Friday, May 18, 2012

Rethinking Government Grants and Contributions

I have spent the last 5 years working at the confluence of People, Technology and Public Policy. I've spent those years struggling to understand how these things inform one another both as a citizen and as a public servant; it is a complex and often confusing undertaking

As an early adopter of new technologies and proponent of a more collaborative and open approach to government feel as though we are quite literally staring into the chasm.

As a citizen, I am eager to find a way across it.

As a public servant I understand that the chasm can often be intimidating.

It is simultaneously full of the unknown and opportunity, of terror and excitement, and of risk and reward. I also realize that this dichotomy is giving rise to an interesting tension. Bureaucracies around the world continue to resist change while those working inside them are growing increasing frustrated by creed of business as usual.

This tension is boiling over all over the globe; so much has changed in past couple of years. We've seen revolutions, riots, and the occupation of our city streets.

We must ask ourselves how much longer can we simply stand at the edge of the chasm staring into the unknown.

We must be open to rethinking the role of government in an ever changing society.

It was Albert Einstein who said, "We can't solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them"; yet if there is one thing we as a society are guilty of is it is clinging to old mental models of what the public service ought to be, of what it ought to look like, of the types of solutions it ought to offer up.

I want to position an alternate vision for government grants and contributions, but before I do that, I want to take a minute to speak to grants and contributions more broadly.

On paper grants and contributions programs are quite simple, the transfer of government money to organizations, businesses, individuals, or other levels of government in order to achieve a specific outcome. In reality, they are an incredibly complex environment.

In Canada alone the federal government allocates approximately 27 billion dollars a year through grants and contributions programs; in the province of Ontario that number is roughly 85 billion. Federally these transfers are managed through over 800 different programs. Provincially, I couldn't even ascertain a number (feel free to update any of my numbers). The throughput of these transfers are usually reported at the departmental level, making cross-cutting or macro analysis difficult, if not impossible. But that is just one side of the equation.

Now, I've never applied for government monies myself, so went out and spent some of my personal time speaking to those who have. I sat down with a handful of small business owners, community associations, charities and researchers.

Their experience was varied, but a number of trends emerged. First, many had to hire consultants as intermediaries because they were unable to navigate the process themselves. The felt that the process was too complicated and that they required additional expertise to ensure they completed it properly. Second, many reported that the cost of securing the grant often outweighed the benefit of receiving it; some even saying that they had decided to abandon the process altogether. Third, the entire process is on lock down. Applicants are left in the dark as to the likelihood of their application being approved, how much competition they face, or when they will actually receive the funding. Fourth, everyone I spoke to identified the process as adversarial, that government officials are more likely to be gatekeepers looking to check boxes rather and hand out monies rather than be active stewards seeking the best possible return on government money. Fifth, the process is incredibly slow, and little consideration is given to the time sensitive nature of some requests, forcing many recipient organizations to live hand to mouth.

I should admit to not having worked directly in government grants or contributions programs and thus am unable to speak directly to the experience of those working on the inside. But let me be clear, I'm not trying to trying to be critical of those in that line of work nor the evolution of the system thus far. What I am trying to do is posit a more participatory and open model of grants and contributions (under the larger rubric of open government) that addresses the specific concerns raised by recipients during our conversations. Accordingly, I'd love to hear what you have to think about the alternative model I am about to present.

Characteristics of an alternative model

silueta by cardrea
For a new model to be truly transformative it must break the traditional trade-offs of the status quo. It must eliminate money contingent on things like hiring intermediaries, diverting labour away from core activities, being left out of the process, meeting minimum government set thresholds and moving slowly.

To my mind it starts by moving to a single window online; its client recipient focused not administration focused (which is to say it focuses on the user experience from the citizen perspective). Information should be easy to locate; and search should be central (like it is with the city of Calgary's web site).

It should make recommendations to citizens like Amazon does its customers; "People who applied this grant program also applied for these ones" or "People who spoke to this government official also spoke to this one".

Application criteria should be clearly articulated and as uniformly presented as possible across the spectrum of grant niches. There shouldn't be a different form for every program but a persistent set of reusable tombstone data that follows applicants and never needs to be re-entered into a form.

Applicants should be able to access examples of both successful and unsuccessful applications that citizens can see and learn from; they should see success, attrition, and failure rates on the grants they are applying for, and be able to instantly access online support. It could pair applicants up based on key markers like geography, program applied to, interest areas or desired outcomes. It could directly connect applicants who are competing for the same limited pool of grant money and provide them the information they need to decide whether or not to abandon their bid, team up with their competitor(s) or go head to head with them for the cash.

Imagine the efficiencies that could be gained by connecting like minded charitable organizations or art groups, or the innovation generated by connecting small business owners. Why not allow citizens to easily leverage their existing social networks in order to gain support, insights, or measure sentiment around their applications.

It could also build in persistent online profiles for public officials that indicate their expertise and make that expertise more universally accessible.

This vision of grants and contributions is one of government as convener. One where government officials could pull large applications out of the mix and put them up for larger public consultation should the application merit it. It could even target those consultations based on the geographical areas or interest communities that will be impacted by the grants.

This vision is one that ensures that public servants bring their expertise in public administration to bear, using more complete information to them to make more effective recommendations to elected officials, who are ultimately responsible for making the tough decisions.

After those decisions are made, public servants would work directly with recipients to ensure funds were transferred promptly, that they were allocated under the conditions of the grant and stay tuned in to the process, and finally evaluate the grant throughput and make those findings available within the window.

Governments could even go a step further and provide the tools to manipulate the data for further analysis or create a parallel incentive structure for entrepreneurs looking to build applications or data visualizations. Keeping the data accessible means that it can help inform anyone who chooses to look at it, be it other applicants, the media, public servants or elected officials.

The art of the possible

Often in government we think that there is little place for re-imagining things; we get so bogged down in day to day operations within the status quo that we forget that we aren't just responsible for delivering our mandates today, but also ensuring that they are delivered in a relevant manner tomorrow.  

This vision, I think, is one that could help governments do just that.

Originally published by Nick Charney at
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