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Posted by on Jun 27, 2013

GAO Recommends COFAR Improves Planning and Communication

The Government Accountability Office (GAO) released a report on June 24th critical of the Council of Financial Assistance Reform’s (COFAR) strategic planning and communication with the grants community. The report, Grants Management: Improved Planning, Coordination, and Communication Need to Strengthen Reform Efforts (GAO-13-383), examines previous and current government-wide initiatives designed to reform grants management. The GAO recommends OMB and COFAR develop and make publicly available an implementation schedule of ongoing activities, clearly identify and define the roles and responsibilities in grants reform initiatives, and improve communication with grant recipients and other stakeholders involved with grants management policy.

The report traces efforts to streamline and reform grants management since the passage of the Federal Financial Assistance Management Improvement Act of 1999 (PL 106-107). The GAO identifies successful, and some less successful, attempts to improve grants management.  Some of the initiatives discussed in the report include; consolidating and revising grants management circulars, simplifying the pre-award phase, promoting shared IT solutions for grants management, and improving the timeliness of closing grants and deobligating funds. Improving the grants closeout process remains a priority for the GAO and has been the subject of multiple Congressional hearings.

The report briefly discussed OMB’s proposed Uniform Guidance: Cost Principles, Audit, and Administrative Requirements for Federal Awards. The Uniform Guidance, known informally as the “Super Circular,” will streamline grants management by consolidating existing policies into one document that will apply uniformly to all grant recipients. OMB plans on circulating the final proposal among awarding agency officials before publishing the final rule, tentatively scheduled for December 2013.

The primary focus of the report regards the activities of the COFAR. The GAO provides a history of the COFAR and summarizes its current priorities and goals. OMB established the COFAR in 2011 and charged it with the responsibility to identify issues and challenges in grants management policy and make recommendations to improve grants administration.

For grant recipients, the most relevant aspect of the report is the discussion on the extent of stakeholder participation in COFAR’s decision-making process. GAO notes “members of the grantee community told us they continue to have concerns because they do not see a role for themselves as OMB and COFAR develop priorities for reforming federal grants management.“

To rectify this problem, the report cites the Federal Demonstration Partnership (FDP) as a successful model to fully engage the grants community. The FDP is a consortium of research universities and awarding agencies that holds quarterly meetings that allow for recipients to provide input on grants management policies and procedures. The report also suggests adopting the Recovery Board’s practice of holding weekly conference calls with grant recipients to hear comments and concerns. Additionally, the GAO identifies the Partnership Fund for Program Integrity Innovation (Partnership Fund) as an opportunity to improve communication with recipients. The Partnership Fund, administered by OMB, enables federal agencies to execute pilot programs with state and local governments.

OMB responded to the GAO by agreeing with the report’s recommendations.  OMB stated that COFAR is developing and implementing strategies to engage stakeholders proactively. OMB also repeatedly referred to the COFAR as a work in progress.

COFAR will be a leading player in the adoption and implementation of the Super Circular. It is therefore critical that COFAR fully engages the grants community and is receptive to and understanding of the community’s needs and concerns. Hopefully, as a result of this report, OMB and COFAR will develop strategies to ensure greater communication with relevant stakeholders.

The GAO report can be found at: http://www.gao.gov/products/GAO-13-383

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