In a new report, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) states that EPA’s discretionary grants program needs improvement in several areas.
- First, information about discretionary grants is scattered among four federal websites. But three of these websites do not have a way to search all the grants, and the fourth cannot identify the grants because the EPA does not flag them in its submissions to the website.
- Second, the unofficial reports the EPA makes publicly available on the number of applications received for its grant competitions contain limited information. Moreover, these reports are not current because the EPA relies on manual processes to collect the information from its offices, which can cause reporting delays.
- Third, although EPA’s internal grants management system has a field for tracking grant types, a lack of clarity in the Agency’s guidance may contribute to EPA staff’s inconsistent use of this field. Consequently, the EPA cannot easily identify discretionary grants in its system or collect complete and accurate information on them.
The EPA agreed with the GAO about the above inefficiencies and listed several actions it would take to correct them.
Shortly after taking office, the Trump administration froze all EPA grants while a review was conducted. One week later, the stay was lifted, and all approved grants were allowed to go through.
Almost half of EPA’s annual budget—currently about $4 billion—is funneled into grants. The majority of this amount is awarded noncompetitively to states and Indian tribes through the clean water and drinking water revolving funds and for pollution control programs. Also, between 2013 and 2015, about $500 million was directed into what are called competitive discretionary grants. Applicants compete for hundreds of discretionary grants, which the EPA awards on the basis of merit. Types of projects funded include environmental research, training, educational programs, and cleaning up brownfields. State governments typically receive the majority of competitive funding followed by not-for-profit organizations, Indian tribes, state universities, and municipal governments.
The Agency’s Office of Grants and Debarment (OGD) develops national grant policies and guidance, awards some grants, and oversees EPA’s administrative grants management agencywide.
The current report is not the first in which the GAO has identified issues with the Agency’s discretionary grants program. For example, in 2006, the GAO found that there was insufficient competition for discretionary grants awards and incomplete publicly available information about discretionary grants opportunities. Open competitions are available to all potentially eligible applicants identified in the Catalog of Federal Domestic Assistance (CFDA) description for a particular grant program.
According to the GAO, the EPA responded to that report by issuing a grants management plan, developing and continuing to update a grants competition policy, and beginning to transition to a new internal grants management system.
Better Training, Timely Reports
Regarding the three issues identified in the current report, the GAO made two recommendations:
- The director of the OGD should provide clear guidance to EPA staff to help ensure that staff correctly identify all EPA discretionary grant programs in the Agency’s internal grants management system.
- To better enable Congress and other decision makers to monitor EPA’s management of discretionary grants, the director of the OGD should determine how to make more complete information on EPA’s discretionary grants publicly available, such as by posting timely and complete reports on its website.
The EPA agreed with the recommendations and “generally agreed” with GAO’s findings and conclusions. The Agency said it plans to assess if it is necessary to better identify discretionary grant programs in its internal grants management systems; one step would involve training grants personnel to ensure consistency in defining discretionary grant programs. Also, the Agency said that in 2017, it will begin to examine whether and how it can use its new internal Next Generation Grants System to generate more timely and complete reports related to discretionary grants and make them publicly available.
The GAO report is here.