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Grant Management Software Helps Manage Federal COVID Funds

Federal funding to help governments recover from pandemic-related losses is in no short supply, but state and local agencies must find new ways to track the flow of grant dollars and get the money where it’s needed.

$100 bill featuring Benjamin Franklin wearing a face mask
When the pandemic shut down most of the country in March 2020, California’s Department of Housing and Community Development (HCD) had just started piloting a software-as-a-service (SaaS) grant management solution after years of tracking grants on paper, via email and using Excel spreadsheets. But with hundreds of millions of dollars in federal CARES Act funding on the way, Jessica Hayes, federal program specialist at HCD, lobbied her bosses to accelerate the deployment and put as much of that funding as possible in the new system so they could rapidly deliver block grant community development and disaster recovery funding throughout the state.

HCD turned to eCivis’ grant management solution, which offers some integration with the state’s financial system and HUD’s federal reporting systems. “The CARES Act funding that we received was $315 million, and in an average year we get $12 million,” Hayes said. “I don’t know how we would have moved all that money without this system. Continuing to manually track the grants would be impossible.” Also, none of the state financial systems are available remotely, so HCD needed a platform that would allow staff to access programs while working from home.

With the increase in federal funding for pandemic relief, more state and local agencies that disperse grants are finding it important to eliminate manual and paper-based processes and adopt systems designed specifically to track the flow of grant dollars and report on grant performance data. These programs can help agencies apply governance and risk management principles across programs and grantees.

In an October 2020 report, Gartner analysts Alia Mendonsa and Apeksha Kaushik noted that built-to-purpose grant management applications, often delivered in a SaaS model, are now the predominant market offering, with numerous solutions available.

They noted that these commercial off-the-shelf solutions (COTS) are particularly attractive to organizations that need to quickly set up grant programs as part of stimulus and social safety net programs in response to COVID-19 closures, because of their out-of-the-box capabilities.

“The adoption of COTS grant management solutions in direct support of managing stimulus and pandemic response funding is particularly advantageous, as specific processes for administration of these funds are not yet institutionalized,” Mendonsa and Kaushik wrote. “This makes adoption of COTS solutions for these programs easier. Over time, use of these solutions may be expanded to also support the administration of previously established grant programs as well.”

Although California’s HCD sees its grant management system deployment as a success during the pandemic, moving to an electronic system from paper tracking has been a bumpy journey.

The department had struggled with high staff turnover, Hayes said. “When somebody left, there was no transition. Their email would just get turned off,” she added. “They were just gone, and all their files would be sitting at their desk, and nobody else knew what they were working on. You can do that and run $12 million in programs; you can’t do that and run $315 million.”

A 2017 U.S. Housing and Urban Development (HUD) monitoring report found that the state HCD had a systematic failure to manage federal awards. “They knew they needed to do something,” Hayes said. “They hired me in part because I had federal program troubleshooting experience.”

HCD had traditionally taken a design/build approach, hiring software engineers to develop systems from scratch, “which is a really great way to have an out-of-date system,” Hayes said.

The department asked her to figure out how to make the transition to an online system feasible. “The answer to that was you quit trying to build something from scratch; you do software as a service; you recognize that you’ll get to do a little bit of customization, but very little,” she said.

Whichever solution you choose, Hayes added, it has to meet uniform administrative requirements, and it has to follow some very basic accounting principles. “You need to have something that has enough internal structure that it requires information to be shared in a way that maintains responsibility, and the structure has to be built into the system so that it can’t be managed via email or some external paper process. For years we had all of these email threads going back and forth, and then you’d have the Excel spreadsheet, and the two things weren’t connected.”

Hayes estimates that deploying the system basically tripled HCD’s capacity to get funding to local housing agencies. “It makes it easier for our grantees to complete their reports,” she said. “Things are much clearer for them. We had folks who were able to apply who had never done so before. With our first rounds of COVID funding, we had grantees who had not applied for funding with us for over 12 years. They said now that you’re online, we’d like to re-engage with you. We were able to fund over 120 grantees through the system.”

Hayes said the vendors in this space all have their own strengths and weaknesses. She added that eCivis “has a good strong structure to it, but it’s not as flexible as I wish it was.”

