Logjam: Government Web Site Can’t Handle Flood of Applications for Federal Stimulus Grants
May 1, 2009 - 10:30 AMThe stimulus money is available, but the technology is lacking: The government Web site that accepts applications for federal grants is being overwhelmed by requests for grant money provided under the Democrat-passed stimulus program.
The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) -- the federal agency that operates and maintains Grants.gov – is now working to “initiate urgent improvements to the system,” the Government Accountability Office said in an April 29 report.
HHS is the same agency that is supposed to oversee the transition to electronic health records for every person in the United States by 2014, as outlined in President Obama’s economic stimulus program.
Grants.gov, established by the White House Office of Management and Budget in 2004, describes itself as a “central storehouse” for information on more than 1,000 grant programs offered by 26 federal grant-making agencies and organizations. Grants.gov says it provides access to $500 billion in annual awards.
On March 6, Grants.gov began posting specific grant opportunities provided in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 (stimulus program). Submissions skyrocketed – beyond the Web site’s ability to process them, and that led to a “noticeably degraded performance” of the Grants.gov Web site, the GAO said in its April 29 report.
Three days after the stimulus grants went online, the Office of Management and Budget notified federal agencies that it was experiencing a volume of activity beyond what the system could handle -- resulting at times in a “noticeably degraded performance.”
Also on March 9, the OMB warned that with stimulus applications expected to pour in during the peak deadline period of April-August, the system was at “significant risk of failure,” something that could potentially hamper implementation of the Recovery Act.
In April, OMB issued another memo warning that the existing Grants.gov infrastructure would not be able to handle the influx of applications expected as key Recovery Act deadlines approached.
Those applications did flood in: During the week of April 20-27, Grants.gov says it processed more than 28,000 applications. “In this eight-day period alone, we surpassed the total monthly submissions for each month in FY 09, with the exception of March, when we processed 36,253 submissions,” the Web site says.
On the single day of April 27, Grants.gov processed 8,392 applications, the largest one-day submission total, surpassing the April 24 record high of 5,973.
To reduce demand on the Grants.gov system and to assist applicants, OMB instructed federal grant-making agencies to announce other (old-fashioned) ways of accepting grant applications. Those alternative “paper” methods include fax and snail-mail – or e-mails to the specific grantor agency.
(In mid-March, an HHS staffer stirred things up when he said the Grant.gov Web site was overloaded and that paper copies of applications were the way to go. Sheila Conley, a higher ranking HHS official, denied it, saying she couldn’t imagine having applicants “in this day and age submit paper applications.” The Obama administration has promised online transparency in government dealings.)
According to the April 29th GAO report, “OMB and the Grants.gov staff have worked quickly to mitigate an impending system failure and protect the flow of Recovery Act grant funds to struggling communities around the country.”
The GAO is now urging OMB to ensure that the announcement on alternatives ways of submitting grants – similar to the one posted on Grants.gov – also is posted in a prominent location on the Recovery.gov Web site and on all federal Web sites or documents that contain grant application instructions.
The challenges of setting up a government Web site to process grant applications may pale in comparison with President Obama’s goal of setting up a centralized data base for the health records of every American.
As the San Jose Mercury News reported in March, some physicians already are investing in electronic health records, but at the moment, most of those systems can’t communicate with each other or with various labs and pharmacies.