Balancing Flexibility and Accountability:

Grant Program Design in Education and Other Areas

T-GGD/HEHS-98-94: Published: Feb 11, 1998. Publicly Released: Feb 11, 1998.

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Pursuant to a congressional request, GAO discussed balancing flexibility and accountability in federal grant programs, focusing on education programs.

GAO noted that: (1) flexible grants are an adaptable policy tool and are used in fields from urban transit to community mental health; (2) they are alike in that each addresses a national purpose but gives state or local grantees the flexibility to adapt funded activities to fit the state or local context; (3) however, there are vast differences among them as well; (4) some offer flexibility within a narrow range, as do many so-called categorical programs, while others offer choices so broad that they come close to resembling revenue sharing; (5) these differences reflect three critical design features on whether: (a) the national objectives involved are performance-related or fiscal; (b) the grant funds a distinct program or contributes to the stream of funds supporting state and local activities; and (c) it supports a single activity or diverse activities; (6) in combination, these features are associated with differences in flexibility, accountability, and the level of government that is accountable for performance; (7) combinations that produce greater flexibility lodge accountability at the state or local level and complicate the task of obtaining program-wide measures of performance through grantee reporting; (8) additional sources of information may be needed to support program decisions at the national level; and (9) considering design features and their implications can help policymakers ensure that accountability and information needs are met, whatever type of design is selected.

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