Today’s announcement from the Labor Department that it is requiring the work product of $500 million (the first tranche of $2 billion appropriated) in new grant money to be free for others to reuse represents a fundamental and laudable shift in how grants are made in government.
Since grants represent half of the federal budget this is important news with potentially powerful implications for changing the culture of grantmaking. By moving towards openness in practice, it might eventually enable changes in formal policy.
The Department of Labor in partnership with the Department of Education announced two billion dollars in grants to support educational and career training programs for workers. Known as the “Trade Adjustment Assistance Community College and Career Training Grant” – or TAA CCCT inside the Beltway – the program is precedent setting in its magnitude of support for 21st century job skill training and for making the default-setting in grantmaking much more open.
The TAA CCCT grants require that the training materials, curricula, online courses, and other courseware created by grantees with taxpayer money be made freely available for reuse to the public (not just to the government as is the standard practice) by means of a Creative Commons License (see cc post here). After all, we’ve already paid once to fund the grants, we shouldn’t have to pay a second and third time to purchase the same educational materials. As a matter of public policy, we want the widest possible dissemination of job training assistance.
In practice, this means that if a community college wins a grant to create a videogame to teach how to install solar panels, everyone will have the benefit of that knowledge. They will be able to play the game for free. In addition, anyone can translate it into Spanish or Russian or use it as the basis to create a new game to teach how to do a home energy retrofit.
In order to encourage use and re-use of these learning materials TAA CCCT goes beyond mandating that grantees give permission to use the educational resources; the grant program also gives instructions to grantees for how to tag and label their materials to make them easily findable online.
Open Grantmaking After
TAA CCCT reflects an international trend toward opening up access to work created with public funds. The National Institutes of Health open access policy requires: “all investigators funded by the NIH submit or have submitted for them to the National Library of Medicine’s PubMed Central an electronic version of their final, peer-reviewed manuscripts upon acceptance for publication, to be made publicly available no later than 12 months after the official date of publication.”
Beginning this week, the National Science Foundation requires that every applicant submit a data management plan with her application. NSF doesn’t demand that grantee work product be open access. But they are taking a step in this direction by making the disposition of data a factor in consideration of the application. During my time there, the White House ran an online consultation to solicit input on public access policy. The Department of Education recently awarded $350M for the Race to the Top Assessment program, and not only required that the materials developed in the program be free, but that they must also be interoperable, so that no one vendor can create a platform for the free materials and force everyone to use it.
Open Grantmaking Before
Openness in grantmaking is not limited to ex post. There are exciting innovations before and during. The Commerce Department’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration created Broadband Match, “an online tool that allows Recovery Act grant recipients and other communities developing broadband projects and programs to connect with a variety of potential partners. The goal of Broadband Match was to connect large-scale telcos with small-scale community organizations to write better grant applications together. BroadbandMatch used simple technology of the kind you find on many dating websites to “allow individuals and communities pursuing broadband projects to search for and connect with potential partners in specific locations and with appropriate areas of expertise, including small socially and economically disadvantaged businesses.”
Open Grantmaking During
The Department of Education’s Investment in Innovation (i3) grants program gave away $650 million last year to support those with a record of improving student achievement, close achievement gaps, decrease dropout rates, increase high school graduation rates, or increase college enrollment and completion rates through innovative practices.
In addition to the winning applications, the Department makes transparent narratives, scores, and technical review forms of the unfunded applications submitted under its competition for the biggest grants ($50 million). In addition, the Department partnered with twelve major foundations to give applicants the option of using the federal grant application to compete for $500 million in foundation funds.
In every case, openness in grantmaking is not simply transparency for its own sake. Rather, openness is a means to the end of fostering greater collaboration among potential applicants; improved accountability and grants management during the process; and greater ability for the public to access work products produced with grants.
We don’t have a lot of empirical experience yet with how much openness is optimal nor where it should be applied. For example, does disclosing the names of peer reviewers help or hurt with recruitment? Does making all applications – wining or not – available online create an incentive to apply or not? What is the right licensing scheme for different types of publicly funded research and development? The White House Social Innovation Fund was unfairly battered for failing to be more transparent when the government is, in fact, far ahead of most of the philanthropic community in practices of openness.
Precisely because there is a developing understanding of open grantmaking in government and the private sector that today’s TAA CCCT grant program – together with such innovations as NSF’s Data Management Plans, NTIA’s Broadband Match, and ED’s i3 fund – is such an important step forward.
Attacking the problem of closed grantmaking practices “head on” and trying to change grants management governmentwide whether through legislation or OMB policymaking is hard, very hard. People have to push this boulder up the hill.
But when DOL takes a page from NIH’s book and institutes its own open access program then another agency can come along and learn from the experience. Ditto any of the other examples cited above.
When we first mentioned these ideas and practices, they were considered radical. But, today, open grantmaking seems almost mainstream, an obvious way to provide stewardship over taxpayer dollars and through inter-agency communities of practice agencies are able to learn from and copy one another.
Making big organizations more open and collaborative is hard. Pronouncements from the top are essential to articulating a vision. But legislation can be done and undone. New policies replace old ones. Change has to come in practice not just in principle.
That is why if we want to change the culture of grantmaking, it’s not enough to push policy from the top down. It’s also important to change practices on the ground by encouraging 1000 smaller initiatives to bloom. Let’s hope DOL’s historic and important move today is the beginning of a trend toward greater openness and collaboration in the practice of grantmaking and eventually in the policy that must keep pace.