Navigating the Stimulus

April 2, 2009

The Center for Digital Government, a research and advisory institute on information technology policies for state and local government, recently hosted an online presentation on the U.S. federal government economic stimulus plan. The talk, led by Roy Cales of National Strategies, focused specifically on the portion of the stimulus money slated for internet-related programs. Here’s the gist of what he said.

THE BASICS

The stimulus is a work in progress; it is a developing story. While there is a short timeline to get the initial stimulus-funded projects rolling, the program as a whole will play out over a longer term time frame – this is the first round of the stimulus, there will likely be second and third rounds.  In other words, it’s not too late for potential grantees to take advantage of stimulus funds, but now is the time to get started.

In particular, national agencies are looking for input, so this is a window of opportunity: what you think, what you are working on, can end up in the grant criteria. There are some major policy decisions coming up. For example, NTIA has been taking comments on a National Broadband Policy over the last few weeks, the comments they have gotten so far are about 50-50 corporate interest vs. public interest. Soon NTIA will need to make a big decision to distribute money to encourage things one way or another.

Grants.gov and Recovery.gov are the major sites to keep an eye on for stimulus news. 47 states have their own stimulus-related sites, for example, see New York State’s recovery site. In addition, a few state recovery efforts are on Twitter.

HOW IT WORKS

Existing government agencies and their processes for awarding grants will be used to distribute the stimulus money. In total, there are 215 funding lines that will be funneled through 86 existing grant programs that are run by 15 or so lead government agencies. If you are thinking of applying for a particular grant, track it back and find out who initially released the grant to determine who the actual decision makers are on it. This can help you appropriately shape your proposal. There are two kinds of grants: formulaic grants (based on local demographics, needs) and competitive grants (everyone is competing for them).

The two main agencies that will distribute broadband-related grants are the Rural Utilities Service (RUS) and the National Telecommunications and Information Association (NTIA).  RUS will distribute ALL its money by September 2009. The NITA will have 3 tranches. RUS has traditionally been very service provider oriented, so to get the best shot at these funds local governments or community groups might try partnering with telecommunications service providers. NTIA is fresher, and is looking for proposals that prioritize synergies between various initiatives.

In general, the government is looking for people who can show that they are combining grants to solve multiple problems, to make the money go further. Try to bring multiple players in your area (the telco, community groups, etc.) together on a grant proposal, and show that you are working together to make the project better.

ACCOUNTABILITY IS BIG

Accountability is the president’s priority. The White House has issued strict accountability requirements, and a variety of other entities are weighing in, leading to a LARGE number of reports that may need to be filed per project (ex: 1 transportation project manager estimates he may need to file 117 reports). There is a percentage of each grant that goes towards paying for the administration of the grant, including evaluation, etc.

Granting agencies are slated to release their reporting requirements by May 3, though they may not actually be available until June 9. If you are starting to develop a proposal now, make sure you have an accountability process in place, but make sure it’s flexible. Finally, Web 2.0 isn’t playing much of a role in accountability now, but this may evolve. We have a high-tech government for the first time that is interested in using technology to make things more efficient and transparent.

*See this post by Public Knowledge for another take on broadband and the stimulus. While not as detailed as the Center for Digital Government’s presentation, Public Knowledge gives a sense of the relationships between the various agencies involved and their time frames and deliverables.*

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Infrastructure