NTIA: Posting Electronic Files of ARRA Grants: Accountability, Transparency and Enhanced Customer Service

The Department of Commerce’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) has adopted the best practice of making grant award documents publicly available via its website, www.ntia.doc.gov.    The agency now posts all grant awards and related documents for its American Recovery and Reinvestment Act grant programs —  the Broadband Technology Opportunities Program (BTOP) and the State Broadband Data and Development (SBDD) Grant Program — on its BroadbandUSA homepage.

Through these two grant programs, NTIA made 287 awards totaling approximately $4.245 billion during 2009 to recipients in all 50 States, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, and U.S. Territories.  These grants are expanding access to broadband services throughout the nation and have enabled States to gather data biannually on the availability, speed, and location of broadband services, which NTIA has used to develop the National Broadband Map (http://broadbandmap.gov/).

Working cooperatively with its grantees, NTIA conducted a review of all award documents to remove any business confidential, trade secret, or personal privacy information from the records.  In less than one year from the date of the final awards, NTIA was thus able to make available all awards, applications, amendments, special award conditions, general grant terms and conditions, relevant grant regulations and Office of Management and Budget circulars, and quarterly reports for each award.  Any member of the public can access and download these documents for free.

NTIA adopted this best practices to address both its legal obligations under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), 5 U.S.C. § 552, and the Obama Administration’s call for greater transparency in government decisions.  Under FOIA and the Department of Commerce’s implementing regulations, 15 C.F.R. Part 4, NTIA is required to disclose grant award documents upon request from a member of the public.  NTIA is required in most instances to charge fees and may take 20 business days for an initial response to fulfill a request.  In most cases, the fees for such grant award documents range between $200 to $500 and responses may take a number of months to complete because of the time involved in document production and review, including redactions for business confidential, trade secret, or personal privacy information.

Results

The benefits to the agency and the public of proactive disclosure of grant award documents are many:

  • Improved cycle time – Under the normal FOIA process, NTIA would take at least 20 business days to process each grant award document, but only after a request from a member of the public.  With the new process, NTIA has markedly decreased the processing time for the review and disclosure of each award document.
  • Lower Cost – NTIA is generally required to charge members of the public for the costs associated with processing a FOIA request.  By making the award documents available online, these documents are free to the public.  Moreover, by processing these documents at one time rather than on a per request basis, NTIA has been able to manage its time and resources more effectively.
  • Support for Other Governmental Goals – The pro-active release of BTOP and SBDD Grant Program awards also meets the Administration objective of greater accountability and transparency in government.

(1) On January 21, 2009, President Obama issued his FOIA Memorandum, emphasizing the need for accountability and transparency.  His memo sets forth his view that FOIA provides a clear presumption of disclosure of government information.  He directed the Attorney General to issue additional guidance to agencies on how best to implement this new policy. On March 19, 2009, the Attorney General issued his own FOIA Memorandum, providing guidance on agencies’ responsibilities under FOIA and emphasizing the “fundamental commitment to open government.”

(2) The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (Recovery Act) and the Administration’s implementation of the Act has called for greater transparency in the process for grant and contract awards.  Specifically, section 6001 of the Recovery Act directs NTIA to make information about each grant award available to the public in a free, searchable database on the Internet.

Posting the grant award documents has enabled auditors, members of Congress and Congressional committees, Inspectors General, the Government Accountability Office, and interested members of the public and press to monitor the progress of each grant.

  • Increased Data Quality/Reliability – By standardizing the review, processing, and disclosure of BTOP and SBDD Grant Program awards, NTIA has ensured that the information disclosed is consistent and reliable.
  • Improved Employee Satisfaction/Morale – By standardizing the review, processing and disclosure of the BTOP and SBDD Grant Program awards, NTIA has eliminated the seemingly arbitrary time and resource demands that occur on program, grants office, and legal staff with individual FOIA requests.  By pro-actively disclosing the award documents, the number of FOIA requests related to these awards has declined, and thus, has also relieved the burden on NTIA and grants office staffs.

 

Kathy Smith
Department of Commerce

Any federal agency with grant-making authority can readily adopt this practice.  It takes cooperation among the legal, grants, IT, public affairs and FOIA staff of an agency and a strong working relationship with grantees.

NTIA is a relatively small agency of approximately 250 employees.  It leveraged its existing legal, FOIA, grants, public affairs and IT staff to establish a process for reviewing and posting its grant awards, to design this portion of the BroadbandUSA website, and to update the site on an ongoing basis.  Using  new technology tools, NTIA was able to streamline the process, which enabled it to complete the project in less than one year from the date of the final Recovery Act awards.

The best practice of posting all grant awards has had a measurable benefit to the agency and the public.  From the agency’s perspective, NTIA has seen a marked decrease in the number or extensiveness of FOIA requests.  Once they are made aware of the grant and grant-related documents and reports on the public website, many FOIA requesters withdraw their requests and many would-be FOIA requesters never actually submit a request.  NTIA estimates that it has seen a 50% decrease in the number of formal FOIA requests.  Grant program staff also use the site extensively when out in the field monitoring awards on site visits.  Accessibility of these documents on the website means they do not have to travel with hard copies of these oftentimes voluminous documents.

From the public perspective, the benefits may be more obvious.  First and foremost, members of the public do not have to make a formal request for documents, wait for the results, and pay a fee for access to information about taxpayer-funded grants.  Moreover, Congressional staff, audit staff (both Office of Inspector General and Government Accountability Office), and reporters have all praised the site for making this critical information available.

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