Grant Program Consolidations: Lessons Learned and Implications for Congressional Oversight

GAO-15-125 Published: Dec 12, 2014. Publicly Released: Dec 12, 2014.
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What GAO Found

Consolidations from fiscal years 1990 through 2012. There is no authoritative, accurate tally of enacted grant program consolidations. In addition, there is no commonly accepted definition of what constitutes a grant program consolidation. From a variety of sources, GAO identified 15 grant program consolidations during this period. Most of these consolidations either combined a number of grant programs used for specific activities (such as Shelter Plus Care), known as categorical grants, into a broader categorical grant, such as the Continuum of Care (CoC) program or established a Performance Partnership, which offers additional flexibility in using funds across multiple programs but maintains accountability for meeting certain performance measures. Block grant approaches to consolidation prior to 1990 combined programs for broad purposes, such as work assistance. The more recent approaches, referred to as hybrid, often combine categorical grant programs and emphasize strong performance standards and accountability. Hybrid approaches can improve the efficiency of grant administration and may reduce fragmentation, overlap, and duplication.

State and local government actions. State and local officials in the three case study consolidations GAO selected for review relied on existing grant management structures and established relationships to facilitate implementation of the grant program consolidations. In the Transportation Alternatives (TA) program the impact of the consolidation was delayed by states and local officials' reliance on carryover funds from predecessor grant programs while these funds were still available. Officials reported both benefits and challenges ranging from administrative flexibility such as lack of central oversight by states, lack of or inaccurate performance data, and conflicting reporting requirements.

Lessons to consider. The key to any grant program consolidation initiative is identifying and agreeing on goals—such as improved grant administration and changed programmatic outcomes—and to design and plan for successful implementation, according to findings from the case studies and prior GAO reports. Grant consolidations offer the opportunity to improve grant administration by expanding the opportunities of narrowly targeted grants and by reducing fragmentation, overlap, and duplication. Consolidation initiatives that answer key questions can provide a data-driven consolidation rationale and show stakeholders that a range of alternatives has been considered. These evaluations should include responses to key questions such as the following: What are the goals of the consolidation? What opportunities will be addressed through the consolidation and what problems will be solved?

GAO's prior work found that few executive branch agencies regularly conduct in-depth program evaluations to assess their programs' impact. The Office of Management and Budget (OMB), as the focal point for overall management in the executive branch, plays a key role in improving the performance of federal grant programs and has developed or contributed many tools to encourage improvements to federal grants and program performance. Agencies, the Congress—as well as grantees—can benefit from guidance, which currently does not exist, to assist with identifying consolidation opportunities, particularly those requiring statutory changes, and developing consolidation proposals.

Why GAO Did This Study

GAO has previously reported that consolidations may help increase the effectiveness and efficiency of government programs.

GAO was asked to review grant program consolidations in regard to reducing overlap and duplication. This report: (1) describes approaches taken to grant programs that have been consolidated from fiscal year 1990 through 2012, (2) examines federal, state and local actions taken to administer the programs, and (3) analyzes lessons learned for future consideration of grant program consolidations.

GAO reviewed literature on grant program consolidations. For this review GAO selected three case study grant program consolidations, the TA and CoC programs, and the National Environmental Performance Partnership System. GAO conducted interviews with state and local officials in Colorado, Delaware, Florida, and Massachusetts. GAO selected these states and localities based on several selection criteria, such as state participation and funding. The selected locations and grant program consolidations are not generalizable, but they provided important insights about grant consolidations.

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GAO recommends OMB develop guidance on identifying grant program consolidation opportunities and the analysis to improve their outcomes. GAO incorporated technical comments from the Environmental Protection Agency, Departments of Housing and Urban Development and Transportation, and OMB.

Recommendations for Executive Action

Agency Affected Recommendation Status
Office of Management and Budget To assist federal agencies seeking to streamline and improve the efficiency of grant programs and improve their outcomes, the Director of OMB should develop guidance that presents a range of potential consolidation methods, such as performance partnerships, and other hybrid approaches. This guidance should assist agencies in identifying consolidation opportunities, including those that require statutory changes, and in developing sound consolidation proposals. The guidance should include questions agencies are expected to include in any consolidation proposals such as, (1) What are the goals of the consolidation? What opportunities will be addressed through the consolidation and what problems will be solved? What challenges, if any, will be created? (2) Is there a way to track and monitor progress toward the short-term and long-term goals? Does the consolidation proposal include a feedback loop? Does the feedback enable officials to identify and analyze the causes of the program outcomes and how this learning can be leveraged for continuous improvement? (3) Who are the consolidation stakeholders and how will they be affected? What will state, local, or nonprofit entities have to do differently? (4) What statutory or regulatory changes are needed to support the consolidation? (5) If the proposed consolidation approach does not include all programs with similar activities or that address similar goals, how will the new structure interact with those programs not included in the consolidation?
Closed - Implemented
In April 2016, OMB staff said OMB agreed with the important goal of seeking to streamline and improve the efficiency of grant programs and improve their outcomes. OMB staff said they collaborated with the Association of Government Accountants (AGA) to provide a resource guide on the blending and braiding of funds entitled "Blended and Braided Funding: A Guide for Policy Makers and Practitioners." The guide makes reference to GAO's work in the areas of federal program fragmentation, overlap, and duplication and interagency collaboration. The guide provides a decision framework for use when determining whether to blend or braid funds that includes five questions: how would braiding or blending funds help accomplish program goals; can suitable partners be identified; will sufficient resources be available; have potential barriers or challenges to implementation been identified; and is there a way to track and monitor outcomes? The questions in the guide are similar to those included in GAO's recommendation, and the guide presents in flow chart form how the questions can be used to determine whether grant programs are good candidates for the blending or braiding of funds, adding that for blended funding statutory authority needs to be verified. Given the similarities between the guide questions and those in the GAO recommendation, this recommendation has been closed as implemented.

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