Grant.gov’s Aluminum Bullet

Grants.Gov

I do not envy those folks over at grants.gov. What a hurculean undertaking to provide a unified entryway into finding and applying for federal grants [author’s inquiry – is there a grants.gov plan to support the full grants lifecycle, from apply to closeout?]. The politics involved. The clear communication needed. The strong leadership and management structure needed.

As mentioned in Rick Weiss’ Washington Post article and David Cassidy’s commentary [here and here], the grants.gov project will have a new prime contractor take over the development effort.

Assigning Blame

Can I assume that the previous contractor failed? Did they not deliver on time, within cost, and with agreed-upon quality measures? If they failed, was it entirely their fault or were there federal government management lapses? Can the American public not renew the contracts of any federal government leadership that may have failed?

Of course I’m being facetious, but I want to point out that at the end of the day, a project fails because its leadership did not plan accordingly. And of course when a project fails, is the solution to simply hire a new contractor who may have won on a low bid, quickly bring them up to speed, and then assume they will be the silver bullet to satisfy all stakeholders? Without knowing the capabilities of both the former and current contractor, it seems the easy target is to give the contractor the boot rather than to conduct a “lessons learned” within your own ranks and make necessary changes (both to personnel and policy).

Compatability

I’ve talked about incompatability issues between the Mac OS platform and grants.gov in the past [see here], so it does not surprise me that there still is no resolution to this issue. To be quite honest, I’m surprised that the issue is important enough to warrant a Washington Post article.

But that brings us back to a fundamental theme. Although the federal government is required to provide an option for people to transact with them electronically, do they serve the public’s best interests by favoring one operating system over another or by forcing people to conduct their business electronically? I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again:

“So, the question is, why does this federal site (grants.gov), which has the authority for consolidating the business of grant funding among a majority of federal agencies, have the authority to mandate a technology that can only be used by users of one operating system? There are federal mandates such as Section 508 that provide for equal access to web applications for handicapped individuals. Shouldn’t there be an equal access technology policy too?”

Rick and Dave point out that a Mac client solution has been underway, but it seems the better plan might be to simply create a cross-platform solution, perhaps using the Java platform.

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Which Stakeholder is Greater?

I understand that one of the big reasons Grants.gov went with its current solution was so that people could fill out forms offline. However, I wonder which stakeholder is more affected – the person who cannot have constant Internet access or the person who has a Mac (or another alternative OS) and has to jump through additional hoops in order to submit his or her application? I am amazed that any research institution would not have constant Internet connectivity. Do we know what percentage of applicants might fall into this category? Dave indicates that as many as 33% of the Grants.gov audience uses a computing platform other than Windows OS. I just cannot imagine that 33% of applicants in the grantee community would not have access to the Internet. As I’ve remarked tongue-in-cheek in the past,

“There are federal mandates such as Section 508 that provide for equal access to web applications for handicapped individuals. Shouldn’t there be an equal access technology policy too?”

My point being that official G2C business systems should allow for multi-platform accessibility. Granted, I’ve spoken about the alternative of using Citrix, but this is not a particularly intuitive solution for many people. At least there are some offers of help.

Frankly, I do not think that it would be such a stretch to create a product that is available on multiple platforms. Sure, perhaps they cannot have something available “for every platform imaginable,” but this is not forging new ground. For instance, a tool like JEdit is Java-based and can therefore be run on multiple platforms. It is a text editor that handles a variety of plugins, including fairly robust XML editing. Now, although I do not know all the technology requirements for a tool to be able to transmit the data to grants.gov, it seems to me that something similar can be created that meets the requirements for offline application creation.

If Grants.gov is unwilling to “host” grantees’ data centrally, then it seems that this saved money could easily be used to resolve this issue. It’s just a shame that they did not think to include the multiple platform requirement when they initially contracted with PureEdge. I guess the saying goes “better late than never,” but it sounds as though there are some angry people – I’ve been monitoring this dissatisfaction for almost 2-3 years now.

