Grant Management: Interior should improve the award process for some competitive grant programs

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What the GAO found

The Home Office’s competitive grant-making process involves advertising funding opportunities, evaluating grant applications, and obtaining management approval to issue award decisions (see figure). Interior’s nine grantmaking offices make all funding announcements publicly available, and a panel, which may include office staff and outside experts, reviews and scores grant applications in based on the criteria set out in the funding announcement. Following the scoring process, the panel develops a recommended list of candidates for management review and a final award decision.

Overview of the Home Office’s Competitive Grants Process

GAO found that the Interior grant programs reviewed by GAO follow an award process that is generally consistent with applicable federal grant regulations. However, two of the three US Fish and Wildlife Service grant programs reviewed by the GAO did not clearly identify criteria and weightings in funding announcements and did not use criteria to assess applications. Without this information, applicants may not submit applications that meet all of the criteria, and panel members may not assess applications consistently, which could lead to inconsistencies in the review process.

The GAO also found that the grant programs of the US Fish and Wildlife Service, the National Park Service, and the US Geological Survey lacked documentation to support certain award decisions. For example, National Park Service management awarded an award to a lower-ranked candidate instead of a recommended candidate, without written support. The Interior’s internal policy on competitive grants does not explicitly call on officials to provide documentation of award decisions. Without documenting its rationale for award decisions, the Interior lacks assurance that its award decisions comply with relevant federal grant regulations.

Why GAO Did This Study

Interior awarded more than $4 billion in competitive grants in fiscal years 2019 through 2021 across nine granting offices. Recipients of competitive grants include state agencies, nonprofits, and universities, among others. Recipients use the grants for a variety of activities, such as helping to recover endangered species and creating conservation opportunities for young people.

The GAO was asked to review the process for awarding Interior grants. This report (1) describes Interior’s process for advertising grant opportunities, reviewing applications, and making award decisions; and (2) assesses the extent to which the Interior’s award process complies with relevant federal grant regulations.

To do this work, GAO reviewed relevant federal laws, regulations, and interior guidelines and interviewed interior officials. GAO also reviewed award documents for a sample of 18 competitive grant programs in Interior offices and compared the process used by the Interior to award grants with relevant regulations. GAO also analyzed agency data from fiscal years 2019 to 2021.

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