I have no doubt it seemed like a good idea at the time.
The official OMB Guidance to Federal agencies on how to handle stimulus money requires everyone to go through the federal grants portal Grants.gov. Given that the same guidance also requires agencies to coordinate with one another to further the broader interests of the legislation, to streamline things for applicants and grantees, and to track money disbursed under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) from the moment it leaves the Treasury to the moment it is spent on a shovel, this would appear to make perfect sense.
So, being an independent contractor these days, I decided to try to see how easily the system worked. Surfing over to grants.gov, I see nothing directing me to ARRA, stimulus, or whatever. But that’s OK. Since I know I’m going to need to get registered, I click on the get registered link where — still no specifics about ARRA — I must now choose between registering myself as an organization or as an individual. OK, lets go with “organization.” Here I hit my first roadblock:
Step 1: Obtain DUNS Number
The DUNS number is issued by Dunn & Bradstreet, and appears to be something of a universal identifier for government purposes. Why the government outsourced this function is probably lost in the mists of time, but OK, whatever. Happily, Grants.gov has a link to the Dunn & Bradstreet site to apply for a DUNS Number. This includes the helpful information that, for some reason, Dunn & Bradstreet is a bit backed up at the moment as lots of people are applying for DUNS Numbers. As part of filling, I discover I first needed to figure out my Standard Industrial Classification (SIC) Code. Again, a helpful link takes me to the right website, so all I need to do is figure out if my new business is “consulting” or “business consulting.” so it’s just fill out the rest of the form, submit, and wait.
Now that I have my DUNS Number (did I mention there may be some wait, as they are backed up at the moment), I can proceed to the next step: registering in the Central Contractor Registration Database (CCR Database — and no, they do not provide the lyrics to Bad Moon Rising or any other song). After that, I’m almost ready start applying for actual stimulus money . . . .
I learned two things from this. First, anyone who thinks they might, possibly, perhaps, vaguely could someday want to apply for any ARRA money should go out and get themselves DUNS number so they can get registered in the CCR ASAP. And, to its credit, the OMB guidance said only about a zillion times that agencies needed to go out and evangelize to prospective grantees (especially little ones) to go get DUNS Numbers.
Second, and more importantly, Grants.gov needs an extreme makover — quickly. The idea that I need to get a number so I can register for another number to go into a database that will be redundant with other databases is rather ridiculous in this day and age. worse, it creates a serious barrier to every single desired outcome. The current systems, as it stands, not only makes it hard to apply (especially for small organizations or folks who find out about the procedures at the last minute), it makes it needlessly difficult for the Feds to track the ARRA money.
My recommendation below . . . .
As the Washington Post recently observed, the Obama Team keep running into the unexpected brick wall of finding that the Bushies did little to upgrade the government technology they inherited from the Clintons. So they keep assuming they are going to be able to do all this stuff which is utterly routine these days, only to discover that before they can launch they must simultaneously invest in needed technology and decide whether or not to build on the primitive, dead-end stuff they inherited.
And so it goes for Grants.gov. I have no doubt this was cutting edge back when they put it together in 1999. And I expect that it’s mission is further complicated by the need to comply with a whole host of laws around giving out government grants and maintaining federal databases, each developed by its own separate agency and using its own quaint rules and definitions.
Which is why I recommend that Team Obama ditch the existing package and start from scratch. Don’t try to build on Grants.gov. Create an entirely separate system for ARRA designed to meet the statutory goals of making it easy to apply, easy to use, easy to track money, and easy to define and collect metrics that show whether this stuff actually accomplishes anything. Oh, and for bonus points, make it customizable in a way that will let people tag information so they can use it for data collection and research purposes we haven’t even thought of yet.
Happily, all of this stuff is off the shelf technology these days.
Really, all OMB (or Joe Biden’s oversight committee, or whoever is centrally coordinating this mess) needs to do is build a fairly simple database with standardized fields for the desired inputs. This is what the standard forms at Grants.gov do anyway, but on paper and requiring significant and painful reentry. Why not, for purposes of ARRA, start from scratch? Don’t use DUNS or other private sector tracking info. Develop a separate “ARRA number” generated by OMB itself (not that hard). Ideally,this one number would be sufficient, and we wouldn’t make people who have no interest in being “federal contractors” other than for purposes of ARRA get into the general database.
Then develop our own ARRA database. Start with a basic form for the metrics OMB wants to track everywhere. Then set aside a section for each agency administering an ARRA program. Then — through the magic of “cloud computing” — simply have each applicants submit the information needed online. OMB could track all the information immediately, as could any individual organization to the extent permitted by the Feds. If we include an ability of individuals to voluntarily tag the information, it will enhance the searchability of the “ARRA database” for a variety of metric tracking purposes.
This also solves the “how will poor little organizations keep track of all the money” problem that has folks clucking like chickens that only big, sophisticated players can handle the book keeping accounts. Anyone who can handle the bookkeeping needed to run a business can do simple bookeeping for ARRA online on a secure database maintained by OMB. Even better, this allows OMB to use the same tracking number for ARRA money from the beginning of the process to the end of the process, AND it serves to act as a check on comingling of funds and other games used by sophisticated players to hide various forms of peculation.
Yes, there will be tradeoffs for things like spam and security. I have no doubt folks can come up with a list of possible horribles and problems with my two second design here. But please observe that these problems have already been solved a gazillion times over. Furthermore, based on the existing statutory requirements, OMB and the rest of the folks at the center already need to solve the security and privacy problems. All I’m talking about is taking a step back to think of this in terms of rational process.
Similarly, I expect real database designers and folks with real experience working with cloud computing, social networking, and other related areas of expertise will come up with numerous improvements over my proposal. At least I hope so. all I'[m trying to do is focus on the fact that if we take a step back and think about what we actually need, rather than rush to fit everything into pre-existing molds, it may turn out to be easier, cheaper, and all around better to build something from scratch to deal with ARRA and plug it into the Grants.gov portal rather than break this job up into a million needlessly complicated pieces working at cross-purposes with each other.
Which brings me to the last potential objection — time. OMB has set aggressive deadlines for agencies to have applications ready at Grants.gov. But given the nature of what is up at Grants.gov now, it may actually take less time to build an ARRA-specific back-end and plug it into the website. Or, to quote Friar Lawrence from Romeo and Juliet: “Wisely and slow, they stumble that run fast.” Alternatively, even if they can’t get my proposed extreme makeover ready for initial applications, they can develop it in time for use to collect information on metrics and to track ARRA money after granting applications.
Nothing I’ve proposed here requires developing anything new. It only requires money, expertise, and a willingness to exploit the potential of the technology. For once, Congress has appropriated a nice piece of change for the project. The Obama people have certainly shown an appreciation for technology and an ability to make it work for them in sophisticated ways. Hopefully, they will take a minute to put these elements together. If there is one thing we’ve learned in the tech trade, it’s that sometimes it’s easier to start again from scratch than to keep trying to make marginal changes and upgrades. Now would be a good time to apply that lesson.
stay tuned . . . .