Grant Programs:

Design Features Shape Flexibility, Accountability, and Performance Information

GGD-98-137: Published: Jun 22, 1998. Publicly Released: Jun 22, 1998.

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Pursuant to a congressional request, GAO conducted a comparative study of block grants and similar programs that give state or local governments substantial flexibility in determining how funds are to be used, focusing on: (1) examining the design characteristics of these programs that have implications for flexibility, accountability, and programs' ability to collect information about performance as envisioned in the Government Performance and Results Act; (2) identifying the kinds and sources of performance information that programs with various characteristics have utilized and the strengths and weaknesses of this information; and (3) providing guidance to legislators and agency officials concerning the information collection options available for programs with various designs.

GAO noted that: (1) flexible grants are an adaptable policy tool and are found in fields from urban transit to community mental health; (2) flexible grant programs vary greatly in the kind and degree of flexibility afforded to state or local entities, distribution of accountability across levels of government, and availability of direct measures of program performance; (3) program variation reflects differences in three key design features: (a) whether national objectives for the grant are primarily performance-oriented or primarily fiscal; (b) whether the grant funds a distinct program with its own operating structure or contributes to the stream of funds supporting state or local activities; and (c) whether it supports a single major activity or diverse activities; (4) flexibility is narrowest, but accountability to the federal level clearest, in programs that focus on a single major activity and pursue national performance objectives through a distinct operating structure; (5) flexibility is broadest in programs designed with the fiscal objective of adding to the stream of funds supporting diverse state or local activities; (6) in these broadly flexible programs, the federal agency's role is limited to providing funds; (7) program direction and accountability are assigned to the state level; (8) design features also have implications for the availability of performance information; (9) although most reported simple activity or client counts, relatively few flexibility programs collected uniform data on the outcomes of state or local service activities; (10) collecting such data requires conditions that do not exist under many flexible program designs, and even where overall performance of a state or local program can be measured, the amount attributable to federal funding often cannot be separated out; (11) accordingly, flexible programs drew on other sources to obtain an overall picture of performance; (12) understanding grant design features and their implications can assist policymakers in applying the Results Act and in designing or redesigning grant programs; and (13) considering a particular program's national purpose, the federal agency role, and prospects for measuring performance attributable to the program can help agency officials and policy makers understand what program-generated information on results they can realistically expect and when alternative sources of information will be needed.

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