For several years, Arizona has sought to improve how it manages federal dollars across agencies. This work is especially critical now given that COVID-19 is disrupting the economy and could continue for some time.
The state of Arizona is touting cloud-based grants management during a period where timely funding could mean the difference between economic recovery and continued financial struggle.
Other hurdles to distributing relief dollars can involve questions of practicality. That is, reliance on paper, outdated procedures and decentralized management can hamstring a state’s ability to disperse and track funds.
Anna Haney, programs and performance manager for the Arizona Governor’s Office of Strategic Planning and Budgeting, said there’s risk when an organization does everything via paper when it comes to grants management.
“It’s not necessarily bad, it’s just a very old-school way of doing this,” Haney said. “Things can get lost. You’re depending on the ability to find files in different areas.”
For about seven years, Arizona has worked with company eCivis, which offers an electronic platform for managing grants. The state is encouraging its various agencies, especially those that are handling coronavirus relief funds, to get on board with the system.
“We actually created a standard Arizona application for ease of on-boarding,” Haney said. “I can post a new grant program within a day. That’s only because we have the electronic system and the standard application we worked on.”
James Ha, CEO of eCivis, said software-as-a-service solutions for grants management can be implemented quickly, as the process is less about development and more about configuration. With a system in place, a state could conceivably get initiatives off the ground in a matter of weeks or a couple of months.
“It’s rapid deployment in a time when rapid deployment is necessary,” Ha said. “If you think about the 2009 stimulus, one of the challenges government faced was the seed funding. They weren’t able to distribute it fast enough.”
A modern approach to grants management involves increasing harmony and reducing friction between agencies. Having an easier, more reliable method of accessing forms is a simple byproduct of this approach.
“Hundreds of pieces of paper that you would usually store in some paper file [are] now all online, digitized, available to leadership, to staff, to the public, whenever needed,” Ha said.
Another key is how the government in question structures grants management. One important step that Arizona took was moving its grants management arm to the governor’s office. Haney said formalizing grants management in Arizona has improved communication and the ability of staff to develop best practices.
Years ago, Illinois saw the positives of taking a closer look at grants management and instituting statewide change. More coordinated eyes means more lessons learned.
“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,” Deputy Director of Accountability and Results Jennifer Butler told Government Technology back in 2015. “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.”
Haney added that the practical benefits of a centralized system are hard to deny when one starts making comparisons. Earlier this year, the National Grants Management Association surveyed states on how they were getting ready for CARES Act funds. Haney thought the survey results were telling.
“It was quite interesting to see how many states had a decentralized approach,” Haney said. “Our first thought was, ‘How are you going to do anything?’”
Government success stories in the wake of COVID-19 have often spoken to the advantage of existing modernization. Ha believes preparation is key given that another crisis might be around the corner.
“When the second wave [of COVID-19] comes, they’re going to use that same infrastructure to get funding out quickly,” Ha said. “There won’t be a two-months delay.”
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