EPA Has Taken Steps to Improve Competition for Discretionary Grants but Could Make Information More Readily Available
GAO-17-161: Published: Jan 23, 2017. Publicly Released: Feb 22, 2017.
Annually, about $500 million in grants are awarded at EPA's discretion to state governments, nonprofits, tribes, and others. The grants pay for activities such as environmental research and wetlands restoration.
We found that EPA has developed policy on how to advertise grants, evaluate applications, and award the grants. A senior official oversees the process.
However, EPA still has work to do to make information about these grants more transparent. For example, you may need to look across at least four federal websites to find out how many applicants there were, who got the grants, and what they're going to do with them.
Percentages of Nearly $1.5 Billion in EPA Discretionary Grant Dollars for All New Awards and Amendments to Awards by Type of Grantee, Fiscal Years 2013-2015
Pie chart illustrating type of EPA grantee, fiscal years 2013-2015
What GAO Found
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) manages competition for its discretionary grants through a process established by its competition policy and implemented by its program and regional offices. Under the policy, offices are to advertise discretionary grant opportunities on Grants.gov—a website for federal grant announcements—and may also advertise using other methods, such as trade journals and e-mail lists. The announcements must describe eligibility and evaluation criteria, and the process may be customized to assess (1) all applications against eligibility criteria and (2) eligible applications for merit against evaluation criteria. Under the policy, EPA established a Grants Competition Advocate, a senior official who provides guidance to and oversight of the offices. EPA officials said this position has been key to improving competition for discretionary grants.
From fiscal years 2013 through 2015, EPA provided nearly $1.5 billion in discretionary grants to about 2,000 unique grantees, with state governments, nonprofits, and Indian tribes receiving the largest shares, according to GAO's analysis of EPA data. Of the $1.5 billion, $579 million was for new grants subject to the competition policy, and according to EPA, the agency met its performance target to competitively award at least 90 percent of these new grant dollars or awards annually. Some discretionary grants are not subject to the competition policy for several reasons—for example because they are available by law only to Indian tribes. Of the remaining approximately $920 million, $282 million was for new grants not subject to the competition policy, and about $632 million was for amendments to existing grants, such as for added work.
Publicly available information from EPA about its discretionary grants is neither easy to identify nor complete. For example, different information about the grants, such as dollar amounts, is available at four federal websites; but three of these websites do not have a way to search all the grants, and the fourth cannot identify the grants because EPA does not flag them in its submissions to the website. EPA officials plan to better flag these grants in the future; however, to obtain complete information, users would still have to search several websites containing different parts of this information. Also, GAO found that the unofficial reports EPA makes publicly available on the number of applications received for its grant competitions contain limited information. Moreover, these reports are not current because EPA relies on manual processes to collect the information from its offices, which can cause reporting delays. Further, GAO found that although EPA's internal grants management system has a field for tracking grant types, a lack of clarity in EPA's guidance may contribute to EPA staff's inconsistent use of this field. Consequently, EPA cannot easily identify discretionary grants in its system or collect complete and accurate information on them. EPA is transitioning to a new system that is expected to be operational in 2018 and to provide the capability to collect more timely and complete information. However, EPA officials said they do not have plans to use the new system to improve their publicly available reports, which is inconsistent with effective internal and external communication suggested by federal internal control standards. More complete information could help Congress and other decision makers better monitor EPA's management of discretionary grants.
Why GAO Did This Study
EPA annually awards hundreds of discretionary grants, totaling about $500 million. EPA has the discretion to determine grantees and amounts for these grants, which fund a range of activities, from environmental research to wetlands restoration. EPA awards and manages discretionary grants at 10 headquarters program offices and 10 regional offices. Past reviews by GAO and EPA's Inspector General found that EPA has faced challenges managing such grants, including procuring insufficient competition for them and providing incomplete public information about them. GAO was asked to review EPA's management of discretionary grants.
This report examines (1) how EPA manages competition for discretionary grants, (2) how much in discretionary grants EPA provided from fiscal years 2013 through 2015 and to what types of grantees, and (3) the information EPA makes publicly available on discretionary grants. GAO reviewed EPA's competition policy and guidance, examined internal evaluations of grant applications for competitions that were selected partly because they accounted for large portions of discretionary grant dollars, analyzed EPA data as well as information EPA made available on public websites, and interviewed EPA officials.
What GAO Recommends
GAO recommends that EPA develop clear guidance for tracking grants and determine how to make more complete information on discretionary grants publicly available. EPA agreed with GAO's recommendations.
For more information, contact J. Alfredo Gómez at (202) 512-3841 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Recommendations for Executive Action
Comments: In written comments on this report, EPA stated that there are opportunities to explore how to better develop guidance for tracking grants and determine how to make more complete information on discretionary grants publicly available. In June 2017, EPA reported that it intends to be involved in efforts in 2017 to improve the Catalog of Federal Domestic Assistance (CFDA) descriptions, which may include changes to the CFDA template language to improve clarity of discretionary grant designations. EPA stated that also in 2017 the agency will assess whether other actions are necessary to help staff better identify discretionary grant programs in the agency's internal grants management systems, including training and reconciling any inconsistencies in defining discretionary grants. In January 2018, EPA reported that the agency is working to ensure that its internal grants management systems use a consistent definition of discretionary grant programs. In June 2018, EPA reported that the agency has taken the following steps to address this recommendation: updating its list of active discretionary grants programs to be posted on both internal and external agency websites, indicating in CFDA descriptions by September 2018 whether discretionary funds are expended, and including definitions of discretionary grants in training materials to ensure a consistent interpretation in the agency.
Recommendation: To improve the quality of EPA's internal records and the information EPA can communicate to internal and external decision makers, the EPA Administrator should direct the Assistant Administrator for the Office of Administration and Resources Management to direct the Director of the Office of Grants and Debarment (OGD) to provide clear guidance to EPA staff to help ensure that staff correctly identify all EPA discretionary grant programs in the agency's internal grants management system.
Agency Affected: Environmental Protection Agency
Comments: In June 2017, EPA reported that in 2017 the agency will begin to examine whether and how it can use its new internal Next Generation Grants System to generate more timely and complete reports related to discretionary grants and make them publicly available. EPA also stated that it plans to explore the ability to use the system to (1) generate more timely and complete information that can be publicly posted on the number of applications received and types of entities submitting applications for open competitive opportunities, and (2) produce an annual report on the amount of funds per discretionary grant program and whether such funds were for new awards or amendments. In January 2018, EPA reported that the agency is working to identify and update its discretionary grant programs so that it can produce reports on discretionary funds expended per program. In June 2018, EPA reported that the agency is using its grants system to generate more timely and more frequent publicly available information on grants competition. EPA also reported that it has updated its list of active discretionary grant programs and that this should facilitate its ability to report on discretionary funds expended per program. EPA reported that the agency hopes to complete this effort by September 2018 but this may be subject to change.
Recommendation: To better enable Congress and other decision makers to monitor EPA's management of discretionary grants, the EPA Administrator should direct the Assistant Administrator for the Office of Administration and Resources Management to direct the Director of OGD to determine how to make more complete information on EPA's discretionary grants publicly available, such as by posting timely and complete reports on its website.
Agency Affected: Environmental Protection Agency