Education Discretionary Grants:

Awards Process Could Benefit From Additional Improvements

HEHS-00-55: Published: Mar 30, 2000. Publicly Released: Mar 30, 2000.

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Pursuant to a congressional request, GAO reviewed the Department of Education's redesigned discretionary grants process, focusing on: (1) Education's progress in implementing the redesigned awards process; (2) the management controls used to help ensure a fair peer review process and the costs of peer review; and (3) the extent to which grant awards are consistent with the results of peer review and the legislation governing individual grant programs.

GAO noted that: (1) Education's redesigned grant awards process has helped the agency improve the timeliness of awards and provide better service to applicants and grantees; (2) as a result of the redesign, Education provides a greater percentage of new awards earlier in the year, which allows grantees more time to prepare for implementing their projects; (3) also, Education has made grant information more available and accessible to applicants and increased grantees' flexibility to make certain administrative changes to their projects without prior approval; (4) Education's peer review process, which in fiscal year 1998 cost approximately $2.4 million for the nine programs GAO reviewed, has many of the management controls necessary to help ensure that reviewers fairly assess the merit of applications; (5) for example, Education seeks to select peer reviewers who have relevant experience, requires them to certify they are free of actual or perceived financial conflicts of interest, and trains them to apply evaluation criteria to score the merit of grant applications; (6) however, weaknesses in some management controls could raise concerns about the fairness or perceived fairness of the process; (7) for example, Education generally does not require reviewers to certify that they have no nonfinancial conflicts of interest (that is, personal and professional conflicts) and it lacks guidance to assist officials in dismissing poorly performing peer reviewers; (8) moreover, few of the programs assessed the effectiveness of management controls to ensure that the process was conducted fairly; (9) for example, although several programs collected information about the peer review process, few analyzed peer reviewers' feedback on their review experiences or tracked the performance of reviewers; (10) also, none of the programs assessed the effect that some peer reviewers' scoring variations had on applicants' chances to receive funding; (11) grant awards for the programs GAO reviewed were generally consistent with peer review scoring, with funds typically awarded to applicants with the highest peer review scores; (12) awards also were consistent with legislative objectives for each program and specific measurable objectives, where specified; and (13) about half the grantees in one of these programs and about one-third in the other had 5 to 20 times the national average number of students with limited English proficiency.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: Education amended its peer review certification forms to include examples on conflicts of interest that arise from personal, professional, and other nonfinancial relationships.

    Recommendation: To improve the peer review process, the Secretary of Education should amend Education's directive dealing with conflict of interest and applicable peer reviewer certifications to include a statement certifying that peer reviewers do not have nonfinancial conflicts that could impair their objectivity.

    Agency Affected: Department of Education

  2. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: Education established policy to require that program offices include the process for replacing reviewers in the Application Technical Review Plan for the grant competition.

    Recommendation: To improve the peer review process, the Secretary of Education should develop written policy on the protocol that program officials must follow to identify and document actions taken when a peer reviewer must be dismissed due to poor performance.

    Agency Affected: Department of Education

  3. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: The Department of Education has substantially addressed this recommendation. Education amended its Discretionary Grants Handbook to require that feedback from non-federal reviewers on their review experiences be collected. Education also amended its handbook to require that peer reviewers' performance be documented and tracked and that variations among peer review panels be assessed, which GAO believes will assist Education in determining the effectiveness of its peer review management controls. These actions will help Education to identify problems in the peer review process and ensure that the process is conducted in a fair manner. To address GAO's concern that there was no similar requirement to collect feedback from federal reviewers and a requirement to analyze the the feedback results of all reviewers, Education is amending its Discretionary Grants Handbook to include these requirements. Education will disseminate clarification on the revised policy through its department-wide Discretionary Grants Advisory Team until the revised Handbook is published.

    Recommendation: To improve the peer review process, the Secretary of Education should amend Education's directive concerning discretionary grant planning, review, and award procedures to specify that peer reviewer feedback be collected and analyzed, peer reviewers' performance be documented and tracked, and scoring variations among panels be assessed to determine the effectiveness of peer review management controls.

    Agency Affected: Department of Education


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