GAO Finds Concerns with Grants Workforce Skills

Enhanced Training, Knowledge Assessment Urged for Federal Subagency Staff
Jerry Ashworth
October 8, 2018 at 07:45:11 ET

The Government Accountability Office (GAO), in a recent report, expressed concerns that the federal agencies it reviewed could not determine the administrative abilities of the grants workforce within their subagencies because they lack an effective mechanism to track the skills and training of these employees.

“Without sufficient monitoring and oversight, the agencies cannot have reasonable assurance that their subagencies are sufficiently training their grants workforce so that they have the necessary knowledge, skills and abilities to properly manage, administer and monitor the billions of dollars that the federal government spends on grants annually,” GAO explained.

GAO stated that the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) and the Chief Financial Officers Council (CFOC) are responsible for coordinating federal financial assistance priorities. In addition, the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) is responsible for providing leadership and guidance over federal agency training to ensure the effective promotion and coordination of the programs. However, there are no specific governmentwide training requirements for the federal grants workforce.

GAO reviewed the grants workforce at the departments of Agriculture (USDA), Education (ED) and Health and Human Services (HHS), determining that these agencies delegate the decision to their various subagencies as to whether grant employees should obtain professional grants certifications. Some subagencies required such certification of their grants employees, while others deemed it optional.

Federal Training

OPM, at the behest of OMB and CFOC, created the 1109 job series in 2010, which is a grants specialist classification for those federal employees whose job responsibilities primarily involve management of grants. At HHS, 739 (28 percent) of the 2,590 personnel in the grants workforce were 1109 job series specialists as of March 2018. Some 317 (5 percent) of 5,825 personnel in the USDA grants workforce were 1109 specialists. None of the 545 personnel in the ED grants workforce were 1109 specialists because, GAO found, ED emphasizes that grants employees have specialized ED grants program content knowledge (e.g., rehabilitation, special education, behavior science). GAO previously found that as of federal fiscal year (FY) 2016, some 2,035 federal employees were in the 1109 job series.

OMB has taken other steps to provide grants workforce guidance for federal agencies. In June 2017, OMB collaborated with CFOC and federal agencies to develop the Financial Assistance Career Roadmap Report, which is an optional tool for federal agencies to identify and document the competencies needed for successful job performance of federal financial assistance management professionals. The roadmap report is to be used to identify and prioritize training needed for the grants workforce. Following this release, CFOC issued an interactive version called the Career Roadmap Builder.

Awareness, Implementation Lacking

While department-level officials at HHS, USDA and ED were familiar with the Career Roadmap Report, GAO found that officials at the 11 subagencies it evaluated were not aware it was available to them. OMB told GAO that it issued a “controller alert” in July 2017 to agency chief financial officers and to members of the Financial Assistance Committee for E-Government notifying them about the report’s availability, and about OMB’s plans to map it to existing training resources, place it on OPM’s website and develop an online interactive tool that includes position competencies.

However, GAO found it difficult to locate the alert on the CFOC website, and that OMB did not issue any official governmentwide memorandum to explain that it supported the report. “If all levels of an agency are not aware of government grants workforce competencies and guidance, the agency may not be able to ensure that grants workforce employees have the training resources needed to develop and maintain skills to achieve the objectives of grant awards,” GAO explained.

OMB also worked with federal agencies and CFOC to establish a Grants Training 101 set of modules to provide federal officials a basic knowledge of grants and cooperative agreements. However, only one of the agencies GAO interviewed planned to include the Grants Training 101 as part of its grants-training program.

Recommendations and Response

GAO recommended that OMB ensure that CFOC formally publicizes the Career Roadmap guidance to federal agencies through memorandums, briefings, trainings, regular CFOC meetings or technical assistance, and clearly posts the OMB’s “controller alert” about the Career Roadmap Report on the CFOC website.

In response, OMB officials agreed that the Career Roadmap guidance could be better publicized, but felt that this was the responsibility of the federal agencies, adding that agencies could incorporate a method into their training improvement plans to ensure that subagencies are made aware of the guidance. Still, GAO maintained that OMB, as the government’s central management agency, has the responsibility of ensuring agencies are aware of this guidance. OMB officials did agree to see if they could make the “controller alert” more prominent on the CFOC website.

GAO also recommended that OMB, working with CFOC, collect data metrics regularly on the Career Roadmap Builder online tool and Grants Training 101 to determine how widely the resources are being used, and then obtain periodic feedback from federal agencies on the usefulness of these tools and any needed improvements. Although OMB officials said this information could be useful, they believed that federal agencies should be responsible for collecting specific, detailed user data if they are using those resources. OMB officials also will assess the Grants Training 101 module to determine its usefulness and if any improvements are necessary.

Concerning the federal agencies that it reviewed, GAO recommended that HHS, USDA and ED establish a process to monitor and evaluate grants training at the central office level. It added that the grants training process should include: (1) a method for identifying all employees working on grants across the agency; and (2) oversight procedures to evaluate the sufficiency of subagencies’ grants training efforts including the incorporation of leading practices related to assessing competencies, training approaches, accountability and training results.

While USDA officials concurred with the findings in the report, HHS officials responded that as part of its HHS ReImagine ReInvent Grants Initiative, the agency is developing and implementing a departmentwide financial assistance training and certification program “to improve the functional effectiveness of the financial assistance management workforce in the areas of internal controls and risk mitigation.” They added that the agency will continue to develop future courses to meet its needs.

ED officials said that by March 2019, the agency will identify all employees working on grants and establish a process to monitor and evaluate grants training at the central office level. Grants staff will be evaluated on their competencies by Sept. 30, 2019. ED will then implement training and development opportunities at the central office level to address skills gaps through FY 2020. ED further will increase internal training resources and program staff awareness of them and federalwide training resources to address identified knowledge gaps.

For More Information

The GAO report, “Grants Workforce: Actions Needed to Ensure Staff Have Skills to Administer and Oversee Federal Funds,” (GAO-18-491) is available at https://www.gao.gov/assets/700/694628.pdf.

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