The Government Accountability Office (GAO) has released a new report showing that the Department of Interior’s (DOI) grant program to states and academia has room to improve in areas including criteria necessary for grant applications.

The Interior Department awarded $4 billion of competitive grants between fiscal years 2019 and 2021 through nine of its bureaus, with recipients including state agencies, academic institutions, and nonprofits.  GAO said it looked into the program to evaluate the extent to which the agency’s grant process is “consistent with relevant federal grant regulations.”

While GAO found that the Interior Department’s grant programs “follow an award process that is generally consistent with relevant federal grant regulations,” it also found room for improvement.

“Two of three U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service grant programs that GAO reviewed did not clearly identify criteria and weights in funding announcements and did not use criteria to evaluate applications,” GAO said as one example of its findings.

“Without this information, applicants might not submit applications meeting all the criteria, and panel members might not uniformly evaluate applications, potentially leading to inconsistencies in the review process,” states the report.

The government watchdog agency said it “also found that grant programs across the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, National Park Service, and U.S. Geological Survey lacked documentation to support certain award decisions. For example, National Park Service leadership made an award to a lower-ranked applicant instead of to a recommended applicant, without written support.”

“Interior’s internal policy for competitive grants does not explicitly call for officials to provide documentation of award decisions,” GAO said, but added, “without documenting its rationale for award decisions, Interior lacks assurance that its award decisions follow relevant federal grant regulations.”

GAO is recommending the following mitigation steps:

  • The Director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service should issue a memorandum reinforcing the need for grant programs to include criteria and weights in funding announcements and evaluate applications using those standards; and
  • The Interior Department should develop a policy to ensure that officials document the rationale for grant award decisions.

The agency concurred with both GAO’s recommendations.

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