Grants Management:

EPA Needs to Better Document Its Decisions for Choosing between Grants and Contracts

GAO-04-459: Published: Mar 31, 2004. Publicly Released: Apr 30, 2004.

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Grants and contracts constitute over two-thirds of the Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) budget. In fiscal year 2003, EPA awarded $3.6 billion in grants directed by Congress, $656 million in grants awarded at its own discretion, and $934 million in contracts. Under the Federal Grant and Cooperative Agreement Act of 1977, whether EPA should award a grant or a contract depends upon the principal purpose of the award. In this context, GAO was asked to determine (1) the trends over the last 11 years on EPA's expenditures on discretionary grants and contracts and the types of goods and services obtained by each and (2) the extent to which EPA has and follows procedures for deciding when to use grants or contracts.

EPA's funding for discretionary grants and contracts had similar trends from fiscal years 1993 through 2003, suggesting limited migration between these funds in EPA's budget over this period. Although EPA grants data provide little information on goods and services obtained with discretionary grants, GAO estimates, based on its survey of grantees with grants closed in fiscal years 2001 and 2002 and that had project start dates after October 1, 1997, that the majority of goods and services fell into three categories: (1) research and development; (2) training, workshops, and education; and (3) journals, publications, and reports. EPA has specific procedures to guide decisions on choosing grants or contracts but often has not followed a very important one--documenting in its award decision memorandums the reasons for choosing a grant instead of a contract. EPA procedures define staff roles and responsibilities, provide examples of when to use a grant or a contract, and require documentation in the award decision memorandum to justify the use of a grant or a contract. However, in 64 percent (43 of 67) of the memorandums GAO reviewed, EPA did not fully justify its reasons for choosing a grant instead of a contract. It is unclear whether this shortcoming obscured inappropriate decisions to use grants instead of contracts. On the one hand, GAO's survey results showed that an estimated 8 percent of EPA's discretionary grantees would identify EPA as the primary and direct beneficiary. This estimate could suggest that the principal purpose of the grant award was acquiring property or services for EPA's direct benefit, and that EPA should have awarded some grants as contracts. However, for those grantees who identified EPA as the grant's primary and direct beneficiary, GAO's review of grant files and follow-up interviews indicated that some of these grants benefited both the federal government and the public and therefore could arguably have been awarded as either a grant or a contract.

Recommendation for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In response to the GAO report, on March 16, 2005, EPA issued new guidance to its offices to help them improve the documentation of the assistance versus acquisition decision. Specifically, the guidance is designed to assist program offices prepare more effective and comprehensive justifications for documenting acquisition versus assistance and grants versus cooperative agreement decisions. Several examples of good justifications are described in the memo. It also reminds them that a justification must be provided for all assistance agreements.

    Recommendation: The Administrator of EPA should consider ways to improve project officers' compliance with EPA's requirement to properly document in award decision memorandums the justification for using a grant or a cooperative agreement instead of a contract.

    Agency Affected: Environmental Protection Agency


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