Before serving in the federal government, I helped to fix city residents’ experiences. I was part of an innovation ecosystem that worked on complex problems local governments were grappling with. These issues were often due to a lack of quality connections between residents and decision-makers. Large grants — corporate social responsibility, philanthropic and federal — funded much of this work.
Grant dollars transform how people experience life. I’ve seen firsthand how successful grant experiences enable great things. Through the work I took part in, we were able to revitalize my hometown, Detroit.
On the other hand, disjointed grant experiences threaten hard-earned progress in vulnerable and marginalized communities. Poor design processes can frustrate people who already feel disenfranchised. Problematic user interfaces could potentially inadvertently disqualify applicants who otherwise might be qualified. Server failures could prevent applications from being properly submitted altogether. Confusing government language could prevent potential applicants from understanding eligibility requirements in the first place. In the end, not much attention goes to tracking program outcomes that improve lives.
That’s the case for now — however, the process doesn’t have to be this broken, not if grant service providers take steps to understand their applicants better and optimize the application journey.
But what resources do grant service providers need to understand their recipients better? How might they ensure that they provide better grants and services to all Americans?
Let’s consider HHS, for example. In FY22 alone, over $400 billion in grants were awarded across agencies, according to HHS Tracking Accountability in Government Grants System (TAGGS) data. The customers of these grants include states, municipalities, hospitals and a number of other community health organizations. Going back to my personal hometown example: HHS awarded organizations in Michigan a total of $10.5 billion dollars, according to TAGGS.
Think about those numbers.
How many people — patients, beneficiaries, members, caretakers and medical professionals — are impacted by these resources? A leader in transforming federal grants experience, Chad Clifford, Executive Director of HHS’s government-wide Grants Quality Service Management Office, notes, “The federal government’s over $1 trillion grants mission has a huge impact on the lives of American citizens and across every sector of our economy. We can enable federal awarding agencies and grants recipients to deliver better outcomes by ensuring they have access to modern solutions that focus on improving their customer and user experience — solutions that can help them navigate the grants management process, leverage data to make better risk-based decisions and free up their time and resources to help deliver results.”
Are you ready to start improving your grants management experience?
The Office of Management and Budget (OMB) seeks to help agencies reimagine their programs. An OMB task force even published a grants playbook, Managing for Results: The Performance Management Playbook for Federal Awarding Agencies, that offers resources for grants program evaluation — both from an operational standpoint and individual award recipient performance. Taking a cue from this resource, here are five steps to consider in transforming your grant experience.
Step 1: Adopt a modern approach
Start to improve the experience of stakeholders, including grant applicants, by understanding the end-to-end process. Begin by listening to understand each micro journey and its challenges for potential applicants. Streamline grants management systems and processes by modernizing legacy applications. Consolidate efforts and eliminate duplication.
Work with designers to co-create journey maps with people’s voices at the center. People’s voices include program operations, grantees, and those who will reap the benefits of the resources on the ground, including residents. Clear and concise journey maps can serve as a tool to help align stakeholders around a common vision. (Lack of stakeholder alignment can stall any kind of modernization process!)
Step 2: Capture every signal
The OMB grants playbook suggests that the federal grants program needs to hone in on data. Data accessibility and data-driven insights will improve performance. Use modern technology to record stakeholder activity and digital feedback throughout the grants management journey. Include pain points and areas of needed support.
It’s the government’s responsibility to understand different needs. There are many stakeholders who have their own unique customer experiences, including grants recipients, granting agencies, and grants service providers. Technology can help capture these voices in a fair way.
Step 3: Analyze insights
Leverage AI and machine learning to assemble data. Analyze stakeholder behavior around core themes and topics. Advanced analytics makes it easier for your teams to quickly process stakeholder feedback.
It’s important for you and your team to log into a universal dashboard. Design different views, and drill down into different data areas. This helps you understand the various barriers customers face. For example, if the response has been low to a certain grant application, the data can show you where customers report trouble with a website application interface. Acknowledging the right problem makes it easier to fix.
Step 4: Take action to improve the process
When you listen harder to your customers, you’re bound to get better at serving them. Put people’s voices at the center, especially in underserved communities. This will make awarding funds more effective, efficient and equitable.
Grants management stakeholders struggle with limited feedback from infrequent surveys. Legacy technologies and systems, manual analysis and burdensome administrative reporting make work difficult. Once you craft and customize a single source of trustworthy data, it’s easier to prioritize actions to improve the process.
Step 5: Help grantees measure their impact on people’s experience
OMB encourages agencies to shift from a heavy focus on compliance to a more balanced approach. This means establishing a measurable program and project goals through a people-first mindset. Designing programs centered on customer experience data means your program can evolve over time.
A grant’s impact can be felt on the ground post-award. What might it look like to capture more feedback from the people impacted the most?
Equity within the grants management process also can be measured. Is there diversity in the individuals or institutions receiving grants? Are the grants used equitably among society, as it relates to the intended purpose? Are grant applications accessible and attractive to diverse people and institutions?
These are the questions we hope to answer by providing a voice to key stakeholders, gaining insights from the countless interactions that occur every moment and delivering a modernized grants experience.
* Footnote: According to data sourced from TAGGS, HHS awarded $411,238,390,851 in grants in FY22 across all agencies, and $10,477,948,734 were awarded to institutions and organizations in Michigan, specifically.
Nina Bianchi focuses on transformative culture experiences. She served as Chief of People and Culture at the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and with the General Services Administration’s (GSA) IT Modernization Centers of Excellence (COE). As a White House Presidential Innovation Fellow (PIF) with the Biden Cancer Moonshot at the National Cancer Institute (NCI), she led collaborative work experiences to drive personalized patient experiences. Before serving in government, Nina led a social innovation consulting firm with a network of high-impact public-private partnerships. Her teams designed transformation solutions for city governments across the globe, philanthropy, nonprofits, Fortune 500 companies and institutions like the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).