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Grant.gov Usability Incompatability

Grants.Gov

Today’s Washington Post catches on the problems Mac users have identified for a while now – that Grants.gov does not support Mac users unless these users use a Citrix workaround.

Scientists should focus on science, not on how to submit applications for funding. It seems to me that the process should be intuitive and quick – not painstakingly difficult to figure out. The Grants.gov issue starts off with usability problems because it does not support a variety of computing platforms. Why does the grant community gush about NSF’s Fastlane system? Well, you don’t need to get bogged down in instructions to figure out how to use it and it is platform independent.

Perhaps Grants.gov should determine why scientists love this system. Previous posts about Grants.gov here and here.

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Afraid of Google Earth

Google Earth

Back in May I discussed the potential misuse of a powerful mapping tool like Google Earth. Today, the New York Times reports that international governments are afraid of the potential for misuse of this technology. Since the New York Times will eventually make the link to their article obsolete (unless you pay for a subscription), I felt compelled to include some of the more interesting tidbits…

From the Dec 20, 2005 edition of the New York Times, “Governments Tremble at Google’s Bird’s-Eye View”

“Lt. Gen. Leonid Sazhin, an analyst for the Federal Security Service, the Russian security agency that succeeded the K.G.B., was quoted by Itar-Tass as saying: “Terrorists don’t need to reconnoiter their target. Now an American company is working for them.”

“India, whose laws sharply restrict satellite and aerial photography, has been particularly outspoken. “It could severely compromise a country’s security,” V. S. Ramamurthy, secretary in India’s federal Department of Science and Technology, said of Google Earth. And India’s surveyor general, Maj. Gen. M. Gopal Rao, said, “They ought to have asked us.”

“Andrew McLaughlin, a senior policy counsel at Google, said the company had entered discussions with several countries over the last few months, including Thailand, South Korea and, most recently, India.”

“When you have multiple eyes in the sky, what you’re doing is creating a transparent globe where anyone can get basic information about anyone else,” said Mr. Gupta, the Sandia analyst. His recommendation to the Indian government, he said, would be to accept the new reality: “Times are changing, and the best thing to do is adapt to the advances in technology.”

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More Mac Incompatibility with Grants.gov

Back in April I discussed how the federal government is discriminating against Macintosh users with regard to e-gov business transactions with the grantee community. I still cannot believe that OMB chose a solution that disregards a significant segment of its community. Furthermore, I find it hard to trust a vender who cannot implement a quick solution to cross-platform compatibility issues, particularly now that we live in an era that relies less on any given computing platform in favor of open-standards web services. Anyway, here is the latest word on Mac compatibility with Grants.gov:

I have heard that Grants.gov is not Macintosh compatible. What do I do if I use only a Macintosh?
Grants.gov is aware of the issues facing Macintosh users who apply for Federal grants electronically. Grants.gov has provided the following response regarding this issue on the FAQ page of their website:

“Grants.gov has been working with PureEdge [since acquired by IBM and renamed IBM® Workplace Forms™] to offer a viewer that is compatible with as many operating systems as possible. Once a MAC compatible viewer has been developed information will be posted on our website. Our goal is to ensure the widest possible acceptance of Grants.gov and not exclude anyone from the electronic grants submission process.”

Pure Edge anticipates having a platform independent solution available by November 2006. Until then, PC emulation software for the Mac will allow Macintosh users to prepare and submit their applications to Grants.gov. Grants.gov has provided information [PDF] on using the PureEdge viewer with a Mac.

Grants.gov and NIH are partnering to provide free access to Citrix servers for Macintosh Users who are looking for an alternative to using PC emulation software with the PureEdge™ forms. This service will be available for use at the end of December 2005.

A Citrix server connection allows Macintosh users to remotely launch a Windows session on their own machines by using the free Citrix client application. While connected to the server, Mac users can develop their grant application using PureEdge™ forms. Applicants will need to download and install the free Citrix client application in order to work on the SF424 (R&R) application package with the specific grant for which they are applying.

