How the U.S. Virgin Islands is Improving Federal Grants Management

October 05, 2022 | Kristin Sullivan

people-around-wood-table-full-of-reports-discussing-finance.jpgThe United States Virgin Islands (USVI) continues to lead the way, making headway on improving key business processes. Last year, ASTHO reported on the beginning of a new "all-of-government" approach in the USVI to more efficiently manage and expend federal grant funding to identify territory-wide social determinants of health and in turn yield population health improvement.

Under the leadership of Governor Albert Bryan, Jr., cabinet members from four administrative agencies (Offices of Management and Budget; Property and Procurement; Personnel; and Finance), four programmatic agencies (Health; Education; Human Services; and Justice), and the Governor’s Office comprised a Cross Agency Leadership Team (CALT). After evaluation of the federal grants' life cycle value stream, the team prioritized improving the Federal Grant Planning and Set Up process to prevent bottlenecks and other issues that occur throughout the rest of federal grant lifecycle.

During this planning phase, the CALT—along with a project team comprised of key staff in each agency— were oriented to performance improvement basics and participated in Boundary Spanning Leadership workshops where they discussed a unified vision of collaboration to modernize business processes for the benefit of their community. In addition to the benefits to the community they serve, participants envisioned becoming better stewards of funds, increasing respect and trust with funders, increased cross-agency collaboration and communication, and improved job satisfaction due to less rework and urgent requests.

"As we promote health equity in our diverse communities, we must recognize operational efficiency as a key driver including our ability to move resources to those most in need. This initiative creates an intentional focus through cross-agency dialogue on saving time, reducing duplication, and building workforce capacity to continuously improve."

- Justa Encarnacion, Commissioner, USVI Department of Health

Through a series of virtual and in-person workshops, each agency identified the steps in their current process revealing significant commonalities and supporting the feasibility of process standardization across agencies. The full project team worked to uncover the root causes behind process inefficiencies and identified and prioritized solutions.

The workshops culminated in a set of recommendations for improvement, which was presented to and vetted by the CALT:  

  • Create one standard process for all agencies documented in a standard operating procedure (SOP).
  • Electronically enable the process (i.e., no paper or emails) using the existing grants management system to track information, facilitate workflow visibility and approvals, and store all information in one common location.
  • Enhance quality and reduce errors through mistake-proof templates and checklists.
  • Work toward removing redundant data entry across financial and grant systems.
  • Streamline information sharing of notice of awards via the creation of general email inboxes.
  • Establish Federal Grants oversight responsibilities in programmatic agencies.
  • Establish Federal Grants Community of Practice (COP) among participating agencies to ensure continual effectiveness and efficiency.  

Since then, the project team—with leadership support—has made significant progress developing the recommended improvements, working through challenges, and monitoring progress. To date, one standard process and SOP for all agencies was developed, and four workflows were created to automate the new process within their electronic grants management system, eCivis. Collaboration among programmatic, administrative agencies, and the eCivis vendor resulted in resolution of access issues, better-defined field entries for the automated workflows, and enhanced buy-in on broader system use. 100% of project team evaluation respondents reported improved communication and customer service among participating agencies.

Additionally, the COP was established and alternates leading biweekly meetings allowing for the necessary time and space to develop emerging leaders, build capacity of the team, and prepare to sustain collaboration and improvement.  Options to establish federal grant oversight responsibilities in programmatic agencies is under discussion by a subgroup of leadership and COP members.

Similar challenges that can be found in other jurisdictions, such as limited staffing capacity and turnover, changes in leadership, and managing daily priorities, affects the speed of which improvements are developed and implemented. These disruptions as well as individual agency process changes that occur over time, will need to be managed with attention given to momentum or resistance experienced, as well as to empowering the project team to adjust.

Collaboration and decision making across multiple agencies is not easy. Success lies in engaging all agencies that play key roles in the grants process and strong executive leadership.  These keys to success can be replicated by other jurisdictions similarly interested in improving their ability to procure needed goods and services in a timely manner, efficiently recruit and on-board staff, and effectively manage grants and contracts. 

Next Phase and Future Actions

There are several critical actions USVI is working to execute prior to moving to full implementation of the new, improved process. Each agency will need to test the new workflows and prepare to roll out training to programmatic and administrative staff beyond the project team. Once completed, the new process will be in place and the COP will monitor process performance including speed and quality, and support ongoing process and system improvements. With reaffirmed commitment and prioritization from Governor Albert Bryan, Jr. and the U.S. Department of the Interior, ASTHO was recently awarded additional funding to continue supporting USVI on its journey to improve its federal grants management.

ASTHO would like to thank our partner, Continual Impact, LLC for their expertise and support with this initiative.