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Grants.gov Lurches Into the 21st Century

March 27th, 2008 · by Isaac Seliger · 3 Comments

Change is coming, albeit slowly, to Grants.gov, the the online system for Federal submissions. But, as with all things grants, the change is confusing at best.

When the feds first started transitioning to electronic submissions five or six years ago, different agencies used different approaches, resulting in general chaos. Eventually, Grants.gov became the default gateway. While the concept of Grants.gov isn’t bad (the applicant downloads an “application kit file”, fills out some forms and attaches locally generated files before uploading the whole mess), the reality is cumbersome. This is because until recently Grants.gov exclusively used a creaky program named “PureEdge Viewer,” which does not support Mac OS X, Windows Vista, or Linux and is as easy to use as a nuclear submarine. Using the PureEdge Viewer is like gazing into the world of computing circa 1996, but it more or less works.

One fun aspect of submitting through Grants.gov is that the system generates a total of three emails after upload to confirm the upload process, but gives itself 48 hours to do so. Thus, the real world deadline for Grants.gov submissions is actually two days in advance of the published deadline, since, unless there is a system meltdown, the funding agency is unlikely to give you any slack. So, if the upload gets screwed up, you’re generally screwed as well. And, of course Grants.gov tech support (actually provided by IBM) is closed on weekends, making Monday submissions especially festive. Finally, the Grants.gov tech support people have no knowledge of the funding programs and the program officers at the funding agencies have little if any technical knowledge. This sets up a perfect opportunity for being bounced back and forth between the two, making a call to Grants.gov tech support a virtual guarantee of frustration. Calling Grants.gov is like being in a Mac Guy commercial with two Windows guys and no Mac Guy*.

Now, the good news: for what seems like forever, Grants.gov has been “testing” the PureEdge Viewer replacement, which is Adobe Reader 8.1.2, meaning that the submission system is finally being dragged in the 21st Century. The testing is apparently over and Grants.gov now says: “Applicants are required to have a compatible version of Adobe Reader installed to apply for grant applications.” Sounds good, since Adobe supports Vista, OS X, and Linux, but the euphoria will cease when you look further down the page and find out: “Please note, not all applications are provided in Adobe Reader, so it is recommended to also have the PureEdge Viewer installed.” As usual, the feds givith and the feds taketh away, because not all agencies will use Adobe and we’re in for even more confusion with Grants.gov trying to manage two different systems at once. Every time the feds create a unified standard, they change it later. Call me crazy, but I predict even more chaos, particularly since HUD, a notoriously dysfunctional agency even by federal standards, is the guinea pig and will use Adobe for all SuperNOFA submissions this year.

I remember when HUD first used Grants.gov a few years ago and the process for all of their submissions got mucked up somehow, resulting in extensions and re-submissions for every SuperNOFA program. History could repeat itself, as after 30+ years of working with HUD, I have every confidence in their ability to screw up the submission process. If you’re applying for a HUD grant this year, I recommend uploading at least a week early.

We’ll keep you posted on our experience with the new and perhaps improved Grants.gov system. We still prefer using paper submissions, when allowed, as we know exactly what they will look like on the other end and, furthermore, I am 100% certain that no federal proposals are being reviewed on computer screens (think about the oddball collection of 14″ CRTs likely to be found in the bowels of HUD central and you can assume everything is being printed out at the other end anyway). With a paper submission, you know what you sent and what the agency received. With an electronic submission, you have the ever popular GIGO, “garbage in/garbage out,” problem.


*An aside for those of you who are panting for an obscure movie reference—the first movie role of Justin Long’s, who plays the Mac Guy, was the obsessed young fan in the great Star Trek spoof, Galaxy Quest, with its pearls of wisdom for all grant writers, “Never give up, never surrender!”

Tags: Advice · Grants · Grants.gov