It’s important that the grant management system be able to talk to the state financial system. But Hayes said it can be a challenge to get the authority from state IT leaders to set up an application programming interface to be able to connect. “If you are limited to flat-file transfers, think about what you can transfer that’s going to get you the most bang for your buck. That’s probably the best you’re going to get most of the time.”

When she talks to departmental leadership, Hayes describes these systems as translators. “I say, ‘This is the system that translates between HUD’s systems and our financial systems. This is the intermediary piece.’ And even if it doesn’t talk directly to either of those, when you pull a report out of it, you can reconcile it against a report out of either of those other two systems. That allows you to troubleshoot and problem-solve.”

Another question to ask is how many times staffers are keying in the same piece of information. “The answer should be one time,” Hayes said. “It may be one time per system, because your systems can’t talk to each other. But I did the math on it and we were keying in a unique piece of information seven times. And the odds that somebody would key in the same piece of information that many times correctly are small.”


Montgomery County, Ohio, received $92.8 million in CARES Act funding, which it was required to disperse in less than a year. It developed grant programs to help small businesses, homeowners and renters, nonprofits, the educational system, the health-care industry and agriculture.

When they got the word of this funding in May 2020, county commissioners created an office specifically for the CARES Act because they knew it was a heavy lift to manage that much funding in such a short time. They pulled some staffers together from other departments and made it their job to create all the grant programs and handle applications.

Although the county had a mix of manual processes and software for some traditional grant programs, the Office of CARES Act leaders knew they would need something more comprehensive for this project. They worked on spinning up a solution with some custom features in partnership with Arlington, Va.-based iTech AG. “We knew that we needed a public-facing portal so that members of the public were able to access it to apply,” said IT Manager Patrick Trowles. “We needed the program to provide strong security and the capability of doing multiple types of reports. The software allows our team to understand where they are at any point in the application process, and they are able to provide reports to county administrators to let them know which geographic areas most of the applications were coming from.” The customization of iTech AG’s platform happened very fast. “We went from nothing to having the system up and running within a month,” Trowles said.

The system has already been used for a separate housing grant program, and if a big infrastructure bill passes, Montgomery County will be ready. “We’re not sure how that’s going to work out, but it’s nice for us to already have this system built,” said Michael Zimmerman, public information officer for the county. “I think our IT department did a fantastic job of getting the requirements from our CARES Act Office, getting them to iTech and making sure that it was built exactly as they needed it.”


Tara Schiff, economic development specialist for Mariposa County, Calif., in the western foothills of the Sierra Nevada mountains, remembers that when she took the job in 2013, she walked in to her new office to find huge binders on her desk involving nine federal grants that had not been managed since her predecessor left six months before. About a month later, there was a fire very close to the county building. “My first thought when the fire happened was that the grants weren’t backed up,” she recalled. “I thought, OK, I’m responsible for over $10 million worth of grants, and it’s sitting here in these binders, and there is no way to track them. And not only was I responsible for the grants, but I was the project manager on all of them, too. So how could I keep track of their tasks and manage them in a reasonable way?”

A year later, after making a strong case for automation, she was able to convince county leaders to transition to the cloud-based system from eCivis.

The system can automate finding and filing reports to federal agencies such as Housing and Urban Development. It also has task management capabilities so that Schiff can reach out to other county departments. “For projects, you can do task management, and put the deadlines and timelines in there, which is great,” she said.

Over the next several years, Mariposa County took advantage of the system for things like housing block grant programs, and when COVID-19 struck, they were able to shift gears to CARES Act funding.

“We’re very high-profile because we are home to Yosemite Park, but we’re very much a small, rural county,” Schiff said. “When the pandemic hit, it was imperative that we access that funding for business relief. What I’ve been focusing on for the last year is trying to keep our 300 businesses in Mariposa County solvent, because without the businesses in such a small county, in the tourism industry, that’s going to affect our economy. I am proud to say that we only lost three businesses. We were able to access that CARES Act funding and utilize it for businesses that really needed it to survive.”
David Raths is a contributing writer for Government Technology magazine.