Connecting state and local government leaders

Spurring Digital Government Using Grants IT

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Connecting state and local government leaders

Data should be used to answer not only “What are we doing today?” but also “What should we be doing differently tomorrow?”

With the start of the Trump Administration, all eyes are on the changes occurring in the nation’s capital. But this curiosity and fascination with what is changing and who is leading may be misplaced. With the desire to limit the scope of the federal government, increasing proportions of public funds are likely to be focused on state and local governments, and managed through grants.

Grants account for billions of dollars of funding each year and offer governments beyond the Beltway the opportunity to accelerate their embrace of digital government principles. In fact, the optimization of grants may even allow state and local governments to take a digital leadership position vis-à-vis their counterparts in the federal government and remake how services are provided to citizens along the way. In fact, this remaking could build on the strength of states and localities as innovation labs—making government both better and more efficient.

The sheer volume of grant funds available to state and local governments is already huge—over $600 billion in 2016—and grew each year from 2013 to 2016. The hundreds of billions of dollars states and cities receive each year is greater than the total amount the feds pay contractors, and grew at a faster rate. These grants are enabling governments to shift from focusing solely on mission efficiency to mission effectiveness. This mental shift in how to manage grants allows governments to break free from organizational silos and budgetary constraints. Unfettered, states, cities, and counties can embrace the digital mindset and take advantage of the latest IT innovations to drive real, tangible outcomes that can be felt across our communities.

At the center of the digital government transformation is data. Not just making data more visible within government and more transparent among its citizens, but also repurposing data to generate constituent value. Data should be used to answer not only “What are we doing today?” but also “What should we be doing differently tomorrow?” To answer these questions, state and local governments must take advantage of the latest IT innovations at the forefront of digital government such as cloud-based platforms, citizen engagement tools, and real-time performance tracking.

An example of leadership in the digital government effort is the District of Columbia’s Department of Health. The department, which is largely funded by federal grants, has successfully transitioned away from using paper forms and spreadsheets to an online cloud platform to manage more than $100 million in grants each year. Through its grants modernization process, DOH has driven increased standardization of business processes through automation and system generated notifications leading to greater staff accountability.

DOH’s cloud grants management system elevates and reinforces good behaviors (e.g., the appropriate level of approval prior to issuing a grant award) and automatically tracks and prevents bad ones (e.g., submitting a payment request that exceeds the amount of funding). This in turn has led to a reduced risk of financial mismanagement and mitigated the possibility of fraud. For example, with its cloud grants system, DOH can easily screen health clinics that are not licensed to provide certain types of medical services because they are automatically flagged prior to the receipt of funding.

State and local governments are leveraging next generation, constituent-facing technologies to power a more responsive government that better collaborates with citizens as well. The days of abhorrent government customer service and daunting barriers between agencies and their constituents are anachronisms in today’s always-connected world. For example, Louisiana’s Community and Technical College System (LCTCS) has seen tremendous uplift in citizen engagement after having deploying a digital, centralized grants portal for all the educational institutions its supports.

The number of applications for grant funding increased more than 60 percent after LCTCS modernized its grants system. Information sharing, inquiries, and best practices can be shared in real-time between those responsible for managing taxpayer dollars and those taking part in delivering public outcomes. Greater transparency by government breeds greater trust in government. Greater trust by grant recipients engenders better performance. In this manner, technology is the catalyst of a virtuous cycle that improves how citizens interact with, and are served by, their government.

Digital government also capitalizes on data analytics to support more timely funding decisions and to achieve longer-term cost savings through optimized outcomes. The City of San Diego’s Economic Development Department has modernized its grants management system to not only accelerate the deployment of grants, but to also better assess performance post-award. The end goal is to demonstrate measurable results for the city sooner.

If, for example, certain programs or recipients are failing, San Diego can now detect it early—sometimes before it happens—to avoid throwing good money after bad. The city’s ability to take timely corrective action lowers the apprehension typically involved in disbursing government funds. This shift in turn allows performance outcomes—both good and bad—to be captured and analyzed sooner. Best practices from good outcomes can be quickly applied to bad ones. This cascading dynamic allows government to not only be more agile, but also more accountable to citizens.

On the surface, one might imagine that the hundreds of billions of dollars disbursed each year would force federal grant makers to embrace digital government principles. And while the landscape in our nation’s capital is shifting with the emergence of 18F and U.S. Digital Service, it is a slow process. Fortunately, while citizens wait on Washington, some state and local agencies are taking advantage of new innovations in IT to push their way to the forefront of digital government.

By leveraging technology to capitalize on grants management data, state and local governments are simplifying, streamlining, and optimizing government services. Shifting our gaze away from the rancor on Pennsylvania Avenue to the digital transformation occurring in our cities and states may help other cities, states, and even the federal government itself.      

Wagish Bhartiya is a Senior Director at REI Systems who focuses on helping state and local agencies make the best use of grant dollars by embracing digital government principles.

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