based reporting tools to pull data from its IT system, it uses them to track 8 percent, or 17, of the 212 grants directive requirements GAO reviewed, making it difficult for managers to compare actual performance to expected results agencywide. EPA plans to fully implement an updated IT system by 2017, but it has had similar plans since 2009 and has not yet done so. By developing ways to more effectively use existing web-based tools until it implements its new IT system, EPA could better monitor compliance with grants management directives agencywide.

Why GAO Did This Study

In 2014, EPA disbursed about $4.6 billion in grants through its headquarters and 10 regional offices to states and others, in part to implement laws. In 2006, GAO identified weaknesses in EPA's grants management program, including the absence of goals, and made recommendations to address them. As part of its response to GAO's 2006 recommendations, EPA issued a 2009-2013 grants management plan.

GAO was asked to follow up on its 2006 review. This report examines (1) the extent to which EPA met the goals in its 2009–2013 plan, (2) the extent to which its draft 2016–2020 plan follows relevant leading practices for strategic grants management planning, and (3) the progress EPA has made since 2006 in monitoring agencywide compliance with grants directives.

GAO analyzed EPA's 2009–2013 plan and obtained EPA officials' responses to a standard set of questions regarding progress in achieving the goals; compared the draft 2016–2020 plan to four leading strategic planning practices relevant to grants management; compared 212 requirements from relevant grants directives to requirements tracked in EPA's grants management systems; and interviewed agency officials.

What GAO Recommends

GAO recommends, among other things, that EPA fully follow leading strategic planning practices in its draft 2016–2020 plan and develop ways to more effectively use its web-based tools for monitoring compliance with directives. EPA generally agreed with GAO's findings and recommendations.

For more information, contact J. Alfredo Gómez at (202) 512-3841 or gomezj@gao.gov.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In response to our recommendation, EPA fully incorporated each of the relevant leading practices for federal strategic planning in its final 2016-2020 grants management plan, issued in February, 2016. For example, EPA included a mission statement and an annual priority-setting process to identify strategies to address management challenges and the resources needed to achieve its goals . EPA also incorporated mechanisms to ensure leadership accountability for achieving results including numeric targets and time frames for each action identified in performance measures. Consequently, EPA has better assurance that its 2016-2020 grants management plan is an effective framework to guide and assess its efforts to meet its grants management goals.

    Recommendation: The EPA Administrator should direct the Office of Grants and Debarment (OGD) to incorporate all leading practices in federal strategic planning relevant to grants management as it finalizes its draft 2016-2020 grants management plan, such as defining strategies that address management challenges that may threaten the agency's ability to meet long-term goals and identifying the resources, actions, and time frames needed to meet these goals.

    Agency Affected: Environmental Protection Agency

  2. Status: Open

    Comments: According to EPA officials, the Office of Grants and Debarment (OGD) established an agency-wide electronic grants record workgroup in fiscal year 2016. The workgroup identified the contents of the electronic grant file, technical options, and evaluation criteria. OGD completed its alternatives analysis for scope, general approach, and requirements in fiscal year 2017. As of May 2017, the next phase of work is on hold, subject to available funds and prioritization of work.

    Recommendation: The EPA Administrator should direct OGD to develop a timetable with milestones and identify and allocate resources for adopting electronic records management for all 10 regional offices.

    Agency Affected: Environmental Protection Agency

  3. Status: Open

    Comments: Implementation efforts are ongoing. According to EPA officials, OGD is conducting a multi-modular project to upgrade the agency's grants management IT system. As of May 2017, the final module is on schedule for deployment in fiscal year 2018. OGD will incorporate performance tracking of priority directives in accordance with the policy framework of the new grants management plan.

    Recommendation: The EPA Administrator should direct OGD to implement plans for adopting an up-to-date and comprehensive IT system by 2017 that will provide accurate and timely data on agencywide compliance with grants management directives.

    Agency Affected: Environmental Protection Agency

  4. Status: Open

    Comments: Implementation efforts are ongoing. According to EPA officials, OGD has developed the capability to provide managers cumulative annual baseline monitoring data. Further capabilities of web-based tools, namely the replacement of OGD's primary tool Quik Reports, was scheduled for deployment in fiscal year 2017. This effort, combined with updates to the Grants Datamart, will provide long-term enhancements for EPA's grant reporting needs. As of May 2017, the modernization of supported tools and web applications continues. EPA officials also said that extending centralized grant data to other internal systems is improving the continuity of data.

    Recommendation: Until the new IT system is implemented, the EPA Administrator should direct OGD to develop ways to more effectively use existing web-based tools to better monitor agencywide compliance with grants management directives.

    Agency Affected: Environmental Protection Agency

 

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