Grant Writing Confidential header image 2

Blast Bureaucrats for Inept Interpretations of Federal Regulations*

February 22nd, 2009 · by Isaac Seliger · 3 Comments

Jake received an email response to “FEMA and Grants.gov Together at Last” from a firefighter who is working on a Assistance to Firefighters (AFG) proposal who seems to have been given a bum steer by AFG Program Officer and Jake’s nemesis, Tom Harrington (for background, see “FEMA Tardiness, Grants.gov, and Dealing with Recalcitrant Bureaucrats” and the hilarious e-mail exchange with Mr. Harrington). According to our email correspondent, Mr. Harrington, the AFG contact person, said that vendors can’t help fire departments prepare grant applications, because he thinks this is forbidden by 44 CFR Part 13.

Is Mr. Harrington correct? A quick review of 44 CFR Part 13 reveals that it concerns uniform administrative requirements for grants to state and local governments. While the section contains lots of fascinating requirements, it is utterly silent on the ethics of who writes or pays for a grant proposal—which is not surprising, since I have never seen any Federal regs or RFPs that would preclude an applicant from getting help in grant writing, paid or volunteer.

While Mr. Harrington seems stuck on 44 CFR Part 13, I think he probably means Office of Management and Budget (OMB) Circular A-87, which covers cost principles for state, local and tribal governments and specifies how Federal lucre is to be spent. A key aspect of A-87 and grant administration in general is that, in addition to following Federal rules, public agencies must hew to their own procurement rules while squandering grant funds. As one who had several local government posts along the way, the most recent being the Community Development Director for the City of San Ramon in the early 1990s, and managed lots of federal and state grant funds, it basically comes down to the “smell test:” if you would not want your mother to read about how you spent Federal funds on the front page of the New York Times, don’t do it.

Federal regs don’t prevent a public agency from receiving grant writing help from others, including a potential vendor, but Mr. Harrington simply doesn’t like the idea and is intimidating AFG applicants by vague threats of dire consequences from scary sounding CFR citations. In other words, Mr. Harrington is probably a bureaucrat bully. Just like Clint Eastwood confronting Gene Hackman’s thugs in The Unforgiven’s saloon scene,** the only way to deal with bureaucratic bullies is to metaphorically blast away by reviewing the regs in question and, when one is satisfied that the threat is an illusion, sweetly asking the bureaucrat to cite chapter and verse to support his position. When he can’t follow through, you’ve got ‘em.

Mr. Harrington is probably wrong, but his obstinate response illustrates an important point about dealing with agency contacts in general: although they can give you guidance, what’s written in RFPs ultimately counts. If something a program officer says contradicts the language of an RFP, assume the RFP is right. This can also work against you: if a program officer says that you don’t need a particular form, or that going over the page limit is acceptable, or that you don’t need to follow formatting requirements—all of which might make your life easier—don’t listen. Follow what you can read. Sometimes you’ll find internal contradictions in an RFP, and if so, contact the program officer and cite the conflicts, complete with page numbers and why you think a conflict exists. This may result in a modification to the RFP. But don’t assume that the verbal assurance of someone in the program will count for any more than the paper they’re written on.

Now that I’m satisfied that Mr. Harrington is pursuing his own agenda, rather than providing clear direction based on the regs, let’s examine the underlying ethical issue in juggling these rules and principles. While we do not go out of our way to be hired by vendors to prepare grant proposals for third party applicants, this does happen from time to time. For example, this almost happened with the current Carol M. White Physical Education Program (CMW PEP) RFP, which I blogged about in Brush the Dirt Off Your Shoulders: What to Do While Waiting for the Stimulus Bill to Pass. A large fitness equipment vendor called for a fee quote to have us write CMW PEP proposals for several of their school district clients. I explained that we would be happy to write the proposals as long as the vendor understood we would be working for the school districts, not colluding in getting their products purchased. I pointed out that their products would not be highlighted by brand name in the proposals, and the school districts would still have to follow applicable Federal regs, OMB circulars and their own purchasing rules.

If a vendor wants to try to rig bids, that’s there prerogative and they’ll ultimately be punished. As grant writers, our job is just to write ‘em without resorting to unethical acts or breaking laws. To quote Bob Dylan quoting Hurricane Carter regarding how Carter felt about being a boxer, “It’s my work, he’d say, and I do it for pay.” A program officer like Mr. Harrington should no more care about who writes a proposal any more than he should care who fixes the applicant’s plumbing when it backs up. The punch line, of course, is that the vendor didn’t hire us for the CMW PEP, although we have written a few funded proposals under similar arrangements over the years, including one of my favorite Federal programs that is soon to get a huge influx of new money courtesy of the Stimulus Bill: Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS). If an applicant for any grant, however, is concerned about legal and ethical questions, they should ask for an opinion of law from their lawyer, not depend on random off-the-cuff interpretations by program officers.

Mr Harrington’s prejudice against grant writers has a long pedigree. Over the years, I’ve often come across the misguided conception that using an outside grant writer is somehow “cheating.” Way back in 1993 or so, when we were first in business, I tangled with a HUD Deputy Under Assistant Secretary about the then-new YouthBuild program regulations. When he discovered that we were grant writers working for a South Central LA nonprofit, he went ballistic and and accused me of “only wanting to line my pockets.” I responded by asking him if he was a volunteer and if he would like me to request his salary level and travel reimbursements through a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request. This calmed him, I got the interpretation of the regs I needed, and the proposal was ultimately funded. In discussing this post with my partner and wife, Kathy Seliger (a lucky woman, she gets to hear my pontifications 24 hours a day), and she pointed that hiring a grant writer is no more cheating than a woman wearing makeup to look her best. If you want to put the best face on your next grant proposal, call a qualified grant writer to apply proposalese makeup to make your application sparkle. While we do sometimes turn down assignments, it is not for the reason imagined by Mr. Harrington, but rather for real ethical problems determined by applying the simple smell test described above. You can also apply the smell test to bureaucrats, and if what they pitch seems wrong, it often is.


* The bureaucrats I am needling in this post are Federal program officers, who are also featured in my last post, Stimulus Bill Passes: Time for Fast and Furious Grant Writing. Not to worry: no Program Officers were actually harmed in the writing of this post.

** The Unforgiven is by far the best modern Western. As Clint’s Bill Munny responds to an accusation of being a “cowardly son of a bitch” for shooting an unarmed bartender in the saloon scene, “Well, he should have armed himself if he’s going to decorate his saloon with my friend” (the dead Morgan Freeman). Words to live by in challenging bureaucrats, who often only arm themselves with self-importance and don’t take the time to understand their own regs.

Tags: Advice · Government · Grants · Stories