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Should Grants.gov Be Abolished?

If you are interested in the future of government information, you’ll want to read Why Grants.gov Should Be Abolished by Carol Kolmerten ([subscription required], The Chronicle of Higher Education January 12, 2007, page c1) even if you don’t write grants or work at an institution of higher education. (The article will also be available without a subscription here for a few days.)

Kolmerten concludes that the result of the government moving from a paper based system of grant submission to electronic submission is that “small colleges can kiss their chances of getting federal money goodbye.” Why? Because the new system is so hard to use, inconsistent, and unreliable.

Why is this relevant to government information specialists? For two reasons. First, the federal government is increasingly treating information dissemination as a part of e-government and Grants.gov gives us a preview of what to expect. Second, Kolmerten’s situation — trying to be the entire “grants office” for a small college while her primary job is as a faculty member — has some close parallels to the situation of many government documents librarians who must wear more than one hat and cope with the shift of government information to digital access.

With E-government (“utilizing technology to improve how the Federal Government serves you”) there will be less paper and more online forms. This will mean we will see fewer publications — even in digital form — and more “transactions.” Kolberten calls attention to this in one of her suggestions for changes in the grant application process. She says that “Government-grant applications need to be downloadable. Period.” In other words, with the current e-gov, transaction-based, automated, online, Grants.gov application process, you cannot download a form; you have to fill out forms online.

If you don’t think that is relevant to what we do in our government documents collections, compare your shelves of 1970 or 1980 or even 1990 Census volumes to your shelves of 2000 Census volumes. The census has already moved to e-gov style transaction-based retrieval of information and there are, for the most part, few publications to download.

Many of us will empathize with Kolmerten’s frustration at using government information online. The grants process required her to use software that her IT office did not support and, as a faculty member, she is not allowed to add software to her college-issued computer. To file the grant, she worked with the campus business office, the campus comptroller, and the campus assistant treasurer — all on technical issues and requirements of the automated system, not on the grant itself. Once she submitted a form it was rejected and, after some research, she discovered the reason was that on one form she had not filled in one name in capital letters, though the form did not say that was required.

When she tried to request help, she got only automated replies (58 emails in a 48 hour period). When she tried to respond to automated messages, she was told her request was “closed.” She had to submit a form as PDF file using a particular version of Acrobat and the faculty member she was working with didn’t have that version requiring them to pass documents back and forth over slow connections. (High speed, broadband network connections are still a luxury for many.)

In the wonderful Catch-22 universe we had entered, we could not reapply without a federal ID number, and we could not get the federal ID number until the application was accepted. We needed a real person at NIH (someone who read one of my desperate e-mail messages) to resubmit it for us (three times) before it was finally accepted.

As a data librarian, I’m very much in favor of providing online retrieval of data and statistics and even developed one of the first such systems over 15 years ago. But online systems, while they are convenient for some, are not panaceas, they do not serve all people equally well, and they do not necessarily substitute adequately for print in every case.

Balance is the key and a government information dissemination system that is digital-only, transaction-based only, and without preservable instantiations of information is just as un-balanced as a system that has no digital delivery at all.

This is not the first time Grants.gov has been criticized for it’s technical deficiencies. (See Grants.gov is Windows-only.)

CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

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