Grants are a foundational tool for helping communities, states, and constituents achieve high-priority missions – advancing sustainability initiatives, providing financial support to underserved communities, enhancing technology accessibility, and much more.
Yet, administrating and managing these programs is incredibly complex, and the federal agencies that do so face significant scrutiny for achieving desired outcomes and maintaining legal and regulatory compliance, as well as internal governance. Overall, it can be difficult to assess and demonstrate needed success.
Now, agencies face an avalanche of funding for new and expanded programs, with even more pressure to rapidly disseminate funds and report outcomes.
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Agencies face an avalanche of funding for new and expanded programs, with even more pressure to rapidly disseminate funds and report outcomes.
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For example, the $1.2 trillion Infrastructure and Investment Act alone includes billions of dollars in new grants funding for private and public initiatives.
Agency leaders and directors are working hard to redefine their grants management solutions to meet the increased volume, but all this new funding can compound longstanding organizational and technical grants management challenges. This is particularly true for the many agencies still relying on legacy grants management systems. Legacy systems may lack the features, flexibility, and integration with financial systems necessary to effectively manage a high volume of grants.
To help agencies explore a new future for grants management, Accenture Federal Services recently hosted the Cross Federal Grants Management Forum at the Accenture Federal Studio. We welcomed representatives from multiple federal agencies, who shared their grants management experiences.
Attendees of the event touched on some common challenges: The scale and scope of the funding and expectations to show quick impact are overwhelming. Their current systems and processes lack the needed capacity and flexibility. And they see significant opportunities to improve the customer experience as well as outcomes tracking and reporting. We found that many of these federal leaders want more intuitive, streamlined, and modern grants management processes.
Our discussions found that the increased maturity and acceptance of three key building blocks makes this the right time to truly reimagine federal grant management systems for greater transparency and success. These building blocks are:
- Digital platforms
- Human-centered design (HCD) practices
- Process analytics
Three pillars of modern federal grants management
Digital platforms are increasingly the essential foundation of a modern grants management approach. Using digital platforms, it’s now possible to stand up a tailored grants management solution with native workflows automation, SLAs around processing times, and integration with the organization’s core financial ERP system, in a fraction of the time and cost compared to traditional grants solutions. Modern digital platforms use vast collections of pre-built, configurable components to accommodate each agency’s specific needs, while still offering the flexibility to quickly adapt to changes.
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A digital grants management platform can automate elements of the grants lifecycle while significantly enhancing collaboration at critical points across the pre-award, award, and post-award phases, eliminating offline, paper-heavy processes. Core processes can run on autopilot, with approval flows, reminders, task generation, and assignment handled by the platform.
For example, one large federal agency saw success in transitioning from a shared services solution to a ServiceNow-based grants management system. The goal was to transform the agency’s fragmented approach to grants management into a more efficient process through a centralized and configurable electronic solution, improving management controls, increasing visibility, and providing comprehensive and consolidated reporting. Overall, the solution helps create a highly available, flexible system fit for users’ needs.
Combining the native capabilities of platforms with more user-focused best practices helps improve the customer experience. People increasingly expect high-quality, on-demand experiences on par with those they receive from industry-leading commercial organizations, such as their bank or a delivery service. Yet, current grants application processes can be incredibly cumbersome, dissuading potentially qualified applicants from even submitting.
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With platform-driven automation, the customer experience becomes more seamless for both the grantor and grantee.
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Furthermore, digital platforms have been designed from the ground up to provide sleek, intuitive workflows and visualizations. Their self-service portals can deliver greater ease of use to a broader group of grant applicants and stakeholders, creating a more accessible and equitable experience – and helping build up a more robust and representative pool of potential grants recipients.
Robust analytics is the third pillar of modern grants management. Enabling data-driven insights across grant administration processes is critical to evaluating applications, tracking disbursements, assessing performance, and demonstrating that grants are meeting the desired objectives. Modern digital platforms offer out-of-the-box reporting and analytics that enable agencies to address a wide range of reporting and audit requirements. These capabilities help agencies ensure stronger alignment between an organization’s grants and its core mission.
Where to begin
A successful grants management transformation requires more than just blindly adopting new technology, such as a digital platform, though. With that in mind, agencies can follow a few initial steps to ensure greater success:
- Assess your current state – Start with an in-depth analysis of your current requirements and needs. You should devote considerable time to both the technical side (are we using the right systems for the right things?) and the customer side (are we doing this the right way for users?).
- Set your North Star goals – Then, knowing your current state, ask yourself - what do I want to achieve? By identifying your overall goals, you can better evaluate what your gaps are toward meeting those goals, and if a solution like a digital platform is a good fit to achieve your desired outcomes.
- Think holistically – Grants management systems should serve your organization and the mission as a whole – not just a specific grants management silo. Consider how the new system can and should integrate with your ERP, core financial system, or other areas to further streamline processes and enable more cross-organizational visibility.
- Understand what is a “requirement,” and what is a habit – Just because something has always been done a certain way, doesn’t mean it needs to continue that way with a new solution. Differentiate between your true requirements – such as document regulations or charter mandates – and what is simply a habit. Avoid a “lift and shift” approach – instead, rethink processes as needed to ensure you are most effectively meeting mission needs.
- Partner for success – Agencies can draw from both existing federal and commercial expertise to best set their new grants management approach up for success. A valuable grants management partner should have the know-how and scale to work across strategy, design, and technology integration. Given the nuances of grants management, this partner should also have a working knowledge of the grants lifecycle and its complexities.
As the volume of grants funding increases and customers’ expectations grow, federal agencies must emphasize new approaches to grants management to best meet mission needs and effectively manage the grants programs that fund so many vital initiatives.