Streamlined grant procedures can make competitive funding fairer

By Leslie Orrantia

The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA) is a more than $850 billion historic investment in support of state and local government work to increase access and safety while redressing inequities across the country. However, a recent article by Brookings contributors Ellory Monks and Shalini Vajjhala points out that the existing structure of federal and state grant application processes may inhibit the fair allocation of the funds.

Equitable access to these funds means that every community, regardless of size, experience, or budget, should be able to apply, compete, and win state and federal money. However, many competitive grant protocols were informed by the big infrastructure needs and projects of large cities, inadvertently creating barriers to entry for smaller, less-resourced, and less-experienced communities to apply and compete. This often results in funds being awarded to similar recipients and projects—commonly whiter and wealthier communities at the expense of low-income, rural, small, and medium-sized candidates with restrictive staffing and finances.

Monks and Vajjhala argue that patchwork efforts to remedy grant and loan solicitation procedures are not enough. They argue for comprehensive restructuring to ensure diverse applicants, including those with reduced capacity, can pursue funding. They propose many areas for improvement like combining multiple applications into a single form, making information available without required logins, and requesting simpler information (like financial estimates and data requirements) early in the process. Additionally, they propose dedicated front-end budgetary and technical support to help low-capacity agencies meet preliminary design requirements and data estimates.

Standardized applications—another recommendation in the report—can help new applicants understand the overall grant process, growing their familiarity and comfort level with each submission, and increasing their chances for success. This consistency also helps the applying agency gauge the required personnel and financial commitments early on, instead of encountering insurmountable hurdles along the way, such as time constraints, data requests, and design requirements that exceed their capacity. Standardization may also allow for streamlined review by the funder and keep them apprised of differing needs and dynamic projects proposed by the diverse stakeholders they aim to serve.

Communication of funding opportunities, procedures, and requirements can also be simplified and made publicly available on the web. Information—if and when online—commonly lives behind a login screen or a mandatory agency profile, at times adding a cumbersome extra step. This can challenge small agencies as they seek more information before investing a great deal of time and attention into an application that may not align with their needs, intended goals, and staff or budgetary constraints.

Eligibility criteria have largely been shaped with big cities in mind, which means extensive data and design requirements early within the process can be impossible for low-capacity governments to meet. Data requirements, cost estimates, performance metrics, and draft designs require dedicated staff time and specific skillsets. Not all agencies have such talent or bandwidth in-house. This frequently results in some agencies being forced to forgo applying or invest early in costly consultants or overtime without the guarantee of a competitive submission. Preliminary steps in an application protocol should therefore consider the limitations of diverse applicants and pare back early-stage requirements accordingly. Targeted proactive technical assistance and financial support for early requirements could also help to alleviate undue burdens.

The federal government has recognized existing practices as a risk to IIJA implementation, and earmarked dollars for less-resourced state and local governments with concerted efforts to improve information access for prospective applicants. The Office of Management and Budget has released guidance for equitable distribution of IIJA funds by federal agencies. However, implementation of these guidelines falls to each agency, with no implications whatsoever for states, despite their responsibility for distribution of the majority of IIJA funding.

While federal efforts may show promise, they alone are insufficient to fix inaccessible grant structures. As states play a critical role in awarding the money, they too must scrutinize their procedures and eliminate barriers for low-capacity applicants. Monks and Vajjhala capture the urgency of this issue and share insightful steps toward fair allocation of IIJA funding at the state and federal levels—offering foundational reforms for future equitable application processes.

Photo credit: SDOT Photos on flickr, unmodified. License.