While connected to the Citrix server, the Authorized Organizational Representative (AOR)/Signing Official (SO) can submit the application to NIH via Grants.gov.

Applicants can also use service providers (see Service Providers) for a platform independent solution.

Applicants having trouble submitting their application electronically to Grants.gov should contact Grant.gov customer support for assistance.

Statement from OER Deputy Director regarding Macintosh compatibility:

“We truly regret the inconvenience that Grants.gov’s lack of platform independence is causing Macintosh users. As stated in the FAQ’s posted on this website, the Office of Management and Budget, part of the Executive Office of the President, has chosen Grants.gov as the single portal for all submissions of federal grant applications, and NIH’s parent agency, the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS), as Grants.gov’s implementer. As the federal government’s largest research granting agency, NIH is expected to be a key player in the DHHS implementation of Grants.gov. We and others have made Grants.gov aware of the difficulties that Macintosh users are experiencing and are working with Grants.gov staff to implement a temporary solution (Citrix). We recognize that this solution is not ideal but ask for your patience and forbearance as we work toward the very complex task of electronic submission of all NIH applications by May 2007. Grants.gov is working with PureEdge toward a platform independent solution by November of 2006. For additional information about Grants.gov please visit their website at www.grants.gov.”

- Norka Ruiz Bravo, NIH Deputy Director of Extramural Research

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Effective Culture Change in the FBI

I recently read a CIO Magazine article that discusses some of problems the FBI has faced while attempting to implement technical solutions. Although technology projects have been successfully implemented, there still exists a culture that mimimizes the importance of these solutions. The article states

Azmi [FBI CIO] is aware of the mountain that faces him—not to mention the consequences if he fails to deliver the support systems the agents need to fight against high-tech crime and terrorism. “Looking at the mission of the FBI and how critical it is, I will tell you that we are at war,” he says. “And the best tool we have is information, and if information doesn’t get to agents on the street in time, then we haven’t done our job properly.”

Last year I wrote a paper entitled, “Effective Culture Change.” The paper was written as part of a graduate school team experience for the Department of Justice’s Library Services division. Although the paper was targeted to a specific audience within the DoJ‘s Justice Management Division, I feel the paper could be used to address some of the culture problems within the FBI and the DoJ as a whole.

First, let me define organizational culture. Claver, et al. (2001, p.248) define organizational culture as:

“A set of values, symbols and rituals shared by the members of a specific firm, which describes the way things are done in an organization in order to solve both internal management problems and those related to customers, suppliers and the environment.”

This culture manifests itself at both a visible level (age, ethnicity, gender, dress, organizational structure, symbols, slogans, etc.) and an invisible level (time, motivation, stability vs. change, orientation towards work, individualism vs. collaboration, control, how management views IT, etc.).

I believe the primary reason for failed IT projects and a revolving door of CIOs at the FBI is primarily due to the agency’s culture, not failed technologies or poor CIO leadership. Let me elaborate…

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Fair Access, Security, and Innovation

I came across a blog posting today with the title, “Federal Government Discriminates against Mac Users.” The author, a federally funded research professor, was finding difficulty applying for federal funding because he had to use the PureEdge Viewer to submit his application for grant funding to the Grants.gov site. His problem is that he is a Mac user and Macs are only supported if you don’t mind using a pc simulation program such as Virtual PC. I’ve used VPC, but IMHO it has not proven to be a viable solution for Mac users, particularly for something as important as conducting business with the federal government. Some Mac users have previously voiced their concerns at places such as the Federal Demonstration Partnership (FDP).

So, the question is, why does this federal site, which has the authority for consolidating the business of grant funding among a majority of federal agencies, have the authority to mandate a technology that can only be used by users of one operating system? There are federal mandates such as Section 508 that provide for equal access to web applications for handicapped individuals. Shouldn’t there be an equal access technology policy too?
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