Grants Management: Interior Should Improve the Award Process for Some Competitive Grant Programs

GAO-22-105407 Published: Aug 23, 2022. Publicly Released: Aug 23, 2022.
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Fast Facts

State agencies, nonprofits, and other organizations can compete for grants from the Department of the Interior to support environmental and wildlife conservation activities. In FY 2019-21, nine bureaus within Interior awarded more than $4 billion.

Interior's award process generally follows relevant federal grant regulations, but not always. For example, Interior doesn't require documenting rationales for award decisions. Also, one bureau didn't provide or use clear selection criteria for some of its grant programs.

We recommended addressing these issues to help ensure that grants are awarded in a fair and transparent way.

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Highlights

What GAO Found

The Department of the Interior's competitive grant award process involves announcing funding opportunities, evaluating grant applications, and obtaining management approval to issue award decisions (see fig.). Interior's nine grant-making bureaus make all funding announcements publicly available, and a panel, which may include bureau staff and experts outside the agency, reviews and scores grant applications based on criteria outlined in the funding announcement. Following the scoring process, the panel develops a recommended list of applicants for management review and a final award decision.

Overview of the Department of the Interior's Competitive Grant Award Process

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GAO found that Interior's grant programs that GAO reviewed follow an award process that is generally consistent with relevant federal grant regulations. However, two of three U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service grant programs that GAO reviewed did not clearly identify criteria and weights in funding announcements and did not use criteria to evaluate applications. Without this information, applicants might not submit applications meeting all the criteria, and panel members might not uniformly evaluate applications, potentially leading to inconsistencies in the review process.

GAO also found that grant programs across the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, National Park Service, and U.S. Geological Survey lacked documentation to support certain award decisions. For example, National Park Service leadership made an award to a lower-ranked applicant instead of to a recommended applicant, without written support. Interior's internal policy for competitive grants does not explicitly call for officials to provide documentation of award decisions. Without documenting its rationale for award decisions, Interior lacks assurance that its award decisions follow relevant federal grant regulations.

Why GAO Did This Study

Interior awarded over $4 billion in competitive grants in fiscal years 2019 through 2021 across nine grant-making bureaus. Recipients of competitive grants include state agencies, nonprofits, and universities, among others. Recipients use the grants for various activities, such as assisting with the recovery of endangered species and creating conservation opportunities for youth.

GAO was asked to review Interior's grant award process. This report (1) describes Interior's process for announcing grant opportunities, reviewing applications, and making award decisions; and (2) evaluates the extent to which Interior's award process is consistent with relevant federal grant regulations.

To do this work, GAO reviewed relevant federal laws, regulations, and Interior guidance and interviewed Interior officials. GAO also reviewed award documents for a sample of 18 competitive grant programs across Interior's bureaus and compared the process that Interior uses to award grants with relevant regulations. GAO also analyzed agency data from fiscal years 2019 through 2021.

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Recommendations

GAO is making two recommendations: (1) the Director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service should issue a memorandum reinforcing the need for grant programs to include criteria and weights in funding announcements and evaluate applications using those standards and (2) Interior should develop a policy to ensure that officials document the rationale for grant award decisions. Interior concurred with GAO's recommendations.

Recommendations for Executive Action

Agency Affected Recommendation Status
United States Fish and Wildlife Service The Director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service should issue a memorandum reinforcing the need for grant programs to include criteria and weights in funding announcements and evaluate applications using those standards. (Recommendation 1)
Open
When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.
Department of the Interior The U.S. Secretary of the Interior should develop a policy to ensure that officials document the rationale for grant award decisions, including when they deviate from the review panel's recommendations. (Recommendation 2)
Open
When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.

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