Will Illinois Become a National Model for Grant Management?

Illinois’ disjointed grant-making agencies are getting new attention -- and an overhaul that leverages both old and new technology for better accountability.

by / October 22, 2015

What started as an effort to reform the grant-making process for five of Illinois’ human services departments has grown into a statewide undertaking with far-reaching financial implications.

When the Grant Accountability and Transparency Act (GATA) received a final signature in July 2014 from then-Gov. Pat Quinn, it opened the door for a much needed evaluation and overhaul of the state’s grant-making process throughout more than 50 agencies.

At the time, the Management Improvement Initiative Committee (MIIC) had already been tasked with the review and renovation of the handful of human services agencies. The new law expanded those duties tenfold and set the stage for solutions that would better protect tens of millions of dollars from mismanagement, fraud and abuse.

The widely publicized failure of the Neighborhood Recovery Initiative and the mismanagement of grant funds that accompanied it had, in part, prompted legislative action. But those close to ongoing efforts said reform was already in state officials' sights.   

Carol Kraus, director of the Grant Accountability and Transparency Unit within the Governor’s Office of Management and Budget, said committee members quickly recognized the need to standardize the rules around grant management and eliminate a host of costly process duplications.

Under the initial MIIC efforts, Kraus said as many as 350,000 duplicated labor hours were identified within the five human services departments alone. 

“Part of what we’re doing is looking at things like the overlapping and duplications,” she said.

To add to the inefficiencies, grantees receiving funds from more than one state source were often forced to submit multiple reports and documents to each of the siloed public agencies.

“Instead of four different agencies looking at the same report, we’re going to do it once centrally. If the findings are specific to an agency, they would be responsible to review those, but any of the cross-cutting findings we would do once,” Kraus said. “In just looking at some of these areas, we’ve come up with significant streamlining and reduction in labor hours.”

With the help of new tools like a state grant portal and the Central Repository Vault (CRV), a one-stop database for frequently accessed documents, officials hope to stem the tide of workload duplications.

Though the technology has not been rolled out to all of the agencies, it has been used successfully among the human services agencies.

Technology officer John Rigg with the Grant Accountability and Transparency Unit said the CRV quickly proved to be a valuable tool for state reviewers. Despite the general lack of time and resources available to create it, Rigg said the system cut redundancies and the need for reams of paperwork.

“They began to see from a reviewer’s standpoint the cost-savings, the time-savings and the efficiencies that built," he said. "I think we’re going to carry much of that forward with what we are going to do with all 52 agencies.”

Rigg said the centralized grant systems will ultimately drive time- and cost-savings as agencies are able to reduce the need for on-site reviews.

“I think we’ve got to continue that momentum,” he said. “I think we proven very quickly that the money and the time that they could save from even a staff standpoint made it well worth their efforts to cooperate.”

The adoption of uniform federal rules are also expected to improve the situation when it comes to grant management, reporting and auditing on the part of the state and its nonprofit grantees. 

“A lot of people are excited about this, it needs to be changed," Kraus said. "There are too many resources, and they are so scarce, being wasted on redundancies that really don’t add value to our grant programs."

In addition to the grant-centric focus underway in Illinois, a larger plan to implement a statewide enterprise resource planning system (ERP) will dovetail with GATA efforts, according to state CIO Hardik Bhatt.

The system will encompass all of the state’s agencies and help to standardize and manage not only procurements, but grant management as well. 

According to Bhatt, the system will launch the initial ERP program in summer 2016 and continue with a phased rollout over the following three years. The $200 million system is expected to show a return on investment with the first two years of its operation. 

When it comes to lessons the GATA team has learned thus far, they are quick to point out the value of stakeholder input. Though Kraus will be the first to say that working through committees can pose challenges, it also offers the best way to identify roadblocks before they become larger problems.

Deputy Director of Accountability and Results Jennifer Butler said the process of outlining the state’s next steps and the needs of participating agencies has been a key part of the GATA overhaul. 

“I think when you have so many representatives from the state agencies in a multitude of capacities … you have a good culmination of best practices to draw from,” she said. “So in many respects, we are able to be educated in these groups because of what has been found to be successful in those agencies already.”

As the program moves toward full implementation, Kraus said attention will need to be paid as to how the systems are functioning for the grant-making agencies and nonprofits using them. 

She said by leveraging existing technology like the state’s learning management system, grant administrators will be better equipped to handle the evolving grant environment.

Eyragon Eidam Web Editor

Eyragon Eidam is the Web editor for Government Technology magazine, after previously serving as  assistant news editor and covering such topics as legislation, social media and public safety. He can be reached at eeidam@erepublic.com.